Eugénie Honoré de Balzac Grandet Essay - Critical Essays

Grandet, Eugénie Honoré de Balzac


Eugénie Grandet Honoré de Balzac

The following entry presents criticism of Balzac's novel Eugénie Grandet (1833). See also, Honoré de Balzac Criticism.

Through its use of realistic detail and insights into the lives of intriguing characters, Eugénie Grandet is considered one of Balzac's most accomplished novels, a highlight within the larger series of novels called by their author La Comédie humaine. The novel sketches the lives of a handful of individuals who enter the warped life of a village miser, whose meanness blights their lives, to some extent irrevocably. Balzac tells their story with economy and judicious attention to detail. The title character, herself the miser's daughter, is in the end destined for a lonely, spiritually barren existence because of her father's near-pathological obsession with gain above all; the novel's sense of tragedy and the high level of interest it inspires lie in Eugénie's partially successful struggle to wrench free from her heritage of avarice.

Biographical Information

Eugénie Grandet is one of the earlier novels written to form La Comédie humaine, works written between 1830 and 1850. Balzac's strategy in writing La Comédie humaine was to reflect his self-styled role as "secretary to French society," one who would describe and interpret his era. He considered it possible to classify social species in the same manner that naturalists classify zoological species and their milieu, and his work, in Eugénie Grandet and all the other novels and story collections, reveals his belief that environment determines an individual's development. Eugénie Grandet was written to form a part of a section within the larger Comédie humaine called Scènes de la vie privée, or scenes from private life. At the time of the novel's writing, there was a lull in the famous romantic relationship between Balzac and Madame Evalina Hanska, the Polish countess he would eventually marry. Balzac in fact wrote Eugénie Grandet while in the midst of a passionate affair with a woman he described as "a sweet person, a most innocent creature who has fallen like a flower from the sky, who visits me in private, asks for no letters, no attentions, but simply says, 'Love me for a year and I will love you all my life!'" She was Marie Du Fresnay, a married woman who bore a daughter as the result of their union. For years, scholars were puzzled by Balzac's dedication of the novel to a mysterious "Maria," whose identity was finally discovered early in the twentieth century. It is claimed that she served as Balzac's model for Eugénie Grandet—"tall and strong, with none of the prettiness that pleases common people," but suffused with classical beauty, charity, and nobility of spirit.

Plot and Major Characters

The novel is set in the early nineteenth century in the small French town of Saumur, where lives the Grandet family. Through fortuitous inheritance and shrewd business sense, Félix Grandet has acquired much property in Saumur, becoming known and respected by the townspeople for his miserliness. He is mayor and chief landowner in Saumur, and his word is law in the town. His spartan household comprises his wife, a woman reduced to a beaten-down existence of near-serfdom by old Grandet; Nanon, a loyal housekeeper; and his daughter, Eugénie. Every year for her birthday, Eugénie receives two dresses from her mother and a single gold piece from her father; and every New Year's Day, Grandet asks to see his daughter's coins, both for reassurance that she has not lost them and to glory over their brightness. As a young woman, Eugénie is courted by rival suitors, Monsieur Cruchot, son of the town notary, and Monsieur de Grassins, the local banker's son. Both call on Eugénie on her birthday in 1819, but they are interrupted by the dandyish Charles Grandet, son of Félix Grandet's wealthy brother, who arrives from Paris in the evening for an extended visit. To Eugénie, accustomed to plainness and austerity, he seems an angelic visitor, and she spares no effort to impress him: lighting candles, warming the chilly house, and committing other acts deemed extravagant by her annoyed father. Charles delivers a sealed message to his uncle from his father, only to learn its fateful contents the next day: the missive is a suicide note from his father, who has lost his fortune and brought shame upon his family. Stunned, Charles remains in his room for several days. Old Grandet, seeking to avoid scandal, concocts a scheme to save his own good name, enlisting the banker, the elder M. de Grassins, to act in his stead in handling his dead brother's affairs. De Grassins travels to Paris, where he proceeds to live a life of dissolution. Meanwhile, having fallen in love with her cousin, Eugénie gives Charles all her gold coins to invest and thereby restore his fortune. Charles departs Saumur, pledging his love to Eugénie and promising to return when successful to marry her. A high point in the novel occurs on the next New Year's Day, when Grandet asks to see Eugénie's gold coins, only to discover that his daughter is unable to produce them and that her mother seems to share with her the secret of their disappearance. He vows never to have anything to do with either of them again, shunning them both for a long period—until he is warned by the town notary that his fortune is endangered because of the approaching death of his heartbroken wife; as matters stand, he will have to divide his fortune with Eugénie upon her mother's death. For practical business reasons alone, Grandet forgives his wife and daughter. Later, after his wife dies, he tricks Eugénie into signing over her share of the property to him. Five years later, old Grandet himself dies, and now Eugénie and Nanon live alone in his house, with Eugénie waiting hopefully for news of Charles. One day a letter arrives from him, stating that he no longer wishes to marry her, but that he intends to wed a titled nobleman's daughter. Eugénie releases Charles from his pledge—shortly before he learns that his finances are still in arrears and that his fiancee refuses to marry him until he is free of debt. Learning of this, Eugénie settles the remainder of Charles's debt, enabling him to marry. She then agrees to marry one of her old suitors, M. Cruchot, who has risen to a high government post, but he dies shortly after their marriage. Inheriting Cruchot's property, Eugénie is wealthier than ever, but she spends the rest of her life experiencing the same pinched, lonely existence she has always known.

Major Themes

Set in Napoleonic France, a time when shrewd investors capitalized on the return of the monarchy, Eugénie Grandet, according to the insights of Pierre-Georges Castex, describes the process whereby the new bourgeoisie was able to amass huge fortunes, demonstrating how opportunism, quickness of action, and absence of scruple combine to form the modern world's concept of genius. Avarice is presented as a spiritually crippling evil, the effects of which can blight generations. Here as in all his works of fiction, Balzac illuminates the manner in which ideas have consequences; he shows the power a fixed idea, such as unbridled greed, can hold upon individuals. What Balzac set out to show, wrote André Maurois, "was the devastating power of a fixed idea, which leads to the destruction of a family."

Critical Reception

Eugénie Grandet was well received by the French reading public upon its publication, especially by French women, who valued Balzac's realistic and sympathetic portraits of women as vital members of society in this and other novels. While Balzac himself was pleased with the early popular and critical response to this novel—which he regarded as "a good little tale, easy to sell"—he insisted that Eugénie Grandet could only be understood within the total context of La Comédie humaine—which, though extensive, was never completed. Considered on its own merits, Eugénie Grandet has been highly praised by critics over the intervening years for its tautness of structure, judicious selection of detail, and effective characterization. Despite Balzac's accomplishment in this work, it has not been the source of as extensive critical study as other novels within the larger whole, such as Le Père Goriot (1835) or even La Comédie humaine itself. Important aesthetic criticism of the work has been written by such critics as Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, George Saintsbury (himself possibly the most important English-language critic of Balzac's work in the early twentieth century), Martin Turnell, Richard Aldington, and Roger Shattuck; while trenchant feminist criticism has been offered by Naomi Schor.


Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (essay date 1865)

SOURCE: "The Great Characters," in Balzac: A Critical Study, translated by Lorenzo O'Rourke, 1906. Reprint by Haskell House Publishers Ltd., 1973, pp. 189-216.

[In the excerpt below, from a translation of an essay originally published in 1865, Taine examines the character Grandet, noting Balzac's skill in depicting depraved characters as fascinating studies. The critic also compares Balzac's skill with that of Shakespeare.]

If you believe that reason is the essential thing in human nature, you will take reason for your hero, and you will paint generosity and virtue. If your eyes are directed to the external machine, and are fixed merely upon the body, you will choose...

(The entire section is 1854 words.)

Every Saturday (essay date 1873)

SOURCE: "Eugénie Grandet," in Every Saturday, Vol. III, No. 6, February 8, 1873, pp. 148-50.

[In the following essay, the critic reviews the plot of Eugénie Grandet, providing running commentary throughout.]

The lives of women, and especially of young women, are often strangely separated from the life of the principal personage of the house they live in. There are houses, especially in small country towns, where there is a remarkable difference of scale in the interests of the lives that are passed in them; where the father is occupied with vast pecuniary transactions, and the daughters are economizing shillings; where the father takes a share in considerable...

(The entire section is 3078 words.)

The Critic, New York (review date 1886)

SOURCE: "Eugénie Grandet," in The Critic, New York, Vol. VI, No. 134, July 24, 1886, pp. 40-1.

[In the following excerpt, the critic summarizes the plot of Eugénie Grandet in the course of recommending "the sweetest and saddest" of Balzac's idylls.]

Eugénie Grandet, if not the greatest, is the tenderest of Balzac's confessions, the sweetest and saddest of his idylls. There are such malignities and benignities in it, such pathos and cruelty, such gentleness and diablerie, such contrasts of light and shade, such flashes of light and darkness. There is no more marvellous juxtaposition in fiction than the contrasted groups of the two Grandet...

(The entire section is 367 words.)

Frederick Wedmore (essay date 1890)

SOURCE: "Chapter II" and "Chapter VII," in Life of Honoré de Balzac, Walter Scott, 1890, pp. 24-32, 67-75.

[In the following excerpt from his biography of Balzac, Wedmore offers a short critical overview of Eugénie Grandet.]

Eugénie Grandet, though a larger picture [than Illusions Perdues], is still a Dutch picture. It, too, is occupied with the intimate study of narrow fortunes; with the chronicle of the approach of private and inevitable trouble. In both, a woman—but the device is a favourite one of Balzac's—idealizes a relationship into which the commonplace must greatly enter. In both, a heart stirs somewhat restlessly in a confined cage,...

(The entire section is 892 words.)

George Saintsbury (essay date 1907)

SOURCE: A preface to Eugénie Grandet, by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Ellen Marriage, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1930, pp. xi-xv.

[Saintsbury is considered one of the world's foremost authorities on Balzac's work during the early twentieth century. In the following excerpt from his preface to the Everyman Edition (1907) of Balzac's novel, he discourses on Eugénie Grandet as a work that is "very nearly perfect. "]

With Eugénie Grandet, as with one or two, but only one or two others of Balzac's works, we come to a case of Quis vituperavit? Here, and perhaps here only, with Le Médecin de Campagne and Le Père...

(The entire section is 1204 words.)

Adaline Lincoln Lush (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: "The House of the Miser: Eugénie Grandet," in Studies in Balzac's Realism, by E. Preston Dargan, W. L. Crain, and others, The University of Chicago Press, 1932, pp. 121-35.

[In the essay below, Lush analyzes the characterization and action of Eugénie Grandet.]

The manuscript of Eugénie Grandet was presented to Mme Hanska in December, 1833. This work made its initial appearance in printed form, as a whole, in the first volume of the first edition of the Scènes de la vie de province (1834-37). L'Europe littéraire on September 19, 1833, contained the first chapter and the titles of the remaining chapters. It was not...

(The entire section is 6140 words.)

Ray P. Bowen (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: "Acts and Scenes: Eugénie Grandet," "Settings, Costumes, and Groupings: Eugénie Grandet," and "Dialogue: Eugénie Grandet," in The Dramatic Construction of Balzac's Novels, University of Oregon, 1940, pp. 26-31, 81-2, 106.

[In The Dramatic Construction of Balzac's Novels, Bowen seeks "to reveal by examination of the novels themselves whether there is not something more than just a dramatic pattern running through them and also whether there is not a manner of building according to which the author, consciously or unconsciously, constructed them so as to give them the dramatic form that characterizes his method of composition. " In the excerpt below from...

(The entire section is 2979 words.)

Martin Turnell (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "Four Novels: Eugénie Grandet," in The Novel in France: Mme de La Fayette, Laclos, Constant, Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Proust, New Directions, 1950, pp. 235-39.

[Turnell has written extensively on French literature of the last three centuries. In the following excerpt, he cites Andre Gide's criticisms of Eugénie Grandet in his own short critique of that novel.]

'It does not seem to me to be one of the best of Balzac's novels or to deserve the extraordinary favour it has enjoyed,' remarks Gide of Eugénie Grandet. 'The style is extremely mediocre; the characters could scarcely be more summary; the dialogue is conventional and...

(The entire section is 1478 words.)

Marcel Girard (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: An introduction to Eugénie Grandet, by Honoré de Balzac, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1956, pp. v-xv.

[In the following essay, Girard provides a critical and historical overview of Eugénie Grandet, sketching the novel's geographical, social, and biographical background.]

Towards the end of his life Balzac began to hate being called 'father of Eugénie Grandet.' He imagined that this emphasis upon his first great novel was calculated to derogate from the remainder of his work. 'It is admittedly a masterpiece,' he used to say, 'but only a little one'; and in the end he came to loathe it!

While recognizing that Balzac...

(The entire section is 2408 words.)

Richard Aldington (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: An introduction to Eugénie Grandet, by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Ellen Marriage, The Heritage Press, 1961, pp. ix-xvi.

[Aldington is perhaps best known as the editor of the Imagist periodical the Egoist and as an influential member of the Imagist movement, whose other members included Hilda Doolittlewho became Aldington's first wife in 1913Ezra Pound, and Amy Lowell. As a literary critic and biographer, he combined his skills as a poet, his sensitivity as a reader, and his personal reminiscences to produce criticism that is creative as well as informative. In the preface to the Heritage Press edition of Eugénie Grandet, Aldington offers a...

(The entire section is 3201 words.)

Diana Festa-McCormick (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Productive Years," in Honoré de Balzac, Twayne Publishers, 1979, pp. 41-55.

[In the excerpt below, Festa-McCormick examines those elements that make Eugénie Grandet "one of the classics of world fiction, "focusing especially upon Balzac's depiction of the miser Grandet. The critic concludes by exploring the mystery of the identity of the "Maria" to whom Balzac dedicated the novel.]

A Modern Tragedy in Bourgeois Setting: Eugénie Grandet

Eugénie Grandet ranks among the classics of universal fiction, almost on a par with Madame Bovary—less ambitious, but equally well constructed, with restraint and poetic...

(The entire section is 2453 words.)

Alexander Fischler (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Eugénie Grandet's Career as Heavenly Exile," in Essays in Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Fall 1989, pp. 271-80.

[In the following essay, Fischler examines Balzac's depiction of Eugénie as an exile from the heavenly realm.]

Balzac liked to suggest to his readers that some of the exceptional men and women of La Comédie humaine were exiles, more suited for a realm where categories and gradation are irrelevant than for cramped quarters "ici-bas." The argument was a romantic commonplace. He was able to vitalize it, however, by adding consistently a very literal dimension to exile as metaphor, by suggesting, as he did in Eugénie...

(The entire section is 5072 words.)

Further Reading


Crawford, Marion Ayton, author of introduction to Eugénie Grandet, by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Marion Ayton Crawford, pp. 5-32. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Provides a thematic and character-focused reading of Eugénie Grandet.

Frautschi, Richard L. "Tracing Narrative Axes in Eugénie Grandet, Madame Bovary, and Germinal: Toward a Quantitative Strategy." French Literature Series XVII (1990): 119-31.

Close examination of Balzac's narratological strategy in Eugénie Grandet, comparing it with the strategies exercised by...

(The entire section is 249 words.)