Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Eugénie Grandet

Honoré de Balzac begins this 1833 novel with a detailed description of a melancholy street in the town of Saumur:
There is, perhaps, in these houses, a combination of the silence of the cloister, the desolation of the moorlands, and the sepulchral gloom of ruins. In them life is so still and uneventful that a stranger would think them uninhabited, if his eye did not suddenly meet the pale, cold look of a motionless figure whose almost monk-like face appears above the window-ledge at the sound of an unknown step.
What little buzzing there is in this quiet town concerns the future of the novel’s title character, Eugénie Grandet, a young woman just reaching marriageable age. Who, the town wonders, will Eugénie marry? Her father, Felix, is extremely wealthy (and extremely miserly), and so quiet, sheltered Eugénie is much sought after. But she expresses no preference—or much of anything at all—until her cousin Charles unexpectedly arrives from Paris. She becomes immediately fascinated with this flashy young men, and as she learns of his sudden misfortunes, she is overcome with pity and love.

In meeting Charles, Eugénie, who, despite being a wealthy heiress, has had to make do with very little, begins to find her own voice. She sees possibilities outside her immediate environs. Her heart has left the cloister that her father has kept her in by withholding money and cultivating his family’s dependence. And so Eugénie acts on her newfound desires, eventually causing her father to clamp down even harder, stowing her away as he does his wealth. For Felix Grandet is not merely miserly his money; he is miserly with all things—food, attention, affection, and plans. Even his stammer is doled out only when it serves to his advantage. All things exist to serve his greedy ends.

Throughout the book, Felix takes note of the household spending, even when the spending comes from his family’s own allowances. He expects them to live a certain way, storing up money just as he does. Extra lumps of sugar or pancakes for a guest are serious indulgences, not to be taken lightly.  Eugénie’s great crime is not that she wanted something, but that her desires caused her to treat her possessions as her own possessions.

In meeting Charles and releasing herself from her father’s influence, Eugénie finds her own power. But is this ultimately a good thing for her? The book’s treatment of the world outside is ambiguous. Charles seems to become his best self in the cloistered world of Saumur. On the outside, he is shallow and selfish. Poverty and quiet teach him to be different. Can he leave and remain that same man?
Eugénie certainly hopes for Charles to find success and remain her loving cousin when he steps outside. She has no choice but to remain with her father, always remaining faithful. Somehow, though, she manages to hold on to the independence she found when she met Charles. When she’s free of her father, she’s able to make choices to further her own self-interest in the way she sees fit. Her money gives her much of her freedom, but her purity of character gets some of the credit as well. She uses her money to defy convention, but her defiance is in devoting herself to goodness, choosing a sort of cloistered life for herself. In that life, “the greatness of her soul lessens the effect of the narrowness of her upbringing and the ways of her early life.”

The final lines of the short novel leave Eugénie in this cloister of her own making, and I wonder if she’s happy there. Balzac leaves the question open, I think. She does not seem angry or bitter, but we’re left with the idea that she feels a lack. Her money is no comfort. Instead, “money was destined to impart its cold glitter to her angelic life and to inspire a mistrust of feeling in a woman who was all feeling.”

Eugénie is the kind of character who could easily be written off as too pure, too obliging, too angelic, but I have a hard time seeing her that way. She is good, but her goodness is not weakness. In her, Balzac offers a character whose purity is her strength, and she is strong.

Also posted at Shelf Love

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