(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Eugénie Grandet shows Balzac at his most idealistic. He presents three characters who are completely incorruptible in the face of the greed that surrounds them. Eugénie Grandet, her mother, and their servant Nanon all lead lives that are virtually monastic in their self-denial. Despite the fabulous wealth that has been accumulated by the shrewd and unscrupulous winemaker, Monsieur Grandet, his family lives in a wretched house, under strict and despotic rules enforced by him.

While Grandet, a miser who doles out candles and sugar cubes one at a time, keeps his wife and daughter ignorant of their enormous fortune, the local townspeople are very well aware of it. Indeed, talk of Grandet’s millions is the chief subject of gossip. While everyone in town is well aware that Grandet is a most unsavory character, he is regarded with awe and forgiven every trespass because of his millions of francs. As Eugénie turns twenty-three, her father assumes that he will marry her off to the candidate of his choosing. Two local figures vie for her hand, with no thought of anything but her father’s money. As all the principals are gathered for Eugénie’s birthday, an unanticipated guest arrives from Paris like a magnificent peacock descending on a barnyard.

The peacock is Eugénie’s cousin Charles, the son of Old Grandet’s younger brother. Young Charles is visiting the poor country cousins to humor his father, from whom he is bringing a letter to Old Grandet. Unbeknown to Charles, the letter contains news of his father’s bankruptcy and intended suicide.

In the few days that the young man is allotted to mourn, before he is sent to “the Indies” to make his fortune, he and his...

(The entire section is 703 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In the French town of Saumur, old Grandet is a prominent personality, and the story of his rise to fortune is known throughout the district. He is a master cooper who marries the daughter of a prosperous wood merchant. When the new French Republic offers for sale the church property in Saumur, Grandet uses his savings and his wife’s dowry to buy the old abbey, a fine vineyard, and several farms. Under the consulate, he becomes mayor and grows still more wealthy. In 1806, he inherits three additional fortunes from the deaths of his wife’s mother, grandfather, and grandmother. By this time he owns the abbey, a hundred acres of vineyard, thirteen farms, and the house in which he lives. In 1811, he buys the nearby estate of an impoverished nobleman.

Grandet is known for his miserliness, but he is respected for the same reason. His manners are simple and his table is meager, but his speech and gestures are the law of the countryside. His household consists of his wife, his daughter, Eugénie, and a servant, Nanon. Old Grandet, who uses his wife as a screen for his devious financial dealings, reduces his wife almost to slavery. Nanon, who does all the housework, is gaunt and ugly but very strong. She is devoted to her master because he took her in after everyone else refused to hire her because of her appearance. On each birthday, Eugénie receives a gold piece from her father and a winter and a summer dress from her mother. Each New Year’s Day, Grandet asks to see the coins and gloats over their yellow brightness.

Grandet begrudges his family everything except the bare necessities of life. Every day, he carefully measures and doles out the food for the household—a few lumps of sugar, several pieces of butter, and a loaf of bread. He forbids the lighting of fires in the rooms before the middle of November. His family, like his tenants, live under the austere circumstances he imposes.

The townspeople wonder whom Eugénie will marry. There are two rivals for her hand. One of them, Monsieur Cruchot, is the son of the local notary. The other, Monsieur de Grassins, is the son of the local banker. On Eugénie’s birthday, in the year 1819, both call at the Grandet home. During the evening, there is an unexpected knock at the door, and in comes Charles Grandet, the miser’s nephew. Charles’s father amassed a fortune in Paris, and Charles himself, dressed in the most fashionable Parisian manner, exemplifies Parisian customs and habits and tries to impress these awkward, gawking provincials with his superior airs.

Eugénie outdoes herself in an effort to make the visitor welcome, even defying her father in the matter of heat, candlelight, and other luxuries for Charles. Grandet is polite enough to his nephew that evening. Charles brings a letter from his father, in which Grandet’s brother announces that he lost his fortune, he is about to commit suicide,...

(The entire section is 1186 words.)