Eugénie Grandet

by Honoré Balzac

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 387

Eugénie Grandet is part of a larger project by French novelist Honoré de Balzac called La Comédie humaine, a title that references Dante's Divine Comedy and suggests that Balzac is creating an equally comprehensive but purely secular work, focused on humans' relationships with each other rather than their role in a divine cosmos. Consisting of some ninety-one completed works, including novels, short stories, and essays, this project, which began to take form in 1833 and occupied most of Balzac's life, is set in the period from 1815 to 1848.

In his "Avant-propos," Balzac explains that the project is an almost scientific analysis of humanity as a species, and in particular how humans relate to and are dependent on each other. The major themes of the project are money, power, and relationships between men and women. In particular, Balzac is concerned with the way that his society has become crassly materialistic, abandoning codes of honor and focused entirely on accumulation of wealth.

The characters of Eugénie Grandet are portrayed realistically, as neither caricatures of good or evil but as fully rounded individuals who were typical of the financial elite of a prosperous provincial town. The eponymous heroine is kind and charitable, and morally good, despite misjudging the character of her cousin, the duplicitous Charles Grandet. The major male characters, including Charles, Eugénie's father Felix, and Eugénie's two other suitors and their fathers, are obsessed with money and see marriage primarily as a path to wealth. Eugénie differs from them in being capable of genuine love and charity, and ironically, despite her generosity and lack of their single-minded focus on wealth, nonetheless attains great wealth by the end of the novel.

Felix Grandet is portrayed as a miser who tyrannizes his wife, daughter, and servant Nanon, mainly with the aim of increasing and holding on to his wealth. His love of wealth corrupts his character and his relationships with people. The female characters display a far wider range of of human feelings and desires, showing themselves capable of religious devotion, family loyalty, love, charity, and self-sacrifice. The portraits of relationships between the genders show unequal power relationships that only shift when Eugénie attains her own wealth, but nonetheless that wealth does not free her from her family heritage or let her escape her provincial life.

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