Eugénie Grandet

Does anyone read Balzac for pleasure anymore? Surely, Le Père Goriot, which has spawned many an academic paper delineating parallels with King Lear, is still taught in French literature courses. I recently picked up Eugénie Grandet, which I hadn't read in decades, and devoured it -- a provocative, entertaining moral tale about avarice that, although written in 1833, remains astonishingly relevant. Like Dickens, Balzac zeroes in on the dark side of rampant capitalism, but instead of focusing pityingly on the have-nots, he skewers his era's crass Masters of the Universe, though with more humor than moral outrage.

For readers who associate classics with bad memories of impenetrably fusty homework assignments, let me say this: If you love the way Jonathan Franzen's or Meg Wolitzer's domestic dramas provide a window onto the shortcomings and foibles of our culture, check out Balzac, the granddaddy of realist literature.

Eugénie Grandet, Balzac's first bestseller, is about a miserly old coot, a cooper turned wine grower turned wily investor who has amassed a fortune through a financially advantageous marriage, followed by complex financial wheelings and dealings that make hedge funds and short calls seem straightforward and Ponzi schemes seem legit. It's about the tyranny and corruptive power of what Balzac calls "the only god that anyone believes in nowadays -- Money."

The tragic figure at the novel's center is the titular Eugénie, the miser's once sweet, innocent daughter. Her sad story is a cautionary tale about what happens when an obsession with lucre and social position supplants human affection. She inherits her father's financial savvy and avaricious ways along with his fortune but is miserably shortchanged in the love department.

Honoré de Balzac was no stranger to the tyranny of money. He was born in Tours in 1799, without the noble "de," which his father, a civil servant, added in an attempt to further improve his social standing after marrying Balzac's mother, a relatively wealthy haberdasher's daughter. Balzac studied law and philosophy but to his family's dismay (some things never change) settled on a literary career, in which he was not initially successful. He also failed repeatedly in various publishing and business ventures, which landed him in debt – but later provided grist for his fictional mill. Perhaps to compensate, he wrote at a feverish pitch, fueled by gallons of coffee. He was the Joyce Carol Oates of his day, producing some ninety novels in twenty years.

His personal life, like his fiction, was a larger-than-life, swirling mix of realism and romanticism. Rodin's famous bronze sculpture captures the writer's monumentality. Balzac probably fathered a daughter and son in the 1830s by two of his many married lovers. His most enduring relationship, with Mme. Eweline Hanska, began in 1833 as an epistolary exchange concerning his portrayal of women and religion in his work. Mme. Hanska had been married off to an older, rich Polish landowner to cement her family's fortunes. She and Balzac finally married in March 1850, nine years after she was widowed and just months before Balzac's death that August, at fifty-one.

Seemingly everything he observed and thought went into his Human Comedy, the sweeping collection of linked, realist novels in which he determinedly set out to depict a broad swath of post-Revolutionary French society. Eugénie Grandet, with its tight construction and relative brevity, is a perfect introduction to Balzac. His characters are grossly, amusingly exaggerated, yet their humanity is captured with a combination of flamboyantly vivid physical descriptions and bemused, often piercing psychological insight. Yet his often-criticized tendency toward hyper-detailed descriptions is held in check in this uncharacteristically short novel.

The plot of Eugénie Grandet is simple: In 1819, on Eugénie's twenty-third birthday, her handsome cousin, Charles Grandet, a spoiled dandy from Paris, shows up at the uninviting, woefully rundown house in the Loire Valley town of Saumur, where Eugénie lives with her pathologically tightfisted father, downtrodden mother, and their overworked servant, Nanon. While Eugénie and her mother have no idea how rich Félix Grandet actually is, his banker, des Grassins, and his notary, Cruchot, aren't quite so clueless. The two men and their families jockey shamelessly for the old man's favor and Eugénie's hand.

Balzac has a field day contrasting the sumptuousness of Charles's finery with the penury of Maison Grandet: "He had a specimen of every variety of tie and cravat in favour at the moment, two coats designed by Buisson, and his finest linen…" After pages of lavish description worthy of a Saks Fifth Avenue catalogue, Balzac comments wryly: "Only a Parisian, and a Parisian from the highest spheres, could fit himself up in this style, and not only avoid looking ridiculous, but even give to all his affectations an air of being modishly right, carrying them off with a gallant swagger…."  

Contrast this with the importuning Cruchots, all three of whom "took snuff, and had long ceased to trouble about drops on the end of their noses and little black specks scattered over their shirt frills…. Every grace was lacking in them, and the lack was aggravated by an apathy more proper to senility. Their faces, as faded as their threadbare coats, as creased as their trousers, were worn, the skin toughened and shriveled, a grimace their only expression." Merciless, no?

As for Eugénie, although not conventionally pretty, she is compared to the Venus de Milo, "vigorous and built on such a generous scale," albeit "refined by that sweetness of Christian feeling which gives a woman a dignity and distinction…she was beautiful with that unmistakable beauty that only artists delight in."   But Eugénie regards herself, her gloomy home, and even her father in a newly critical light after Charles's arrival. Emboldened by her surge of feelings for her cousin, she dares to indulge him with real wax candles (instead of cheaper, smelly tallow), eggs, and extra sugar. Her profligate defiance enrages Père Grandet as much as what he deems to be her misplaced affection.

Charles's father, it turns out, faced with the ignominy of bankruptcy, has killed himself and thrown his son on the mercy of his uncle. Charles quickly realizes that he must seek his fortune in the East Indies and unwisely trusts his uncle to settle his father's debts. When he leaves, he takes Eugénie's heart -- and her small hoard of gold -- with him, vowing to return with both.

Eugénie Grandet is about unscrupulous people, and while Balzac has prepared us for Charles's dastardly behavior toward smitten Eugénie, it still comes as a shock to learn that this sweet-faced dandy, who wept over his father's death, makes his fortune in the slave trade. Even in 1833, decades before the American Civil War, Balzac's damning portrait of Charles's descent into unscrupulous selfishness is unequivocal: Charles, he writes, "no longer held fixed views on what was right or wrong...his heart grew cold, insensible, indifferent."

But here's the thing about Balzac: Amid bald declarations -- "Money without honor is an affliction!" -- you always find more subtle shadings. Yes, his portrait of old Grandet -- an obsessive skinflint willing to cheat everyone for a franc, including his own family -- is unrelievedly heinous, like an Ebenezer Scrooge without transformative redemption (Dickens's Christmas Carol was published ten years after Eugénie Grandet), or like Molière's miser, Harpagon, minus the riotous satire. Yet Balzac still manages to surprise us repeatedly. The hard, calculated bargain that Eugénie drives with her equally calculating future husband – I won't say who – should provide gold coin for book group discussions. So, too, will the joylessness of this heiress's existence. Disappointed in love and all too aware of the financial motives that drive most men, she is unable to let down her guard with anyone. As a result, her life is even bleaker than her father's – who at least took pleasure in his pursuit of wealth. In the Grandets' saga, Balzac makes one thing very clear: Money certainly can't buy happiness if you're unwilling to spend it.

Money is a vast topic in literature -- second only to love, perhaps. In Eugénie Grandet, Balzac manages to combine both in a remarkably incisive little tragedy. For further reading, here are a few other books in which money and greed play a dominant, corrupting role: Balzac's Old Goriot, Molière's Miser, Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, Martin Amis's Money: A Suicide Note,  Martha McPhee's Dear Money, Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic, Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and John Lanchester's Capital, set at the height of the financial crisis in 2008. Literary riches, for sure.

 

About the Columnist
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

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