Balzac and the Decadent Provocateuse

Literary Representations
Lorettes and society

Lower Class Prostitutes and the Law
Representations in Les Miserables
Realities of Authority in Paris
Brothels and Streetwalkers

The Privileged Class: Courtesans

Defining the courtesan
Visual representations
Courtesans in reality




Image of Jessica Lange and Elisabeth Shue from the 1998 film adaptation of Balzac's Cousin Bette, by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Balzac's archetype of the decadent provacateuse, using her beauty and feminine wiles to full commercial advantage, is an enduring one, as is shown by this image from the 1998 film adaptation of Balzac's classic novel, Cousin Bette,


"The daughters of pleasure are essentially unstable beings, changing without reason from bewildered suspicion to absolute trust. In this respect they are lower than the animals. Extreme in everything, in their joys, their despairs, their religion, their irreligion; most of them would go mad if they were not decimated by an unusual rate of mortality, and if accidents of fortune did not raise some of them out of the mire in which they live."
- from A Harlot High and Low by Honore de Balzac

  • The above quote in many ways sums up Balzac's impression of prostitutes. Grasping, greedy, materialistic,without morals, and generally a detriment to the polite bourgeoisie society which they prey upon. Though historically we know that such an extreme view is not entirely accurate, this was the one that Balzac encouraged with characters such as Esther in A Harlot High and Low and Jenny Cadine in Cousin Bette. Both are portrayed as decadent and materialistic, and using the men they are involved with to further their own social and economic status.

  • In sharp contrast to Hugo's archetype of the fallen woman, Balzac's decadent provacateuse is not forced by economic conditions to turn to prostitution, it is an active choice, brought on my greed and laziness.

  • Rather than being ruined by a man like Hugo's fallen woman, the decadent provacateuse ruins the men she is involved with by draining their fortunes and ruining marriages, even involving them in public scandals.

  • Perhaps the most primary of the characteristics of Balzac's decadent provocateuse is the clear distates with which she is treated by the author. Balzac makes mo secret of his moral and philosophical qualms with prostitution.

For information on Hugo's archetype, click here.
For more information on Balzac, click here.