Eugénie Grandet Honoré de Balzac
The following entry presents criticism of Balzac's novel Eugénie Grandet (1833). See also, Honoré de Balzac Criticism.
Through its use of realistic detail and insights into the lives of intriguing characters, Eugénie Grandet is considered one of Balzac's most accomplished novels, a highlight within the larger series of novels called by their author La Comédie humaine. The novel sketches the lives of a handful of individuals who enter the warped life of a village miser, whose meanness blights their lives, to some extent irrevocably. Balzac tells their story with economy and judicious attention to detail. The title character, herself the miser's daughter, is in the end destined for a lonely, spiritually barren existence because of her father's near-pathological obsession with gain above all; the novel's sense of tragedy and the high level of interest it inspires lie in Eugénie's partially successful struggle to wrench free from her heritage of avarice.
Eugénie Grandet is one of the earlier novels written to form La Comédie humaine, works written between 1830 and 1850. Balzac's strategy in writing La Comédie humaine was to reflect his self-styled role as "secretary to French society," one who would describe and interpret his era. He considered it possible to classify social species in the same manner that naturalists classify zoological species and their milieu, and his work, in Eugénie Grandet and all the other novels and story collections, reveals his belief that environment determines an individual's development. Eugénie Grandet was written to form a part of a section within the larger Comédie humaine called Scènes de la vie privée, or scenes from private life. At the time of the novel's writing, there was a lull in the famous romantic relationship between Balzac and Madame Evalina Hanska, the Polish countess he would eventually marry. Balzac in fact wrote Eugénie Grandet while in the midst of a passionate affair with a woman he described as "a sweet person, a most innocent creature who has fallen like a flower from the sky, who visits me in private, asks for no letters, no attentions, but simply says, 'Love me for a year and I will love you all my life!'" She was Marie Du Fresnay, a married woman who bore a daughter as the result of their union. For years, scholars were puzzled by Balzac's dedication of the novel to a mysterious "Maria," whose identity was finally discovered early in the twentieth century. It is claimed that she served as Balzac's model for Eugénie Grandet—"tall and strong, with none of the prettiness that pleases common people," but suffused with classical beauty, charity, and nobility of spirit.
Plot and Major Characters
The novel is set in the early nineteenth century in the small French town of Saumur, where lives the Grandet family. Through fortuitous inheritance and shrewd business sense, Félix Grandet has acquired much property in Saumur, becoming known and respected by the townspeople for his miserliness. He is mayor and chief landowner in Saumur, and his word is law in the town. His spartan household comprises his wife, a woman reduced to a beaten-down existence of near-serfdom by old Grandet; Nanon, a loyal housekeeper; and his daughter, Eugénie. Every year for her birthday, Eugénie receives two dresses from her mother and a single gold piece from her father; and every New Year's Day, Grandet asks to see his daughter's coins, both for reassurance that she has not lost them and to glory over their brightness. As a young woman, Eugénie is courted by rival suitors, Monsieur Cruchot, son of the town notary, and Monsieur de Grassins, the local banker's son. Both call on Eugénie on her birthday in 1819, but they are interrupted by the dandyish Charles Grandet, son of Félix Grandet's wealthy brother, who arrives from Paris in the evening for an extended visit. To Eugénie, accustomed to plainness and austerity, he seems an angelic visitor, and she spares no effort to impress him: lighting candles, warming the chilly house, and committing other acts deemed extravagant by her annoyed father. Charles delivers a sealed message to his uncle from his father, only to learn its fateful contents the next day: the missive is a suicide note from his father, who has lost his fortune and brought shame upon his family. Stunned, Charles remains in his room for several days. Old Grandet, seeking to avoid scandal, concocts a scheme to save his own good name, enlisting the banker, the elder M. de Grassins, to act in his stead in handling his dead brother's affairs. De Grassins travels to Paris, where he proceeds to live a life of dissolution. Meanwhile, having fallen in love with her cousin, Eugénie gives Charles all her gold coins to invest and thereby restore his fortune. Charles departs Saumur, pledging his love to Eugénie and promising to return when successful to marry her. A high point in the novel occurs on the next New Year's Day, when Grandet asks to see Eugénie's gold coins, only to discover that his daughter is unable to produce them and that her mother seems to share with her the secret of their disappearance. He vows never to have anything to do with either of them again, shunning them both for a long period—until he is warned by the town notary that his fortune is endangered because of the approaching death of his heartbroken wife; as matters stand, he will have to divide his fortune with Eugénie upon her mother's death. For practical business reasons alone, Grandet forgives his wife and daughter. Later, after his wife dies, he tricks Eugénie into signing over her share of the property to him. Five years later, old Grandet himself dies, and now Eugénie and Nanon live alone in his house, with Eugénie waiting hopefully for news of Charles. One day a letter arrives from him, stating that he no longer wishes to marry her, but that he intends to wed a titled nobleman's daughter. Eugénie releases Charles from his pledge—shortly before he learns that his finances are still in arrears and that his fiancee refuses to marry him until he is free of debt. Learning of this, Eugénie settles the remainder of Charles's debt, enabling him to marry. She then agrees to marry one of her old suitors, M. Cruchot, who has risen to a high government post, but he dies shortly after their marriage. Inheriting Cruchot's property, Eugénie is wealthier than ever, but she spends the rest of her life experiencing the same pinched, lonely existence she has always known.
Set in Napoleonic France, a time when shrewd investors capitalized on the return of the monarchy, Eugénie Grandet, according to the insights of Pierre-Georges Castex, describes the process whereby the new bourgeoisie was able to amass huge fortunes, demonstrating how opportunism, quickness of action, and absence of scruple combine to form the modern world's concept of genius. Avarice is presented as a spiritually crippling evil, the effects of which can blight generations. Here as in all his works of fiction, Balzac illuminates the manner in which ideas have consequences; he shows the power a fixed idea, such as unbridled greed, can hold upon individuals. What Balzac set out to show, wrote André Maurois, "was the devastating power of a fixed idea, which leads to the destruction of a family."
Eugénie Grandet was well received by the French reading public upon its publication, especially by French women, who valued Balzac's realistic and sympathetic portraits of women as vital members of society in this and other novels. While Balzac himself was pleased with the early popular and critical response to this novel—which he regarded as "a good little tale, easy to sell"—he insisted that Eugénie Grandet could only be understood within the total context of La Comédie humaine—which, though extensive, was never completed. Considered on its own merits, Eugénie Grandet has been highly praised by critics over the intervening years for its tautness of structure, judicious selection of detail, and effective characterization. Despite Balzac's accomplishment in this work, it has not been the source of as extensive critical study as other novels within the larger whole, such as Le Père Goriot (1835) or even La Comédie humaine itself. Important aesthetic criticism of the work has been written by such critics as Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, George Saintsbury (himself possibly the most important English-language critic of Balzac's work in the early twentieth century), Martin Turnell, Richard Aldington, and Roger Shattuck; while trenchant feminist criticism has been offered by Naomi Schor.