Saturday, February 08, 2014

Honore de Balzac, Eugenie Grandet


Opening Passage:
There are houses in certain provincial towns whose aspect inspires melancholy, akin to that called forth by sombre cloisters, dreary moorlands, or the desolation of ruins. Within these houses there is, perhaps, the silence of the cloister, the barrenness of moors, the skeleton of ruins; life and movement are so stagnant there that a stranger might think them uninhabited, were it not that he encounters suddenly the pale, cold glance of a motionless person, whose half-monastic face peers beyond the window-casing at the sound of an unaccustomed step.

Such elements of sadness formed the physiognomy, as it were, of a dwelling-house in Saumur which stands at the end of the steep street leading to the chateau in the upper part of the town. This street—now little frequented, hot in summer, cold in winter, dark in certain sections—is remarkable for the resonance of its little pebbly pavement, always clean and dry, for the narrowness of its tortuous road-way, for the peaceful stillness of its houses, which belong to the Old town and are over-topped by the ramparts. Houses three centuries old are still solid, though built of wood, and their divers aspects add to the originality which commends this portion of Saumur to the attention of artists and antiquaries.
(This is a different translation than the one I used, which was by Ellen Marriage; but it's easier to cut and paste.)

Summary: Felix Grandet is a cooper with both business savvy and extraordinary luck; he makes, inherits, and marries into multiple fortunes. He is also a miser, living like a pauper with his wife and only child, Eugénie; the servant of the house, Nanon, he gets for cheap because she is so ugly no one else will hire her. In 1819, on Eugénie's birthday, Charles Grandet, Felix's nephew, comes to visit. While there everyone learns -- Charles, of course, is the last to learn -- that the reason why Charles's father sent the boy to visit his uncle was in order to commit suicide; extraordinary debts have mounted up and he is killing himself to avoid the dishonor of becoming bankrupt. Before this comes out, Eugénie has fallen in love with Charles, who is something entirely new to her miser-dominated little world, and after the news comes out, Charles is so touched by her kindness and generosity that he too falls in love with her. However, Felix is sending Charles off to India to make his fortune, so they must settle for swearing eternal love to each other.

A subtitle of the book is "A Study of Woman," which could potentially set off alarm-bells, particularly given Balzac's pompous opinions about women, but the women in the book are drawn quite well. Eugénie herself is excellent, a quiet innocent put into difficult situations and surviving. But, of course, she must; she is not just a female character but a form of feminine strength. In the introduction to the edition I read, which was written by Richard Aldington, he criticizes some of Balzac's characterization choices:

Balzac risks alienating his readers from Eugénie and destroying the real pathos he has created around her by the bad taste of such remarks as: 'Before the arrival of her cousin Eugénie might be compared to the Virgin before the conception; when he went away she was like the Virgin mother--she had conceived love.' in trying to make her sound like female perfection, he comes near to making her ridiculous. And then we cannot help remembering that this transcendentally pure personage had easily overcome the scruples which suggested she ought not to read her cousin's love-letter to another woman while she was asleep. Of course, it is best that she should not be perfect, so why drag in the Virgin Mary?

I think this simply misses the point, however. Balzac is not trying to convey the idea that Eugénie is perfect; the whole point is that she is an ordinary girl growing into womanhood. The comparisons are not intended to elevate her but to underline the fact that there is in every woman some trace or shadow of that very potential that made the Holy Virgin, the Holy Virgin. Like the Virgin, Eugénie gives herself over entirely to love's Annunciation; like the Virgin, she stores up the things of love in her heart; like the Virgin, she remains true and constant to love; like the Virgin, she is pierced through the heart because of love. She's not the Virgin Mary, nor does Balzac write her as any sort of feminine perfection; her relation to the Virgin is much more like the relation of Dorothea to St. Teresa in Middlemarch. Growing up in a little provincial town under the utter domination of a miser, she still manages in her narrow and naive ways to show one of the profound potentialities of woman. That, at least, is clearly the goal at which Balzac was aiming.

It is said that Flaubert, not a fan of Balzac's work, nonetheless liked Eugénie Grandet, and it is interesting to compare this work to Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Emma Bovary and Felix Grandet both live usurious lives, the major difference being that Emma is ultimately ruined by it, whereas Felix goes on being successful until death takes him. (Balzac seems at times to take a certain amount of glee in building his miser up and up until the reader thinks the schemes would have to collapse somehow, and then finding new ways to foil the expectation.) The reason for the difference is that Emma lives her life on credit, borrowed money and borrowed pleasures on which she inevitably pays a high interest, while Felix drains other people's lives by taking more than he gives, 'giving' and then exacting penalties in cunning ways. In a society in which usury is rewarded, in which Bentham's defense of usury is enthusiastically endorsed by the educated, there is always more success to be had being a penny-pinching miser lending and ruining than a profligate borrowing and being ruined. And the reason is clear enough: the usurious life is the incipient form of the buying and selling of people, and enslaving is more comfortable than being enslaved. Charles Grandet exemplifies this as he makes his fortune in India literally buying and selling men; but Felix Grandet in his own way does the same thing all of his life.

And in the midst of it all is Eugénie Grandet, who gives freely, looks out for the interests of others, does not crave more and more, and who, having no opportunities to learn courage, nonetheless finds small ways to be courageous in helping others. She is the perpetual contrast. That is as it should be, too, for the opposite of usury is love.

Favorite Passage: Madame Cornoiller is the married name of Nanon, who remains faithful to Eugénie through the story.

Monsieur de Bonfons endeavored to put himself in keeping with the role he sought to play. In spite of his forty years, in spite of his dusky and crabbed features, withered like most judicial faces, he dressed in youthful fashions, toyed with a bamboo cane, never took snuff in Mademoiselle de Froidfond's house, and came in a white cravat and a shirt whose pleated frill gave him a family resemblance to the race of turkeys. He addressed the beautiful heiress familiarly, and spoke of her as "Our dear Eugenie." In short, except for the number of visitors, the change from lotto to whist, and the disappearance of Monsieur and Madame Grandet, the scene was about the same as the one with which this history opened. The pack were still pursuing Eugenie and her millions; but the hounds, more in number, lay better on the scent, and beset the prey more unitedly. If Charles could have dropped from the Indian Isles, he would have found the same people and the same interests. Madame des Grassins, to whom Eugenie was full of kindness and courtesy, still persisted in tormenting the Cruchots. Eugenie, as in former days, was the central figure of the picture; and Charles, as heretofore, would still have been the sovereign of all. Yet there had been some progress. The flowers which the president formerly presented to Eugenie on her birthdays and fete-days had now become a daily institution. Every evening he brought the rich heiress a huge and magnificent bouquet, which Madame Cornoiller placed conspicuously in a vase, and secretly threw into a corner of the court-yard when the visitors had departed.

Recommendation: This is a charming story with a fairy-tale simplicity and yet nothing cloying. Highly recommended.

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