At the Sign of the Cat and Racket by Honoré de Balzac

La Maison du Chat-qui-Pelote
Also translated as The House of the Tennis-playing Cat
Also translated as Fame and Sorrow

The story begins in a Paris street, where a young man is standing outside an old house, on which is painted a picture of a cat playing tennis. He is elegantly dressed, in contrast to the dilapidated appearance of the house. Ignoring the teasing of three apprentices, he waits, though rather impatiently, until a beautiful girl comes to the window.

Meanwhile, the shutters are taken down and Monsieur Guillaume, the elderly draper whose house it is, appears. He is successful both in his own trade and also as a financier, arranging loans and credit for other tradesmen. Wary and careful in his habits, he notices the young man and suspects him of planning a robbery, but then the eldest of the apprentices realises that, from where he is standing, the young man has a clear view of the window to the room belonging to Guillaume’s younger daughter. With a casual air, the young man hails a cab and drives off.

This household was run in the old-fashioned way, on the principles of hard work, economy and obedience. Guillaume, who had himself been apprenticed to the previous owner, whose daughter he married, intended to give his eldest daughter, Virginie, in marriage to the eldest apprentice, Joseph, who would therefore inherit the business in his turn. Virginie, taking after her mother, was plain, but with a gentle nature and she was in love with Joseph. He, however, was in love with the younger daughter, Augustine, who, unlike the rest of her family, was both charming and beautiful. Both girls were educated to be good housewives, but they knew little of the world outside their home. Occasionally Guillaume gave family parties and once a year he held a ball for his business acquaintances, but his wife always kept a careful watch over the girls. Perhaps because of something in her own nature or because she had been reading novels, Augustine was filled with longing for something more than this narrow way of life.

One evening, some months earlier, the young man, a successful painter, had walked past the house of the Cat and Racket and seen, through the window, the family and the apprentices all sitting together in the dining room. The scene caught his attention because it looked like a painting of the Dutch school. Then, when he saw Augustine, sitting lost in thought, in the glow of the lamplight, he immediately fell in love with her.

For the next eight months, he devoted himself to two paintings: one, the interior scene of the dining room at the Cat and Racket; the other, a portrait of Augustine. His friend, the artist Girodet, thought them masterpieces, too good to exhibit, but when they were put on display at the Louvre, they caused a sensation, both with the public and with other painters.

The Guillaumes were completely unaware of this, until Madame Guillaume’s cousin, Madame Roguin, told them about the exhibition and got permission to take Augustine to see it. Separated from Madame Roguin by the crowds of people in the gallery, Augustine was shocked to recognise herself in the portrait. The painter, standing nearby, told her he had painted it for love of her and she fled.

After Augustine and Madame Roguin found each other again, they tried to leave, but the crowd pushed them close to the other painting, the interior scene, which they both recognised. Seeing the painter again, this time Augustine and he signalled to each other not to speak in front of Madame Roguin. Augustine felt overwhelmed by excitement and guilt combined. That night, she realised she was in love with the young painter and imagined to herself what life would be like as his wife. The next day, the Guillaumes went to the Louvre to see the pictures for themselves, but the painter had withdrawn them from exhibition, which made a further deep impression on Augustine’s feelings.

After that, Augustine and the painter, Theodore de Sommervieux, with the help of a maid whom he bribed, managed to exchange a few notes and made a plan to see each other in church. All this went unnoticed, partly because everyone at the Cat and Racket was busy with the annual stocktaking.

When the stocktaking was over, Guillaume called Joseph, the apprentice, to his office. Guillaume told Joseph he had decided to make him a partner and also that he knew he was in love and he approved the marriage. There then followed a misunderstanding, with Joseph thinking that Guillaume would let him marry Augustine, whereas Guillaume, of course, meant Virginie. When Guillaume realised the mistake, he first withdrew the offer of a partnership, then tried to persuade the younger man to accept a loveless marriage, but he was so out of his depth talking about relationships, that he ended up agreeing to Joseph marrying Augustine after all. Worried what his wife would think about it, he didn’t tell her what had happened, instead letting her think that Joseph had agreed to marry Virginie.

The whole family then went to church together, where Augustine had arranged to see the painter. On the way, Joseph talked indirectly to her about marriage, but she failed to take the hint and instead tried to talk to him about painting. All through the service, Augustine and the painter kept exchanging looks. When Madame Guillaume noticed what was going on, she was furious, which made Augustine cry and the painter leave the church.

Back home, Monsieur and Madame Guillaume had a long and heated discussion. Virginie, to help her sister, listened at the door and so found out that Joseph loved Augustine, not her, just as Joseph was told, later that day, that Augustine loved the painter, not him.

Monsieur Guillaume tried to persuade Augustine that a painter was not a good match, but, much to his wife’s disgust, she was just beginning to give way, when Madame Roguin arrived. She came to speak on the painter’s behalf, as he had recently started calling on her and had also given her a portrait. She was already completely won over and determined to win them over too. She told them about his good prospects, his income and connections and, although Guillaume had always been against marriage between different classes, in the end, he and his wife relented and agreed to meet the painter, de Sommervieux.

That evening de Sommervieux came to dinner, bringing the picture of the interior of the Cat and the Racket as a gift. Everyone praised it, but for all the wrong reasons, thinking only of its value or of the lifelike way it was painted. Although they had nothing in common, the Guillaumes and de Sommervieux succeeded in fooling themselves that they all got on very well. Afterwards, Guillaume told Augustine that she could marry de Sommervieux, but that he would make sure that her money was settled in such a way that her husband could not spend it. She promised not to change this without speaking either to him or Joseph first. So the young couple became engaged.

A few months later, Augustine and Theodore were married and so were Virginie and Joseph. Monsieur and Madame Guillaume retired from running the Cat and Racket, leaving it to Virginie and Joseph.

For the first year, Augustine and Theodore were blissfully happy. After a while, Theodore started painting again and Augustine had a baby. It was another year before they began to go out into society together. Mixing with people from the upper classes, Augustine soon showed her lack of education. It was obvious that she could not appreciate Theodore’s art. Among his artist friends she felt uncomfortable and was easily shocked by their banter.

Theodore grew cold toward her. This made Augustine miserable and so they grew apart. To please Theodore, she decided to try and learn about culture. She improved her knowledge but could not become talented. Theodore regarded her with contempt. He had fallen under the spell of the brilliant and beautiful Duchess de Carigliano.

Eventually, Augustine thought of asking her family’s advice. At the Cat and Racket, she found Virginie and Joseph running the business just as seriously as her parents had done, although, in keeping with the times, they allowed themselves and their apprentices much more comfort. Augustine could see how well-matched they were. Hearing Augustine’s problems, Virginie could only offer platitudes, while Joseph advised her to take legal action, which Augustine refused to consider.

Next, she went to see her parents. Now retired, they had little to do but think about the past. Theodore’s picture of the Cat and Racket was hanging on the wall and they often looked at it to remind them of their old life. Augustine tried to talk to her parents about her marriage, but they were shocked to hear about Theodore’s way of life. Her mother criticised his lack of religion and they both thought she should seek a divorce. Augustine realised that, from now on, she would have to keep her problems to herself.

Alone and unhappy, Augustine went through a period of depression. Then she had the idea of going to see the Duchess de Carigliano. At the Duchess’s mansion, she felt overwhelmed by the luxurious décor, so different in style to her own home. For the first time, it occurred to her that love might not be enough and that her husband needed a woman with as strong a character as his own.

There was a dashing young officer with the Duchess, but at Augustine’s request, the Duchess dismissed him, arranging to see him another time. Augustine then told the Duchess of her unhappiness and begged her help to regain her husband’s affection. The Duchess told her that she was not having an affair with Theodore. She said she would never become emotionally involved with a genius and described to Augustine how wives can control their husbands with guile and cunning. Finally, she gave Augustine back her own portrait, which Theodore had given to her.

Back home, Augustine dressed so as to match the portrait and waited for her husband to come home, but when he saw the portrait, all he could think of was that the Duchess had rejected him for the young officer. In a jealous rage, he took out his anger on Augustine and smashed the portrait to pieces.

Augustine died a few years later. The narrator reflects that, like a flower that grows in a sheltered spot and would die on a mountain top, Augustine was just too gentle to survive life with a genius.


Read it here

Summary by Josephine/Victorine, March 2007


One comment on “At the Sign of the Cat and Racket by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    I enjoyed reading this little story, a charming depiction of trade life in Paris – until the finish of the story, which as is often true with Balzac, ends sadly with a woman scorned. Poor Augustine, the beautiful daughter of a successful drapery tradesman, marries the up and coming artist Théodore de Sommervieux against the initial objections of her parents, who wanted her to marry their head shop apprentice. Her sister marries the shop apprentice, and they learn to work together to effectively continue the family business even though the apprentice does not love his wife when they marry. But as Théodore rises in society, Augustine has no skills to rise with him. He grows tired of her (formerly charming) simplicity, and she cannot learn the society skills necessary to regain his love. In the end she dies young, probably of a broken heart.

    Steve Hannafordat in his posting about this story makes an interesting observation about the theme of this story. “The leading theme of nineteenth century literature is anxiety about class. In a century where revolution – political, social, and financial – is constant, the issue of where any person stands is a matter of constant obsession. “La Maison du chat-qui-pelote” is a Cinderella story based in realistic detail and a keen view of class differences.


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