Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1171
Monsieur Grandet, the wealthiest man in the town of Saumur, invites universal envy, and speculation about the extent of his riches extends to having hidden golden treasure. A “louis” is a pre-revolutionary French coin, named for the king.
In all Saumur there was no one not persuaded that Monsieur Grandet had a private treasure, some hiding-place full of louis, where he nightly took ineffable delight in gazing upon great masses of gold. Avaricious people gathered proof of this when they looked at the eyes of the good man, to which the yellow metal seemed to have conveyed its tints.
Grandet is fond of his daughter, Eugenie, but also very strict with her. When his brother’s son, Charles, comes to visit from Paris, Eugenie falls in love with him, but her father forbids their match. Shortly they receive news that the young man’s father has killed himself because his business was ruined, thanks to the failures of his broker and notary. The son has not yet heard the news because he is napping. Her father immediately decides to send Charles—now a pauper—to a post in the West Indies colonies and advises her to forget about him.
On the same day, Grandet learns that he has made a huge sum on an unethical business deal involving the sale of wine. His wealth has made him into a miser, and he begrudges the family any semblance of luxury, especially sugar. After telling his nephew about his father’s death, he shows him no sympathy. Concerned for her cousin, who cries inconsolably, Eugenie goes to his room alone at night.
Continuing to scheme to earn yet more money, Grandet plots to avenge his brother’s honor by getting the money from the Parisian men responsible for his ruining the younger man. His greed is as much about power as about the money itself. He lived to impose his will on other people and believes it is their own fault for being gullible.
He had hatched a plot by which to trick the Parisians, to decoy and dupe and snare them, to drive them into a trap, and make them go and come and sweat and hope and turn pale,—a plot by which to amuse himself . . . He wished to save the honor of his dead brother without the cost of a penny to the son or to himself…. He needed some nutriment for his malicious activity, and he found it suddenly in his brother’s failure . . . [H]e resolved to crush the Parisians in behalf of Charles, and to play the part of a good brother on the cheapest terms.
After developing his plot, Grandet goes off to Paris to sell some gold, and use the proceeds to buy his brother’s debts which he can then resell and make a profit. While he is gone, Eugenie’s love for her cousin deepens, and while in his room she cannot stop herself from reading two of his letters. In this way, she learns that he is in love with another woman, Annette, and is writing to tell her of his misfortunes. Eugenie resolves to use the gifts she had received from her grandmother to help Charles. Confessing to reading the letters, she gives him a number of valuable old gold coins. In return, he leaves with her for safekeeping a box he had received from his mother. As they spend more time together, Charles’s feelings of true love for Eugenie grows and he forgets about Annette. Although they are not formally engaged, the cousins pledge eternal love. Charles entrusts a number of valuable items to his uncle, then sails for the West Indies.
Grandet’s plans to make a killing from the sale of gold and from manipulating the value of his brother’s debts begin to pay off. Eugenie confesses to her mother that she has given Charles all her treasure, which her father always inspects on New Year’s Day. To conduct another business deal, Grandet asks Eugenie for her gold and she must to confess she no longer has it. Furious, her father disowns her and locks her in her room. His wife, in return, vows never to leave her room until he forgives Eugenie. As her mother wastes away, Eugenie is allowed to leave only to attend church, and they are the main subject of village gossip.
From his banker, Grandet learns the terms of his wife’s will, as she owns considerable property inherited from her own family, which will in turn pass to Eugenie. Realizing that if he does not forgive his daughter, she will take her inheritance and leave him after her mother’s death, he makes a great show of reconciling. Sadly, his wife’s illness has advanced too far.
Madame Grandet rapidly approached her end . . . She was fragile as the foliage in autumn; the radiance of heaven shone through her as the sun strikes athwart the withering leaves and gilds them. It was a death worthy of her life,—a Christian death; and is not that sublime?
After he mother’s death, Eugenie continues living in the house with her father until he too passes away, spending his last years admiring the gold coins. When he passes away, Eugenie at last is a wealthy woman. No one knows Charles’s whereabouts. Her was her
first and only love, [which turned into] . . . a wellspring of sadness within her . . . This love, cursed by her father, had cost the life of her mother and brought her only sorrow, mingled with a few frail hopes.
Finally, she receives the letter she had hoped for, but its content is not what she had wished. Charles has made his fortune, but is going to marry someone else. “Love in marriage is a delusion,” he tells her.
This fortune enables me to marry into the family of Aubrion, whose heiress, a young girl nineteen years of age, brings me a title, a place of gentleman-of-the-bed-chamber to His Majesty, and a very brilliant position. I will admit to you, my dear cousin, that I do not love Mademoiselle d’Aubrion; but in marrying her I secure to my children a social rank whose advantages will one day be incalculable . . .
Even worse, he encloses a check for what he calculated the value of the gifts she had made him those many years before.
Eugenie at first wants to enter a convent, but one of her suitors, Monsieur de Bonfons, a former associate of her father’s, takes the situation in hand. Spreading the word that Charles still has his father’s debts, he convinces Eugenie that Charles will not be able to marry. She in turn gives up any claim to those debts, and turns her back on him. She agrees to marry Bonfons if their marriage will be in name only, and include no sexual relationship. They marry and live on as partners. After he dies, she is a widow at thirty-six, by far the richest person in Saumur.