Sylvain Pons earns a meager living conducting at the ballet and giving private music lessons. He is very fond of fine food and fine art. Over the years, he has satisfied the latter craving by slowly accumulating pieces that now clutter the small apartment he shares with his friend Schmucke. Sylvain doesn’t know it, but the collection is worth a surprising amount of money. He satisfies his taste for fine food by frequently going to dinner at his cousin Marville’s house.

Marville’s wife dislikes having Sylvain at her table, for he is rustic and abrupt. He is finally kicked out completely when he tries to find a suitor for the Marville’s daughter, Cecile, and bungles the job. Shortly afterwards, Sylvain falls ill. His portress, Cibot, enters the rooms to nurse him, recognizes the value of his art collection and schemes to get it. She gets Remonencq, who runs a nearby pawn shop, and Elie Magus, a Jew with an eye for art, to help her.

The attack begins when Cibot convinces Schmucke to sell some of Sylvain’s paintings in order to pay for the doctor bills. The plot thickens as Sylvain’s doctor and an attorney get involved. The attorney goes to Madame de Marville and convinces her to fleece Sylvain or risk a smaller inheritance from Sylvain. Her husband regretfully agrees also.

Meanwhile, Sylvain has become suspicious of Cibot. He struggles out of his sick bed to find Magus studying the collectibles in his bedroom. The other rooms are empty. Sylvain realizes his friend Schmucke has been duped, and he plans a counter-attack. He writes a false will, leaving all his money to Cibot for her service at his final illness. He leaves it where she will see it. He then writes a second, true will that leaves his money to the crown on the condition that they grant Schmucke a lifetime annuity.

Sylvain then dies. Schmucke becomes the new target of the others’ greed. They nearly convince him to sign a paper forfeiting most of his inheritance, but when he realizes that the Marvilles are accusing him of having duped their cousin he falls ill and dies. The money passes on to the Marvilles. The attorney gets an important new job; the doctor gets a sinecure, and Magus gets the pictures. Even Cibot is rewarded; she gets an annuity and marries Remonencq after he kills her husband.


This story is typically bleak. In Balzac’s fiction, the good guys don’t always win. His goal is to paint the greed, suffering, and joys of average Frenchmen. The greed of most of the characters is balanced by the trusting affection between Sylvain and Schmucke. The novel serves as a reflection on some of the material issues surrounding death. Sylvain’s illness and death are not metaphysical issues, but serve to initiate a complex series of financial transactions. His relatives eagerly await his death. The dying man is not a pawn, however. He battles back and nearly wins.

This novel was meant as a companion piece to Balzac’s novel Cousin Bette (see this database). Bette is also an underprivileged relative who battles back. Bette wins her battle. The doctor in this novel willingly mistreats Sylvain in hopes of making more money or getting a higher position.


First published: 1848. Translated by Herbert Hunt.


Viking Penguin

Place Published

New York