Critical Evaluation

Eugénie Grandet is part of Honoré de Balzac’s grandly designed La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Human Comedy, 1895-1895, 1911). Rather late in his prolific writing career, Honoré de Balzac conceived the idea of arranging his novels, stories, and studies in a certain order. He first described his plan in Avant-propos (1842), claiming that the idea originated as early as 1833, and named the project The Human Comedy. Balzac was influenced in his idea by the naturalists Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and Jean Lamarck, whose scientific principles—especially the taxonomic system—Balzac sought to apply to literature, particularly for the purpose of organizing information. Balzac firmly believed that “social species” could be classified just as zoological species were, and he retroactively attempted to classify his fifty-odd previous works as well as all future writings to fit his scheme. To accommodate his plan, he adopted eight major topic headings: “Scenes from Private Life,” “Scenes from Provincial Life,” “Scenes from Parisian Life,” “Scenes from Political Life,” “Scenes from Military Life,” “Scenes from Rural Life,” “Philosophical Studies,” and “Analytical Studies.” The works were arranged, rearranged, and arranged again. Eugénie Grandet finally came to be categorized with the “Scenes of Provincial Life.” In line with this ambitious organizational plan, Balzac tailored his earlier output to the new standards, with some predictably disastrous results. The literary qualities of the novels, however—notably of Eugénie Grandet—are irrefutable testimony to the triumph of art over science.

Balzac realized his goal of presenting typical human species in spite of, not because of, his “scientific” system of taxonomy. As the unsurpassed historian of the French middle class during the first half of the nineteenth century, he incarnated the stereotypes that were new then but so well known today, among them the snob, the provincial, the prude, the miser, and the lecher. He did so on the strength of his artistic skill and not by virtue of scientific analysis, for Balzac was not a systematic philosopher or a scientist but an artist. His novels, though they are often marred by his insensitivity to language and his proclivity for excessive details, outlined the essential characteristics of the nineteenth century French middle class more clearly than anyone else has ever done. Matching Juvenal and Martial, Balzac satirized avarice, ambition, lust, vanity, and hypocrisy. Greed, however, was his bête noire, and money is a pervasive theme in...

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