Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 387

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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.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560

Grandet house

Grandet house (gran-day). Home of Monsieur Grandet, his wife, his daughter, Eugénie, and his servant, Nanon. Located in Saumur, it is a typical provincial house of western France. Through highly detailed descriptions of both the exterior and the interior of the house, Honoré de Balzac reveals protagonists’ social status and character. Bleak and cold in appearance, the house defines the monotonous and melancholy existence of its three female residents, an existence that is completely controlled by the tyrannical and miserly Grandet. Life is in fact so stifling that only when Grandet is away on business can the women breathe and be themselves. It is not surprising, therefore, that the parents never leave and will die there and that Eugénie views this dismal house as her entire universe. Only her cousin Charles Grandet can free her, and when he chooses to marry another woman—despite making a promise to Eugénie of eternal love given in the Grandets’ ill-kept and overgrown garden—Eugénie ultimately lives out her years in her father’s home, unconsciously re-creating every detail of his own extreme frugality.

Large and in disrepair, the house has three rooms that have special significance. The poorly lit and heated gray parlor serves as the setting for family gatherings and penny-ante card games, always with the same six guests. Monsieur Grandet’s doubly impenetrable study, whose access is forbidden to all, is compared to an alchemist’s laboratory, since he “creates” real gold there out of shrewd economic sense and perfect market timing. Finally, Eugénie’s bedroom is the scene of her virtual imprisonment, following her single act of rebellious independence directed at her father.

*Saumur

*Saumur (soh-MUR). Small town in the Anjou province on the Loire River in western France, best known for its wines and fruit crops. In this closed—and close—setting, everybody knows everything about everybody else, which is then thoroughly discussed and analyzed as gossip runs from house to house and shop to shop.

*India

*India. South Asian subcontinent, which—like America, the West Indies, and Africa—represents a land of opportunity for adventurers, such as Charles Grandet, who are willing to work hard and who are not afraid to engage in unsavory practices in order to build their fortunes.

Marie-Caroline

Marie-Caroline. Passenger brig sailing between America and Europe. Returning on the ship to France are newly rich Charles and the impoverished but noble and well-connected d’Aubrions, whose daughter he courts and eventually marries.

Hôtel d’Aubrion

Hôtel d’Aubrion (oh-brih-YOHN). Mansion in the rue Hillerin-Bertin (now rue de Bellechasse) in the aristocratic Faubourg Saint-Germain district of Paris. Because young Grandet pays off the mortgages and liens on this property, he is able to marry Mademoiselle d’Aubrion and move into her parents’ home.

*Angers

*Angers (an-JEH). City in western France and capital of Anjou. Monsieur de Bonfons, Eugénie’s husband, and Eugénie often commute between Angers and Saumur after he receives several promotions and appointments in the judicial and legislative branches.

*Paris

*Paris. The capital of France, though hardly mentioned in the novel, acts not only as the moral inferior to Saumur by showing worse forms of corruption evident in the behavior of Guillaume Grandet and his son, but also as its defeated rival in the financial operations of Old Grandet and his daughter.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 213

Bertault, Philippe. Balzac and the Human Comedy. Translated by Richard Monges. New York: New York University Press, 1963. A general survey of Balzac’s novels, offering little in-depth analysis of individual works but usefully locating them in relation to Balzac’s major themes and interests. Includes a brief biographical sketch.

Hemmings, F. W. J. Balzac: An Interpretation of “La Comédie Humaine.” New York: Random House, 1967. Chapter 4, “The Cancer,” presents a comparative analysis of Eugénie Grandet, Cousin Bette, and Père Goriot as a trilogy of works centering around a father whose private obsession jeopardizes his family.

Levin, Harry. The Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963. A study of literary realism in France. In chapter 4, Levin includes several specific references to Eugénie Grandet.

Maurois, André. Prometheus: The Life of Balzac. Translated by Norman Denny. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1971. The definitive biography of Balzac, which provides detailed context for and some commentary on all of the major works, including Eugénie Grandet.

Schor, Naomi. Breaking the Chain: Women, Theory, and French Realist Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. In chapter 5, “Eugénie Grandet: Mirrors and Melancholia,” Schor presents a closely detailed feminist reading of the novel, relying on the insights provided by psychoanalytic theory.

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