Mlle. Michonneau

The old maid, Mlle Michonneau, is one of the figures in the novel who represent the cast-offs of society, finishing their lives in this insalubrious backwater of Paris.  Balzac is illustrating how the shabby dilapidated appearance of Mme Vauquer’s house is also replicated in the clothes of the boarders. Page 18.
Aussi le spectacle désolant que présentait l'intérieur de cette maison se répétait-il dans le costume de ses habitués, également délabrés.

He uses Mlle Michonneau as his first example. She was covered in a shabby, worn, fringed shawl and her appearance was made sinister by green a taffeta eyeshade that she wore Page 18 :  
La vieille demoiselle Michonneau gardait sur ses yeux fatigués un crasseux abat-jour en taffetas vert cerclé par du fil d'archal qui aurait effarouché l'ange de la Pitié. Son châle à franges maigres et pleurardes semblait couvrir un squelette, tant les formes qu'il cachait étaient anguleuses.

Her straitened means are made clear by her accommodation in the house.  Her room is on the third floor, where impoverished students like Rastignac board and also an old man stripped of all his money by his daughters.

She is living off a small allowance for life, which has been left to her by a sick old man she had looked after in his final illness.  The lack of charity in Mlle Michonneau’s character might make the reader wonder about these circumstances. Certainly her right to this money is constantly disputed by the dead man’s relatives, not so worthy themselves, as they had abandoned him when they believed him penniless.

Under her shawl with its meagre fringes, Mlle Michonneau is skinny like a skeleton and she invites the question what acid had eaten her away? Page 18.               
Quel acide avait dépouillé cette créature de ses formes féminines? Elle devait avoir été jolie et bien faite : était-ce le vice, le chagrin, la cupidité? Avait‑elle été marchande à la toilette, ou seulement courtisane? Expiait-elle les triomphes d'une jeunesse insolente au-devant de laquelle s’étaient rués les plaisirs par une vieillesse que fuyaient les passants?

The suggestion is that she might have spent her youth abandoned to pleasures, which she was now expiating.    Although her shrill voice and her appearance gave people the shivers, there remained signs that in those earlier times she could have been a good-looking woman.

This idea of her dissolute earlier life seems to be confirmed later in the book. Vautrin is trying to persuade Rastignac that Goriot had been out early that morning paying the debts of his mistress, Anastasie. He explains that Goriot must be one of those men who are called in Paris “des hommes de passions”.  At this Vautrin sees a knowing look on the face of Mlle Michonneau, who is reacting like an old cavalry horse hearing the trumpet call to battle.  Teasingly he says to her: “Ah how those of us have had our little passions- eh?”, but he uses an incorrect French to give it the voice of one of the uneducated street girls of Paris, who used this cliché.  Mlle Michonneau lowers her eyes in respectful memory of those years gone by.  Vautrin spoke first to Rastignac and then turned to Mlle Michonneau – Page58

Vous êtes encore trop jeune pour bien connaître Paris, vous saurez plus tard qu'il s'y rencontre ce que nous nommons des hommes à passions ... (A ces mots, mademoiselle Michonneau regarda Vautrin d'un air intelligent. Vous eussiez dit un cheval de régiment entendant le son de la trompette.) —Ah! ah! fit Vautrin en s'interrompant pour lui jeter un regard profond, que nous n'avons néu nos petites passions, nous ? (La vieille fille baissa les yeux comme une religieuse qui voit des statues

Her Malice
We are told several times that her very presence gave people the creeps.  This could have been involuntary.  However she showed deliberate malice.  When Rastignac gives his supportfor her expulsion from the boarding house, she makes an evil suggestion about Rastignac’s motives that angers him so much that he has to be restrained from rushing at her
— Monsieur soutient Collin, répondit-elle en jetant sur l'étudiant un regard venimeux et interrogateur, il n'est pas difficile de savoir pourquoi.
A ce mot, Eugène bondit comme pour se ruer sur la vieille fille et l'étrangler. Ce regard, dont il comprit les perfidies, venait de jeter une horrible lumière dans son âme.

The unprincipled treachery of Mlle Michonneau.  
Bianchon who studied Gall’s phrenology had previously discovered the bumps of treachery on Mlle Michonneau’s head – page 63
— Elle me fait toujours grelotter, cette vieille chauve-souris, dit à voix basse Bianchon à Vautrin en montrant mademoiselle Michonneau. Moi qui étudie le système de Gall, je lui trouve      les bosses de Judas       

The secret policeman, who was pursuing the escaped convict Jacques Collin, chose just the right person in Mme Vauquer’s establishment for an act of treachery. On Mlle Michonneau’s second meeting with him, she and Poiret are asked to find an occasion to administer a drug to Vautrin, to knock him out, giving them the chance to see whether his back is branded with the mark of a convict.  It is Mlle Michonneau who makes the decisions. At no point does she consider what would be the honourable course for her to take – staying loyal to a fellow boarder or serving her country.  Her decision is based on the single selfish criterion of how they stand to gain the most.  She bargains for the largest amount of money available from the policeand agrees to the sum of 3,000 francs for their work.  The policeman calls Michonneau an artful woman, which is an accurate description.  Typically, immediately after leaving the policeman, Mlle Michonneau is considering whether they would make more money by warning Vautrin instead.

Her aggressive character.  Vautrin had been in a particularly happy mood on the night that he had made the final arrangements for the duel in which Victorine’s brother would be killed.  The usual rowdy and boisterous evening meal at the Vauquer’s that evening was particularly so.  Unfortunately Vautrin went too far in his comic banter and called Mlle Michonneau; the Venus of the Paris cemetery.  This was the deciding moment for her. She gave up all thought of warning Vautrin.  From that moment the appeal of extra reward from Vautrin mattered less than personal revenge.

Her dishonesty   
Mlle Michonneau reveals her dishonest mind during her interview with the policeman.  When the he tells her that Vautrin is the treasurer for the vast funds of criminals in prison, Mlle Michonneau cannot understand why he doesn’t misappropriate the money and disappear.  The policeman tells her that it it is because Vautrin has a sense of honour.  Mlle Michonneau’s question had shown that she was lacking this.

When the couple have drugged Vautrin they carry out the test following the policeman’s instructions.  While Vautrin is lying unconscious on his bed, Mlle Michonneau considers stealing his money. By way of excuse, she says that it is criminal money anyway.
Afterwards she and Poiret give the news of Vautrin’s identity to the policeman, who is revealed to be Gondureau, the head of the judicial Police.  The deception involved in this activity, while living with Vautrin as a fellow boarder was no problem to Mlle Michonneau.

The low regard in which she is held   
Almost immediately before the police arrive, Bianchon congratulates Vautrin on his full recovery from his mysterious collapse the previous day and says he would deserve the nickname “Trompe-la-Mort that he had heard Michonneau using two days ago.  Vautrin then knows that she has betrayed him and knocks her back with the power of his eyes.  After he is arrested, he says that he knows he is feared but to earn fear is preferable to the disgust that Mlle Michonneau arouses.  He forgives her however as she is too mean and insignificant to deserve his attention, unlike the fellow criminal who must have betrayed his hiding place.

Her inglorious departure
After Vautrin is taken away all the guests, with the exception of Poiret, insist that Mlle Michonneau is expelled from the boarding house and she leaves on Poiret’s arm to the mockery of all.

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