I should admit before writing about Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet that this is my second Balzac novel, and I didn’t get along with my first, Cousin Bette. Fortunately, I liked Eugénie Grandet much better. Those of you in the know, is Eugénie Grandet simply a better book than Cousin Bette? Or have I changed somehow, or am I simply in a different mood this time? I found Cousin Bette unsatisfying because I missed the depth of character I love in 19th-century novels. The characters were either perfectly good or completely awful and without some complex, interesting character to latch onto, I lose interest. I should confess, also, that I don’t remember a thing about Cousin Bette and am basing these remarks on a paragraph I wrote in an old blog post. The book just didn’t stick with me.
I’m not sure how much longer Eugénie Grandet will stick with me, but I did enjoy the reading experience much more [lots of spoilers ahead!]. Like Cousin Bette, it’s a critique of society’s obsession with money and the way the hunger for money corrupts and ruins lives. But perhaps Eugénie as a character is more memorable than anybody in Cousin Bette. Yes, she is drawn in broad strokes and the very large changes she makes throughout the course of her life are described quickly, but I think the shortness of the book and the relative brevity with which many of the events are described work well. We can see the larger point Balzac is making about greed, enjoy the satirical way he portrays many of his characters, feel pity and horror at Monsieur Grandet’s miserliness, and even suffer a little at Eugénie’s fate, all in a book that’s only about 200 pages. I like long novels very much, but perhaps I don’t like long novels by Balzac.
I seem to be confessing a lot in this post, so let me keep going: I had a hard time with the novel’s opening pages, the description of the town of Saumur and the Grandet home. I read and reread those pages, and I couldn’t pin down the details in my mind. I also couldn’t keep many of the minor characters straight, those Cruchots and des Grassins. It didn’t seem to matter much as I read along that I couldn’t remember who was who and what their relationships were. Those characters are there to make a point collectively, to illustrate the greediness of the town generally and the atmosphere in which Eugénie lives — one in which everyone is after the Grandet money but everyone generally loses their money to the Grandets instead. These characters spend their whole lives trying to ingratiate themselves into the Grandet family, hoping Eugénie will marry one of them, or her parents will marry her to one of them, and it doesn’t seem to matter to them that they are spending decades in this one pursuit.
The heart of this book seems to be the relationship between Eugénie and her father Grandet, and then the ways that Grandet haunts her even when he is gone. Through the influence of her mother, most likely, or just through strength of character, Eugénie passively resists her father’s greed and miserliness, keeping a freshness and innocence throughout her young life. When her cousin Charles appears on the scene, she finds a reason to actively resist her father: romantic love. She wants to provide for Charles, to give him the comforts she has grown accustomed to living without herself, and she doesn’t care about the money involved. And then she commits the act that her father finds it nearly impossible to forgive, giving away money itself.
But what does she get in return for her generosity and love? She gets to do the thing so many women get to do in novels: wait. And she is waiting for a man who fell in love with her, yes, but who is not worthy of her. He was a young dandy when they first met, vain and foolish, but after his father’s bankruptcy and his desperate need to make money, he becomes truly corrupt, making that money through slavery and wanting only to reappear in Paris a fabulously wealthy man. Poor Eugénie keeps believing in him as long as she can, but her faithfulness gains her nothing. Or perhaps it does gain her something — it seems to insulate her from corruption herself. She stays true to idea of love, even though she doesn’t ever experience it again herself.
Ultimately, the book seems to be exploring what greed does to the emotions, the way it shrivels them up and kills them. Or if it doesn’t kill them, it turns them against the one feeling them, becoming a burden:
and yet that noble heart, beating only with tenderest emotions, has been, from first to last, subjected to the calculations of human selfishness; money has cast its frigid influence upon that hallowed life and taught distrust of feelings to a woman who is all feeling.
This is a melancholy tale, but it is kept lively by Balzac’s wonderful descriptions, like this one of Grandet:
Financially speaking, Monsieur Grandet was something between a tiger and a boa-constrictor. He could crouch and lie low, watch his prey a long while, spring upon it, open his jaws, swallow a mass of louis, and then rest tranquilly like a snake in process of digestion, impassible, methodical, and cold.
Or this one of the Cruchots and des Grassins:
All three took snuff, and had long ceased to repress the habit of snivelling or to remove the brown blotches which strewed the frills of their dingy shirts and the yellowing creases of their crumpled collars. Their flabby cravats were twisted into ropes as soon as they wound them about their throats. The enormous quantity of linen which allowed these people to have their clothing washed only once in six months, and to keep it during that time in the depths of their closets, also enabled time to lay its grimy and decaying stains upon it. There was perfect unison of ill-grace and senility about them; their faces, as faded as their threadbare coats, as creased as their trousers, were worn-out, shrivelled-up, and puckered … A horror of fashion was the only point on which the Grassinists and the Cruchotines agreed.
These people are just horrible. Balzac is wonderful as describing horrible people! This seems to be where much of the book’s energy lies: in capturing just how truly terrible people can be.
This novel was the latest choice of the Slaves of Golconda group, so make sure to check out other posts there.