Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac ~ 1833. This edition: Oxford University Press, 2009. Translated by Sylvia Raphael. Introduction & Notes by Christopher Prendergast. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-19-955589-5. 192 pages.
My rating: 9/10.
It is difficult to know how to “rate” a book such as Eugénie Grandet, as its status as an early 19th Century “classic” places it in a category of its own when compared to more contemporary books. I ended up judging it against others of a similar era which I am familiar with, such as works by Dickens, Thackeray, Dumas, and, of course, several of Balzac’s other novels in his ambitious “Human Comedy”.
Eugénie Grandet is a short novel, almost a novella, and the action, such as it is, is limited to the four walls of a gloomy stone house in the French village of Saumur, inhabited by the Grandet family: the elderly Monsieur Grandet, his wife Madame Grandet, their only daughter, Eugénie, in her early twenties as the story begins, and their sole servant, Nanon.
The Grandets live in seemingly straightened circumstances. Their house is decaying around them, they subsist on a restricted diet of only the cheapest provisions, with sugar doled out bit by bit, and the table graced only by unsaleable spoiled fruit and sour wine from the Grandet farms and vineyards. Firewood is doled out stick by stick, and the inhabitants of the house huddle around a shared tallow candle in the evening; their clothes and shoes are worn until threadbare.
The reality however, is that Monsieur Grandet is exceedingly wealthy. By a series of lucky inheritances, a marriage which brought a substantial dowry, clever investments and very shrewd trading, he has purchased numerous estates which were seized from their dispossessed noble owners after the recent Revolution. The income from these properties is immediately profitably reinvested, or else converted to gold, which Monsieur Grandet, a former cask and barrel maker, seals up in wooden chests and stores away in his walled-up “office” in the center of the old stone house.
His wife, daughter, and servant, completely subservient to the soft-spoken but cunningly manipulative family patriarch, never question their situation but meekly go about their daily routines, gratefully accepting the few coins which occasionally are doled out – and promptly “borrowed” back – for “extras”. The villagers around them, however, are fully aware of the extent of the Grandet fortunes, and there is something of a competition underway to see who will be the fortunate man to storm the stone walls, marry the beautiful and devout Eugénie, and eventually inherit the riches.
Monsieur Grandet is well aware of this situation, and plays it to his best advantage, in particular by acquiring the unpaid services of the local lawyer and banker – possessed respectively of an eligible nephew and son – who each hopes that his marital candidate will win out. Imagine the universal dismay among the families with their eyes on the Grandet fortune when an unexpected youing man suddenly arrives who immediately displaces both of the local swains, at least in Eugénie’s eyes. (Her father has secret ambitions for his daughter which involve neither local candidate.) Eugénie’s cousin Charles has been sent to visit his uncle in the country, as, it soon becomes apparent, to get him safely out of the way while his father – Monsieur Grandet’s brother – declares bankruptcy and then proceeds to kill himself, leaving Charles doubly bereft and dishonoured.
Eugénie promptly falls deeply in love with her handsome cousin, who, after sombrely considering his change in fortune, and realizing that his Parisian mistress must be parted from, returns Eugénie’s professions of love with willing good grace. Monsieur Grandet has an inkling of this infatuation, but he doesn’t worry about it at all, instead arranging to remove Charles from the family circle by buying him a passage to Nantes, where Charles will be able to find occupation as a trader to the Indies, and hopefully work his way back into solvency on his own.
Before Charles departs, he and Eugénie swear undying love to each other, and Eugénie, without her father’s knowledge, gives Charles her priceless dowry of gold coins to help him in his endeavours.
Much drama erupts when Monsieur Grandet discovers that his meek daughter has gone ahead and developed some ideas of her own; the subsequent events prove Eugénie to be as strong-willed as her father, though motivated by kinder emotions than ever that corrupt old miser has ever experienced.
In case you are not familiar with how this little domestic drama plays out, I will leave you right there, mid-story. It is well worth reading for yourself to discover how it all ends, though there are really no surprises, unless it is to see how wonderfully well Eugénie’s character holds up under her many woes.
Eugénie Grandet is still a most diverting read a good century and a half after its original publication. The character portrait of Monsieur Grandet is decidedly the strongest of the novel, despite the title featuring Eugénie; she is rather one-dimensional, but ultimately comes out of the drama with all flags flying, showing a purity of character as rare and precious as her father’s beloved gold.
Monsieur Grandet is one of the most gloriously “tight” of all the fictional misers I’ve yet encountered. Clever, adaptive, deeply cunning and immensely avaricious, he struggles to force himself to act decently to his wife, daughter and the truly unique and admirable Nanon, but he is continually undone by his greed. His last action before he dies is to grasp at the priest’s gleaming crucifix as the last rites are performed; we have no doubt as to his eternal destination, though the devout prayers of his daughter may at least gain him a respite in Purgatory!
This is my first time participating in this Challenge, and I noticed just now when I went to the site to include the link in this post that there are some questions included to help guide our reviews. I haven’t addressed any of these in my review of Eugénie Grandet, so I’ll answer them now instead. (This feels a bit like a school assignment! But not in a bad way at all. Let’s see … )
1. What did you learn about the country’s culture, history etc. from reading this book? Any new insights, any shifts in your perception, or did it align with what you knew/understood already?
I didn’t learn anything new about France from my reading of Eugénie Grandet, but it did make me mull over the aftereffects of the French Revolution of the 1790s on the general population; the Revolution’s destruction of the French aristocratic classes cleared the way for the rising Bourgeoisie, the shopkeepers, farmers and tradespeople who took advantage of the changing political climate to attain never-before-possible social and economic status. The book has a detailed description of how post-Revolutionary fortunes were made and how the properties of the nobles changed hands in the ensuing social turmoil.
2. How did land, geography, flora and fauna feature in the book? Did it have a distinct feel that helped you visualise and made you feel like you were there, or was the story more focused on plot?
The novel was decidedly plot-focussed, but there are detailed descriptions of the house in the rural village of Saumur where most of the story’s action takes place. There are also descriptions of the flora of the overgrown Grandet garden which allow us to envision the setting of Eugénie and Charles’ surreptitious courtship. I found that I could visualize the physical setting of Eugénie Grandet with great clarity from the “word pictures” drawn by the author.
3. Did the story make you want to visit/revisit the country, or explore it in a new way if you live there already; did it make you want to read more stories set in the country?
The story, being set almost two centuries before the present time, does not lead me to expect a similar world being present in these contemporary days, but the descriptions were very evocative of what one might still discover in isolated French villages. Reading the novel did leave me with a curiousity to discover a little more about the setting, and to perhaps find some pictures of the vineyards of the Loire. I would love the opportunity to visit rural France, though I can’t say that this novel either strengthened or lessened that desire – it merely confirmed for me how fascinating such a visit would be on so many levels – historical, literary and personal. I am looking forward to reading more of Balzac’s stories set in a similar time, to reacquaint myself with and widen my experience of his very entertaining Human Comedy.