The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

Living Edition
| Editors: Jeremy Tambling

Balzac, Cousin Pons

  • Jeremy TamblingEmail author
Living reference work entry



Le Cousin Pons, sometimes considered a “novel of friendship,” comes, along with La Cousine Bette, at the end of Balzac’s series of novels: Cousin Pons being the last completed one. First planned in 1844, and set in that year, so giving an entirely contemporary history, its plot concerns Pons, the old bachelor and musician and collector of art works and bric-à-brac, which was a new word of the 1840s and which reflects the interest in “commodities,” which motivates so much of the nineteenth century, according to Walter Benjamin, reading the Paris Arcades. The novel shows the tragedy of his life and death. He is seen on the first page as a Parisian type, as a hangover from the times of Napoleon’s Empire, an anachronism exciting Parisian mockery, but not serious curiosity.

The Plot

Pons’s weakness is his gluttony, which makes him a parasite at every middle-class table he can get to: ten in all (42). He lives with a German musician, Schmucke, in the rue de Normandie in the Marais quarter in Paris (3rd arrondissement), manages to offend all the households, and falls ill after being spurned by the snobbish Madame Camusot de Marville. The plot shows two different but related conspiracies to get hold of his property and inheritance, and by the end, both Pons and Schmucke are dead. The Marais, the area in which most people in the text live, is the somewhat decayed old aristocratic area of small tradespeople on the eastern side of the right bank of the city.

The two novels which have “cousin” in their titles suggest the presence of a network of relationships, which have the effect of decentering their subjects – Pons and Cousin Bette – who do not appear as necessarily the main characters or focus of interest. In the case of Pons, he is marginalized by the relations he has: the Camusot of Marville. M. Camusot’s first wife was a Pons, a family of embroiderers, and Camusot was a silk mercer established in the rue des Bourdonnais (1st arrondissement). The second Mme Camusot, one of the most odious women in Balzac, resents Pons treating her as a cousin, because there is no blood relationship there and they are not even relations by marriage. Her only interest is in getting her daughter Cécile married. Marville has become president of the Royal Court of Justice in Paris and lives in a house bought by his second wife in the rue de Hanovre (2nd arrondissement); hence, he is not a free agent with regard to his wife.

Writing the Text

In 1842, Balzac was hoping to have the Comédie Humaine [Human Comedy] published as a single set of volumes: this happened in 1846 (in the Furne edition), but it was not a success, partly because of the rivalry posed by Eugène Sue’s Mystères de Paris [Mysteries of Paris] (1842–1843), which was written in installments as a roman-feuilleton, i.e., a novel intended to be consumed in serial form every day; it was followed by Le Juif errant [The Wandering Jew] (1844–1845), and there were other feuilletonistes such as Alexandre Dumas père, Paul Feval, Frédéric Soulie, and Eugène Scribe. Balzac set himself against Sue’s socialism and his journalistic style – what he called in a letter to Madame Hanska of 16 June 1846, “bastard literature” (Maurois 1965: 559) – with La Cousine Bette and Le Cousin Pons. The latter novel was planned first and begun in June 1846 but then suspended, while the former novel appeared in daily installments in Le Constitutionnel, the same newspaper which published Sue’s Le Juif errant, as did Cousin Pons, which was resumed in February 1847, and was serialized between 18 March and 10 May, in 30 chapters plus a conclusion. It was then published in the late 1847, the two novels becoming, on 18 November 1848, Volume XVII of the Comédie Humaine in the Furne edition, with the umbrella title Les Parents Pauvres [Poor Relations]. And for this edition, with both the novels, chapter divisions were repressed, so that the reader must read straight through without a break.

Draft titles for the novel were Le Bonhomme Pons [Little Man Pons], Le Vieux Musicien [The Old Musician], Le Parasite [The Parasite], and Les Deux Musiciens [The Two Musicians]. If the novel is thought to be about parasitism, it is worth noting how many references it makes to Tartuffe [also known as The Hypocrite by Molière (1664)], the classic text of the parasite in action, and an interesting contrast with Cousin Pons. The novel was at first divided into two with the break at the end of Chapter 17, which concludes by indicating that all that has happened up till now has been the “curtain raiser” for the “drama or terrible comedy” that is to ensue: it particularly singles out for the reader’s attention the corrupt lawyer Fraisier and Rémonencq, an Auvergnat capable of anything, even crime, in order to launch out in business (181). The pattern is typical in Balzac: a slow and long opening and then a fast development (up to Chapter 30) followed by a conclusion. (It was a pattern that made him unsuitable for the style of the feuilleton.)

The narrator’s intrusion at the end of Chapter 17, concluding the setting of the scene, qualifies the sense that the text is a realist, objective portrayal of events: a sense increased when the reader is told that Elias Magus “is a name too well known in the Human Comedy to need introducing” (141), Balzac thus drawing attention to his own text almost as an encyclopedia of types and in the last italicized line – “Pray excuse the copyist’s errors” (334), which recalls his designation of himself in the Avant-Propos as the secretary of this society. As such the “history” is declared – perhaps ironically – as “a complete account of French society in the nineteenth century” (136). But the apology also slyly allows for the sense that there may be errors throughout, that this writing cannot claim any authority, and that the reader must work on it as he or she will, as a parable which remains to be interpreted.

Paris and Cousin Pons

Perhaps no novel by Balzac is so full of understated detail about and knowledge of Paris, especially its poorer parts. The first three chapters introduce Pons – a man who has not updated himself in any sense, especially in clothes, since the Empire – as he walks to the Marville house from the Boulevard des Italiens, where he is a musician in one of the several boulevard theaters. The tone of this novel is given from the first page where it is said that passersby as they see him (grotesque-looking and dressed in the fashions of 1806 when he was a student in Rome) “relax into a typically Parisian smile, indicative of irony, mockery, or compassion,” the Parisian being “sated with strange spectacles” as if the city was a stage show, and everyone on display and made to feel their inferiority; indeed “its boulevards provide a non-stop theatre show” (22). Paris, in an age “when advertisement is all-powerful and even the lamp-posts in the Place de la Concorde are gilded over to console the poor by persuading them that they are affluent citizens” (173), is a spectacle. That is part of its modernity, but at the same time, there is nothing new about the city, as is conveyed in the huge number of generalizations about Paris and Parisians, starting in this chapter where they are said to feel superior and detached from other people: these generalizations do not stop, and their effect is to make plain that Paris has never been modern, that revolutionary changes have passed it by. There is an ambiguity here, however. The generalizations imply both the realists who feel confident to make them and in doing so show a limitation in expressing views which suggest that there can be no changes in this Paris that is fixed, in a fixity which reflects on the person making such statements.

But second, they contrast with the novel’s insistence on showing Paris as an anachronism itself which cannot cope with such anachronisms as Pons, and Schmucke, an intimately but perhaps nonsexually bound together odd couple, but of a closeness that an equivalent English novelist could not have handled. Paris as anachronism is suggested when Mme Cibot, wife of the concierge of the apartment where Pons and Schmucke dwell, goes, “eaten up with curiosity” (136) – another subject of this text – to have her fortune told by Mme Fontaine in the rue Vieille-du-Temple (3rd and 4th arrondissements), since “it is difficult to imagine how important fortune-teller are to the lower classes of Paris, or what a tremendous influence they exert in helping illiterate persons to make up their minds” (130). And this leads Balzac into a long digression on the superstition existing right through Paris society, so that the lower classes are not so exceptional after all, and to an acceptance of irrationality, and a rejection of empirical science. The intention of the novel is actually to show that there is no strangeness in Parisian life, for everything that is counted as strange is actually normal to somebody. Hence the varieties of grotesque existences portrayed here. Hence Pons, or the doctor Poulain, living in the rue d’Orléans-au-Marais (no longer existing but in the 3rd arrondissement) in the heart of the Marais (171), his rooms, in their poverty of decoration, described in detail in chapter 17. He is essential since “in every quarter of Paris there exists a practitioner whose name and habitation are known only to the lower classes, the shopkeepers and the concierges, who in consequence call him ‘our local doctor’” (114), or hence the moronic Rémonencq, who overhears a conversation between Mme Cibot and Poulain (there is no professional confidentiality in this Paris). Rémonencq is a scrap merchant who is described with equal glee and distaste in Chapter 12, as an arrival in Paris back in the early 1820s, a ragpicker, going around with a handcart before he acquired a shop, and who now lives with his sister “on bread and herrings, potato-peelings and scraps of vegetables culled from the rubbish-bins which restaurant keepers leave beside their doorways” (121). The sense of parasitical existence is strong here: if the parasite disrupts ideas of production and exchange, so does everyone in Cousin Pons – all work to maximize their gains in squalid ways, Pons being one of the least of the parasites in this respect.

Then there is the miser, collector, and monomaniac Elias Magus, rival to Pons, whose obsessionalism with his daughter and his property is discussed in Chapter 14, which is titled “A Character from Hoffmann’s Tales,” thus showing the German allegiances – there are many of them, including a description of Frankfurt – which activate this tale and Balzac in general. They close the gap between realism and those tales of E.T.A Hoffmann (1776–1822) which involve the uncanny. Magus lives in the Chaussée des Minimes (now rue de Béarn, 3rd arrondissement), near the rue Royale, and though he is rich, he is a miser and lives in squalor like the Rémonencqs (144). The text muses on how Paris produces such strange figures as him and Pons (146). With the text filled with these grotesques, there is the sense that the generalizations offered about the city are necessary ways of giving stability, of making it possible to think that Paris can be described at all.

The other grotesque is the barrister Fraisier, in the rue de la Perle (3rd arrondissement), in the heart of the Marais, whose surroundings are described in detail and presented as prison-like. Mme Sauvage, his housekeeper, is unhealthily corpulent, “a woman five feet six inches tall with the face of a trooper and much more of a beard, than La Cibot” – the sexual ambiguity, especially since she is compared to a witch, is significant – she is a “female Cerberus” who “held a battered tin saucepan from which milk was slopping over and adding one more smell to the stairway – not that it was conspicuous, in spite of its nauseous sourness” (185). The nauseousness goes with the woman herself. The woman who “was one of those hags divined by Adriaen Brauwer when he painted his Witches setting out for the Sabbath” compares with the other “real” witch, Mme Fonatine, whose apartment resembles something out of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610). Brauwer (1605–1638), a Netherlands painter, was famous for his portrayals of physical grotesquerie, particularly in studies of typical and exaggerated faces, called “tronies.” Balzac, in a tradition from Rabelais, may be compared with Dickens, who was exactly Balzac’s coeval, for his sense of the grotesque, save that Balzac underlines it with classical and literary references in a way that Dickens does not, and the tone is different; Dickens edges his with more humor and sense of incongruity; Balzac seems more to dwell on deviations from the norm in his descriptions, which creates more of a sense of horror or melodrama. Fraisier is detestable from his physical description (“the atrocious physiognomy of the man” (189)), which proclaims his dishonesty, whereas Dickens is capable of making such a figure more bland in appearance.

Paris Slums

Balzac shows more awareness too of the proletariat than he had before, as with the portrait of the stagehand Topinard, in one of “those frightful slums which might be called the plague-spots of Paris” (“une de ces affreuses localités qu’on pourrait appeler les cancers de Paris” (Balzac 1977: 730)), situated near the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in the 10th arrondissement, one of those associated with melodrama after 1791:

It is known as the Cité Bordin [perhaps this should read Cité Riverin, see Balzac 1977: 1475 – this road runs into the rue Bordon, now called rue René Boulanger, just north of Boulevard Saint Martin], and consists of a narrow passage lined with the sort of houses that speculators build. It runs into that part of the rue de Bondy which is overshadowed by the immense block in which the Porte-Saint-Martin theatre is situated, and this, too, is one of the eye-sores [verrues] of Paris. This passage is on a lower level than the rue de Bondy, and dips down steeply towards the rue des Mathurins-du-Temple [perhaps this should read ‘rue des Marais-du-Temple – Balzac 1977: 1475 – now the rue de Malte, running into present-day République from the south]. The Cité Bordin merges into an inner street running across it and forming a “T”. Such is the layout of these two alleys [ruelles] which are enclosed between some thirty houses rising to six or seven storeys. The inner courts and all the buildings around them contain warehouses, workshops, and factories of all kinds. It is like a miniature Faubourg Saint-Antoine where cabinet-makers, workers in brass, theatre costumiers, glass-blowers and painters of porcelain ply their trades. There in fact the whole variety of fancy goods known as l’article Paris is produced. Dirty but productive, like industry itself, always thronged with people coming and going, with barrows and handcarts, this passage is a revolting sight, and its teeming population matches the locality and the objects within it: here dwells the factory population, intelligent in the use of its hands, but with no intelligence to spare for other things. Topinard […] had a flat in the second tenement on the left as one enters. It was a sixth-floor flat and looked on to the belt of gardens which have survived because they belong to the three or four large mansions situated in the rue de Bondy. (317)

The present-day rue René Boulanger (i.e., Bondy) is in the 10th arrondissement, like the Porte Saint-Martin, a gate built in 1674 on the site of a demolished medieval wall. The stress on going down suggests a progress through hell, but the difference between this world and the others in the novel is its industrial productivity, as if Balzac was, in spite of himself, responding to the socialism of Sue. The extraordinary circumstantial detail stands out, as does the details of the rent and the interior of the apartment, which follows: this is a world Balzac knows, and he passes it on to a readership which had excluded itself from it. The somber realism in describing these slums accords with Balzac’s political and personal pessimism, while the sense is that the goods made here are what is most characteristic of Paris, that this is what Paris is.



  1. de Balzac, Honoré. 1977. La Comédie Humaine VII: Etudes de Mœurs: Scènes de la VieParisienne. Paris: Gallimard.Google Scholar
  2. Maurois, André 1965. Prometheus: The life of Balzac. Trans. Norman Denny. London: Bodley Head.Google Scholar

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© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LondonUK