Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Religious Surprise

Many years ago, during my French decadent period, I read The Girl With the Golden Eyes, The Unknown Masterpiece, and Père Goriot. I generally prefer other writers like Louÿs and Proust to Balzac. For Eugénie Grandet, I read the digital edition translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley. Since we all know the plot, I will eschew a plot summary, first to note items which stood out to me while reading, and second to assess my reaction to the story.

Cruchotines and Grassinists I adore the use of such terms for the followers of certain factions that I have found often in French writing. The idea behind these terms for a group of supporters is no different from those today who identify themselves as belonging to Team Edward or Team Jacob. Balzac and others simply make the more literary and expressive word choice.

Eugénie and her mother silently exchanged a glance of intelligence. The sentence comes before Charles is introduced, in reference to the prospects of marriage for Eugénie. This took me off guard, because it suggested a hidden plot or secret which I did not find in the text. Even rereading the passages surrounding it later, I am still puzzled.

"Well, I shall be glad to have anything to eat,—anything, it doesn't matter what, a chicken, a partridge." The hour is 11:00AM, and the subject of discussion is breakfast. I laughed at the idea that Charles would eat a chicken or a partridge for breakfast. He says it so matter-of-factly, I don't know if this reflects his normal breakfast fare, or if, like the finery he wore, he is putting on for show.

"See here, monsieur," said Nanon, bringing in the eggs, "here are your chickens,—in the shell." Nanon, the loyal servant, provides this appropriate retort several paragraphs later.

When Eugénie, aged twenty-three, first sees her cousin Charles, his Parisian elegance makes a strong impression upon the ignorant provincial girl, who considers her other suitors to be unsuitable matches. For Eugénie, "roused in her soul an emotion of delicate desire", there is nothing wrong with love at first sight.

Eugénie is plain and "a girl without the least freshness" who all believe could not hope to capture the heart of Charles. Even Charles is seen to ogle Madame des Grassins. Eugénie's features are a little vulgar, but "the lines of her figure were ennobled by the softer Christian sentiment which purifies womanhood and gives it a distinction"--by all her actions she proves herself to possess the greatest inner beauty.

"Are there not thoughts and actions in the life of love which to certain souls bear the full meaning of the holiest espousals?" For Charles, his love strikes me at best as a matter of the moment, and at worst as mere expedience. He falls in and out of love several times. For Eugénie, her love is proven eternal. Charles had been brought up and taught "to calculate everything". What Eugénie saw in him was the reflected rays of celestial light from her own soul. She was attracted only by her own noble sentiments, for "Charles was too much a man of the world ... to be possessed of noble sentiments."

Eugénie reads a letter Charles has written to a woman called Annette whom he loves in Paris. Even in the face of such evidence that he loves another, Eugénie feels only love for his poverty. And she resolves to remedy his poverty by giving him money he requires to travel. Charles releases Annette from their love, because of his poverty, prefiguring his later release of Eugénie from their promise of love because he believes her impoverished.

Annette has ingrained in Charles what they had been taught by one Madame Campan (who brings to the mind of this reader the Marquise de Merteuil): "'My dears, as long as a man is a minister, adore him; when he falls, help to drag him in the gutter. Powerful, he is a sort of god; fallen, he is lower than Marat in the sewer, because he is living, and Marat is dead. Life is a series of combinations, and you must study them and understand them if you want to keep yourselves always in good position.'" In the way of this lesson Charles proceeds to treat the good-hearted Eugénie, taking all he can from her in emotion and money in exchange for mere words and artifice.

There are passing moments when it seems and is suggested that Charles falls genuinely under the influence of love for Eugénie. When they are alone together, sitting in the garden, Charles leaves his "worldly passion" and turns to "true, pure love". But as soon as his affairs in Paris are settled, he announces that he will leave and that Eugénie ought to consider other offers of marriage. She rejects the idea, and they both pledge themselves to each other. "No promise made upon this earth was ever purer. The innocent sincerity of Eugénie had sanctified for a moment the young man's love." Soon, though, apart from Eugénie, he falls back under the influence of worldly passion. I believe all along he was merely using Eugénie, treating her well just for what he might get from her, as he had been taught--though his heart and mind have been sufficiently warped for him to believe in the moment that his feelings are genuine.

I took note of an interesting sidebar to the subject of marriage and theme of love. At the end of Chapter Nine, Nanon declares: "If I had a man for myself I'd—I'd follow him to hell, yes, I'd exterminate myself for him; but I've none. I shall die and never know what life is. Would you believe, mamz'elle, that old Cornoiller (a good fellow all the same) is always round my petticoats for the sake of my money,—just for all the world like the rats who come smelling after the master's cheese and paying court to you? I see it all; I've got a shrewd eye, though I am as big as a steeple. Well, mamz'elle, it pleases me, but it isn't love." Three chapters later, she marries the same Cornoiller.

When Charles returns to France with wealth, he is offered a marriage. He writes to Eugénie to inform her, to release her from their "childish love", so that he may marry a woman whom he does not love, but through whom he will gain a title. Eugénie is encouraged to marry another, but only after she receives word that Charles refused to make good on his father's debts does she agree to marry one of her original suitors, President Cruchot, on the condition she may pay the outstanding debts and might remain a virgin while wedded. In addressing Eugénie's decision to marry without love at the end, the literary historian and critic George Saintsbury wrote: "It is perhaps necessary to be French to comprehend entirely why she could not heap that magnificent pile of coals of fire on her unworthy cousin's head without flinging herself and her seventeen millions into the arms of somebody else".

Eugénie's love for Charles is "the love of angels". Even so, she writes to Charles a letter that barely conceals her bitterness, and states the truth she has come to recognize: "I have, it is true, no part in the world; I understand neither its calculations nor its customs; and I could not give you the pleasures that you seek in it. Be happy, according to the social conventions to which you have sacrificed our love." Eugénie is faithful with small things in God's way, and so God continues to increase her more and more. She spends the rest of her days far wealthier than her father or her suitors or Charles could ever have imagined, and longing only for heaven.

Her father, Monsieur Grandet, fights against her throughout the novel, yet even during his harshest treatment she always honors him, and is never corrupted by him. Eugénie's faith clearly comes from her mother; her father remains hard-hearted, parsimonious at best, a lover of money at worst. Saintsbury called the character of Monsieur Grandet a bold depiction of "perhaps the worst and the commonest vice of the French character, the vice which is more common, and certainly worse than either the frivolity or the license with which the nation is usually charged--the pushing, to wit, of thrift to the loathsome excess of an inhuman avarice." He went on to claim that the money-grubbing of Grandet "almost escapes greediness by its diabolical extravagance and success."

In 1839, only six years after the first publication of Eugénie Grandet, the New York Times Review wrote about Balzac in reference to this book: "...the subjects of his sketches are neither suited to our tastes, nor likely to be understood by those who are unaquainted with the character of that society from which they are taken." Though the novel is titled after and follows the concerns of Eugénie, the Review noted it is her father, Monsieur Grandet, who towers over all the other characters, through whom Balzac exposes vice "in all its naked deformities."

Charles--the object of all Eugénie's affections, and perhaps a father-substitute in her quest to be loved--proves the worse character in the end, earning his ill-gotten wages through "traffic in human flesh"--the buying and selling of people as slaves. Though such trade was not outlawed in French colonies until twenty-eight years after events in the book take place, the text makes clear that Charles had become more merciless than Grandet: "He ceased to have fixed principles of right and wrong, for he saw what was called a crime in one country lauded as a virtue in another. In the perpetual struggle of selfish interests his heart grew cold, then contracted, and then dried up."

In the preface to La Comédie Humaine, Balzac wrote: "Christianity, above all, Catholicism, being ... a complete system for the repression of the depraved tendencies of man, is the most powerful element of social order." Eugénie Grandet ends, to my surprise, as a highly religious story, with the man who goes out and experiences the world becoming corrupted by it, and the woman continually refined and elevated by her heart closer to God.

In the 1901 Dana Estes edition, Saintsbury wrote: "As a matter of fact, no book can be, or can be asked to be, better than perfect on its own scheme, and with its own conditions. And on its own scheme and with its own conditions Eugénie Grandet is very nearly perfect." I liked it, too.

1 comment:

Rohan said...

Maybe I need to have a French decadent period! It sounds like fun -- sort of.

"A chicken, a partridge": you're right that this is a very odd breakfast menu, and Nanon's response is so unexpectedly clever. I think I underestimated how funny this novel is, actually.

Your reading of its religious structure is very convincing.