Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1103

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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 Balzac’s novels. The figure of the greedy miser Monsieur Grandet epitomizes greed and furnishes Balzac with one of his best characters. Ironically, the novel reflects Balzac’s own preoccupation with money and his desire to earn vast sums of it. Like many of his characters, he wanted wealth and social position. As a young man, he was poor and constantly in debt, but he never did learn how to manage money, even after his novels began earning him sizable sums. He was constantly in debt because he lived extravagantly and beyond his means. While writing, he lived like a monk, working furiously for long hours with virtually no time out even for eating. When the novel was completed, however, Balzac devoted that same energy to nonstop revelry. His feasts were legendary and his capacity for fine foods was gargantuan; he is said to have consumed one hundred oysters as an hors d’oeuvre, for example. His drinking and other debauches were no less excessive. He agreed with Monsieur Grandet that money is power and power is all that matters; therefore, money is the only important factor in life.

The difference between Balzac and his fictional characters, however, is that Balzac wanted money for what it would buy, whereas Grandet wanted money for its own sake. Balzac cultivated his Dionysian lifestyle with the same single-minded dedication with which Grandet cultivated abstemiousness. He enjoyed a grand style, in contrast to Grandet, who took pleasure from self-denial.

Though the novel is entitled Eugénie Grandet, it is Monsieur Grandet who dominates the novel just as he dominated his family. He is the force that determines his wife’s destiny (who is ultimately killed by his penny-pinching vindictiveness) and that of his daughter (who is emotionally warped by his miserly indoctrination). Thus the novel is as much about Grandet as it is about Eugénie.

Monsieur Grandet is what literary critics call an undeveloped or a “flat” character. He undergoes no change in the course of the novel and experiences no enlightenment. From start to finish, he is venal and miserly. In fact, Eugénie is the only character who undergoes change, for she progresses from innocence to experience. The others remain as they are at the beginning.

Although Eugénie knows nothing of Grandet’s machinations in accumulating his fortune, she is nevertheless shaped by her father’s influence. Grandet thus exerts his wishes even beyond the grave, since his training of Eugénie—implicit and explicit—is reflected in her behavior long after he is dead. Although she is publicly charitable, she adopts his parsimonious living habits. Without effort, but presumably because she learns from her father, she increases her fortune. Eugénie would not be what she is without having grown up with such a father. The matrix of this relationship illustrates one of Balzac’s major premises, which was to become a tenet of late nineteenth century literary naturalism: that the combined effects of genetics and environment cannot be surmounted. This phenomenon is labeled “determinism,” more precisely, “mechanistic determinism,” to distinguish it from its religious counterpart of predestination. Eugénie is born into a given social environment with a given genetic makeup. She is unable to change those factors, and they are the twin determinants of her fate. The novel traces her development up to the time when she accepts the fate that has been foreordained at the outset: She is very, very rich and very, very unhappy. The inescapable forces of determinism work through to their inevitable conclusion.

Eugénie Grandet is an unusually moving work, for the reader can hardly fail to sympathize with Eugénie while despising her father. It comes as something of a shock, then, to realize that Eugénie bears her father no malice. Even her response to Charles’s betrayal is so subtle that it is untainted; Charles is oblivious to subtlety, and the reader does not begrudge Eugénie her one, lone exercise of financial power. Balzac’s incredible prestidigitation is at work here, manipulating the readers so that they accept the novel’s point of view without imposing extraneous judgments. Eugénie Grandet is a tribute to Balzac’s craft and art.