Passion, vice, and virtue
Valérie's line about Delilah being "la passion qui ruine tout" ("passion which ruins everything") is symbolic, coming as it does from a woman whose passion accelerates the ruin of most people around her – including herself. Baron Hulot, meanwhile, is desire incarnate; his wandering libido bypasses concern for his wife, brother, children, finances, and even his own health. Bette is living vengeance, and Adeline desperately yearns for the happy home she imagined in the early years of marriage. Each character is driven by a fiery passion, which in most cases consumes the individual. As Balzac puts it: "La passion est un martyre." ("Passion is martyrdom.")
The intensity of passion, and the consequences of its manifestation, result in a stark contrast of vice and virtue. Bette and Valérie are pure wickedness, and even celebrate the ruin of their targets. As one critic says, "life's truths are viewed in their most atrocious form". Mocking the use of the guillotine during the French Revolution while acknowledging her own malicious intent, Valérie says with regard to Delilah: "La vertu coupe la tête, le Vice ne vous coupe que les cheveux." ("Virtue cuts off your head; vice only cuts off your hair.") Hulot is not intentionally cruel, but his actions are no less devastating to the people around him.
On the other side of the moral divide, Adeline and her children stand as shining examples of virtue and nobility – or so it would seem. Hortense ridicules her aunt when Bette mentions her protégé Wenceslas Steinbock, providing a psychological catalyst for the ensuing conflict. Victorin repeatedly expresses outrage at his father's philandering, yet crosses a significant moral boundary when he agrees to fund Mme. Nourrison's plan to eradicate Valérie. As one critic puts it, Victorin's decision marks a point in the novel where "the scheme of right versus wrong immediately dissolves into a purely amoral conflict of different interests and passions, regulated less by a transcendent moral law than by the relative capacity of the different parties for cunning and ruthlessness." The cruelties of the Hulot children are brief but significant, owing as much to their obliviousness (intentional in the case of Victorin, who asks not to learn the details of Mme. Nourrison's scheme) as to malicious forethought.
The question of Adeline's virtue is similarly complicated. Although she is forgiving to the point of absurdity, she is often considered more of a dupe than a martyr. Some have compared her to Balzac's title character in Le Père Goriot, who sacrifices himself for his daughters. As Bellos puts it: "Adeline's complicity with Hector certainly makes her more interesting as a literary character, but it undermines her role as the symbol of virtue in the novel." This complicity reaches an apex when she unsuccessfully attempts to sell her affections to Crevel (who has since lost interest) in order to repay her husband's debts. Her flirtation with prostitution is sometimes considered more egregious than Valérie's overt extortion, since Adeline is soiling her own dignity in the service of Baron Hulot's infidelity. For the remainder of the novel, Adeline trembles uncontrollably, a sign of her weakness. Later, when she visits the singer Josépha (on whom her husband once doted), Adeline is struck by the splendor earned by a life of materialistic seduction. She wonders aloud if she is capable of providing the carnal pleasures Hulot seeks outside of their home.
Ultimately, both vice and virtue fail. Valérie is devoured by Montés' poison, a consequence of her blithe attitude toward his emotion. Bette is unsuccessful in her effort to crush her cousin's family, and dies (as one critic puts it) "in the margins". Adeline's Catholic mercy, on the other hand, fails to redeem her husband, and her children are similarly powerless – as Victorin finally admits on the novel's last page. Like Raphael de Valentin in Balzac's 1831 novel La Peau de chagrin, Hulot is left with nothing but "vouloir": desire, a force which is both essential for human existence and eventually apocalyptic.
Gender and homoeroticism
Gender roles, especially the figure of the ideal woman, are central to La Cousine Bette. The four leading female characters (Bette, Valérie, Adeline, and Hortense) embody stereotypically feminine traits. Each pair of women revolves around a man, and they compete for his attention: Valérie and Adeline for Baron Hulot; Bette and Hortense for Wenceslas Steinbock. Balzac's study of masculinity is limited to the insatiable lust of Hulot and the weak-willed inconstancy of Steinbock, with the occasional appearance of Victorin as a sturdy patriarch in his father's absence.
Critics pay special attention to Bette's lack of traditional femininity, and her unconventional relationships with two characters. She is described from the outset as having "des qualités d'homme" ("certain manly qualities"), with similar descriptions elsewhere. Her relationship and attitude toward Steinbock, moreover, hint at her masculinity. She commands him into submission, and even binds him with economic constraints by lending him the money to develop his sculpture. Her domination is tempered by maternal compassion, but the couple's relationship is compared to an abusive marriage: "Il fut comme une femme qui pardonne les mauvais traitements d'une semaine à cause des caresses d'un fugitif raccommodement." ("He was like a woman who forgives a week of ill-usage for the sake of a kiss and a brief reconciliation.")
Bette's relationship with Valérie is layered with overtones of lesbianism. Early in the book Bette is "captée" ("bewitched") by Valérie, and quickly declares to her: "Je vous aime, je vous estime, je suis à vous!" ("I love you, I esteem you, I am wholly yours!") This affection may have been platonic, but neighbors of the Marneffes – along with many readers – suspect that their bond transcends friendship. As with Steinbock, Bette and Valérie assume butch and femme roles; the narration even mentions "Le contraste de la mâle et sèche nature de la Lorraine avec la jolie nature créole de Valérie" ("The contrast between Lisbeth's dry masculine nature and Valerie's creole prettiness"). The homoeroticism evolves through the novel, as Bette feeds on Valérie's power to seduce and control the Hulot men. As one critic says: "Valérie's body becomes, at least symbolically, the locus of Bette's only erotic pleasure."
Wealth and society
As with many of his novels, Balzac analyzes the influence of history and social status in La Cousine Bette. The book takes places between 1838 and 1846, when the reign of Louis-Philippe reflected and directed significant changes in the social structure. Balzac was a legitimist favoring the House of Bourbon, and idolized Napoleon Bonaparte as a paragon of effective absolutist power. Balzac felt that French society under the House of Orléans lacked strong leadership, and was fragmented by the demands of parliament. He also believed that Catholicism provided guidance for the nation, and that its absence heralded moral decay.
Balzac demonstrated these beliefs through the characters' lives in La Cousine Bette. The conflict between Baron Hulot and the perfumer Crevel mirrors the animosity between the aristocracy of the Ancien Régime and the newly developed bourgeoisie of traders and industrial entrepreneurs. Although he despised the socialist politics of Eugène Sue, Balzac worried that bourgeois desperation for financial gain drove people from life's important virtues. The characters – especially Bette, Valérie, and Crevel – are fixated on their need for money, and do whatever they must to obtain it. As Crevel explains to Adeline: "Vous vous abusez, cher ange, si vous croyez que c'est le roi Louis-Philippe qui règne ... au-dessus de la Charte il y a la sainte, la vénérée, la solide, l'aimable, la gracieuse, la belle, la noble, la jeune, la toute-puissante pièce de cent sous!" ("You are quite mistaken, my angel, if you suppose that King Louis-Philippe rules us ... supreme above the Charter reigns the holy, venerated, substantial, delightful, obliging, beautiful, noble, ever-youthful, and all-powerful five-franc piece!")
Themes of corruption and salvation are brought to the fore as Valérie and Crevel lie dying from the mysterious poison. When his daughter urges him to meet with a priest, Crevel angrily refuses, mocking the church and indicating that his social stature will be his salvation: "la mort regarde à deux fois avant de frapper un maire de Paris!" ("Death thinks twice of it before carrying off a Mayor of Paris.") Valérie, meanwhile, makes a deathbed conversion and urges Bette to abandon her quest for revenge. Ever the courtesan, Valérie describes her new Christianity in terms of seduction: "je ne puis maintenant plaire qu'à Dieu! je vais tâcher de me réconcilier avec lui, ce sera ma dernière coquetterie!" ("I can please no one now but God. I will try to be reconciled to Him, and that will be my last flirtation ...!")