Honoré de Balzac: Eugénie Grandet (2777 words)

Andrew Watts (University of Birmingham)
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Written in 1833, Eugénie Grandet was, and remains, one of the defining achievements of Balzac’s career. The first chapter of the novel, “Physionomies bourgeoises”, was published in a weekly review, L’Europe littéraire, under the title Eugénie Grandet: Histoire de Province, on 19 September 1833. At the same time, readers were promised a second instalment, “Le Cousin de Paris”, and this had already been typeset when Balzac announced unexpectedly that the serialisation was to be interrupted. Three days later, on 22 September, he left Paris for Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and a first meeting with Eveline Hanska, the Polish countess whose affections he courted, mainly by correspondence, for the next sixteen years. By the time he returned to his desk in October, Balzac’s conception of Eugénie Grandet had changed, with the manuscript assuming the proportions of a longer novel than he had first anticipated. The contract with L’Europe littéraire was subsequently rescinded, leaving him free to publish the work elsewhere, and in its entirety. This first complete edition, curiously post-dated 1834, went on sale in Paris on 12 December 1833, and was incorporated into the fifth volume of Balzac’s Études de mœurs au dix-neuvième siècle [Studies of Nineteenth-Century Manners] (1833-37), later one of the key divisions of La Comédie humaine [The Human Comedy] (1829-47). Eugénie Grandet was further classified as a Scène de la vie de province [Scene of Provincial Life] (1833-37), and accompanied by a short preface to this sub-category of Balzac’s great literary enterprise.

As with many of his works, Balzac revised the manuscript of Eugénie Grandet several times, and continued to do so until as late as 1847. The most intriguing edition to appear during his lifetime, however, was that published by Charpentier in 1839, which was preceded by a dedication to “Maria”. The woman in question is likely to have been Maria du Fresnay, by whom Balzac is thought to have had a daughter, Marie-Caroline, born in June 1834. The dedication to Maria, “dont le portrait est le plus bel ornement de cet ouvrage” [“whose portrait is this book’s fairest ornament”] (Balzac, H. de, 1976-81, 3: 1027; my translation) has also led scholars to postulate that she was the model for the fictional Eugénie. These same readers have nevertheless tended to ignore that Balzac drew widely upon the inspiration of everyday life, and that he rarely, if ever, restricted himself to the like-for-like portrayal of actual individuals.

There is considerably less scope for disagreement on the status of Eugénie Grandet within the Balzacian canon. Together with La Peau de chagrin [The Wild Ass’s Skin] (1831) and Le Colonel Chabert [Colonel Chabert] (1832), this was a work that cemented Balzac’s reputation as the fashionable literary figure of the day, and an indispensable benchmark in his then rapidly-evolving mastery of the novel form. So successful was Eugénie Grandet, in fact, both critically and commercially, that Balzac would grow tired of the constant comparisons between this novel and many of his later projects. In a letter to Madame Hanska in February 1838, the evidently frustrated author decried Eugénie Grandet as a work “avec laquelle on a assassiné tant de choses de moi” [“with which they [critics and reviewers] have murdered so many things by me”] (Balzac, H. de, 1990, 1: 439; my translation). This judgment was echoed by Balzac’s sister, Laure Surville, who in her biography of 1858 recalled her brother’s annoyance at the extent to which Eugénie Grandet had eclipsed many other works that, though they were less well received, he considered indispensable to the narrative and thematic structure of La Comédie humaine: “Mon frère avait un faible pour ceux de ses ouvrages qui avaient le moins de succès. Il était jaloux pour eux de l’éclat des autres. Ainsi les louanges universelles données à Eugénie Grandet avaient fini par le refroidir pour cette œuvre” [“My brother had a soft spot for the less successful of his books. He was jealous on their behalf of the dazzling reception given to others. As a result, the universal praise heaped on Eugénie Grandet ultimately left him feeling cold towards this work”] (Surville, L., 1858, 99; my translation).

The narrative begins on a winter’s evening in 1819, in the small town of Saumur. It is Eugénie’s twenty-third birthday, and family and neighbours have gathered to mark the occasion in the distinctly cold surroundings of the Grandet home. Among the guests are the head of the local court, Monsieur Cruchot de Bonfons, and the banker, Monsieur des Grassins, who arrives with his wife and their son, Adolphe. The assembled company is watched by Eugénie’s mother, and by her father, Félix, a former cooper whose combination of miserliness and business acumen have enabled him to amass a vast fortune. There is little that escapes the eagle-eyed Grandet, and behind the pleasantries of a game of cards, he knows that his visitors are locked in a silent battle for Eugénie’s hand, and for the millions that she stands to inherit. In a moment of melodrama that reflects much of Balzac’s early ambition to write for the theatre, a knock at the door nevertheless interrupts the carefully planned hostilities. The stranger is Félix’s nephew, Charles, a Parisian dandy who brings with him a letter containing news of a disaster that has befallen the family. Grandet’s brother, Guillaume, has been forced into bankruptcy, and committed suicide. His last act was to entrust the elegant but unworldly Charles to the care of his Saumurois cousins, in the hope that they might help him to rebuild his shattered prospects. Félix has little time for sentiment, but he allows his nephew to stay until an opportune moment can be found to present him with the facts of his situation. During the two weeks that follow, Charles and Eugénie fall in love, a bond that is sealed when Eugénie makes a gift of the collection of gold coins to which her father has added on each of her birthdays, and that is intended to serve as her dowry. Equipped with the necessary capital, and like Paul de Manerville, another Balzacian dandy who sets out from the provinces to recover his fortune in Le Contrat de mariage [The Marriage Contract] (1835), Charles departs for the East Indies with a promise to return a wealthy man, and to marry Eugénie.

The weeks pass in silent monotony until New Year’s Day 1820, when tradition dictates that Félix will ask to see his daughter’s glittering dowry and, in reality, his own careful investments. When he discovers that the coins are gone, however, the enraged old cooper confines Eugénie to her bedroom, a punishment that continues for almost two years, until father and daughter are reconciled only at the dying request of Madame Grandet. Henceforth, Grandet’s passion for gold becomes a monomania that, in anticipation of the familial obsessions of Le Père Goriot [Old Goriot] (1835), grows in intensity until he, too, dies in 1827. Alone and abandoned in the selfish post-Revolutionary world indicted so often by Balzac, Eugénie is left to contemplate why Charles has not written to her once in seven years. When eventually she receives word of his return to Paris, the letter carries with it an announcement of her cousin’s impending marriage to another rich heiress, the nineteen-year-old Mademoiselle d’Aubrion. Disconsolate, Eugénie settles her late uncle’s outstanding debts, and consents to a marriage devoid of conjugal obligation with Monsieur de Bonfons. In reparation of her father’s avarice, she channels the rest of her colossal inheritance of seventeen million francs into charitable deeds, and devotes herself to religion. The close of the novel sees her widowed, and circled by another money-hungry predator, in the form of the impoverished Marquis de Froidfond.

Félix Grandet’s ceaseless pursuit of gold blights his daughter’s life, and it is with a characteristic sense of individual tragedy that Balzac reminds us of Eugénie’s unrealised vocation: “cette femme […], faite pour être magnifiquement épouse et mère, n’a ni mari, ni enfants, ni famille” [“this woman, made to be a magnificent wife and mother, has neither husband, nor children, nor family”] (Balzac, H. de, 1976-81, 3: 1198-99; my translation). For all that this is her story, and though it is she who gives her name to the novel’s title, Eugénie is not, however, the central figure in the narrative. This role belongs to Félix Grandet himself, a character whose avarice Balzac was sure would live long in literary memory: “Molière”, he boasted to Madame Hanska in 1844, in reference to the protagonist of the comic drama L’Avare [The Miser] (1668), “avait fait l’Avarice dans Harpagon; moi, j’ai fait un avare avec le père Grandet” [“Molière had created Avarice with Harpagon; with Old Grandet, I have created a miser”] (Balzac, H. de, 1990, 1: 768; my translation). Grandet’s avarice is certainly raised to epic proportions, even by the standards of the great provincial misers of La Comédie humaine such as Hochon, in La Rabouilleuse [The Black Sheep] (1842), who eats his spoiled fruit first. None, though, can compete with their Saumurois counterpart, who has his hair cut only once a year, and whose “gifts” are limited to worn-out shoes, rotten vegetables, and an old watch that he gives to his maidservant, Nanon, in return for two decades of unstinting service.

While Balzac’s treatment of Grandet is infused with moments of comic exaggeration, it is nevertheless important to underline that he rarely loses sight of the historical realism underpinning the old cooper’s career. The foundations of Grandet’s fortune are laid in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, when he purchases an abbey and other lands confiscated from the Church. Under the Consulate, he levers himself into the position of town mayor, and quietly abuses his authority to build roads leading to and from his property. Later, when he is relieved of this position by a Napoleonic Empire suspicious of his true political allegiance, Grandet wastes no time in turning his hand to finance, lending money at an exorbitant rate of interest and, with the return of the Bourbon monarchy in 1815, investing in new government bonds. These shrewd operations make him less of a miser than a fictional embodiment of recent French history, an opportunist who can adapt his methods according to political circumstance, and whose intellectual ability, the narrators suggests, “eût été glorieusement utile à la France” [“could have been gloriously useful to France”] (Balzac, H. de, 1976-81, 3: 1110); my translation). Seen in this perspective, Grandet emerges as one of Balzac’s most energetic provincials, a man perfectly in tune with, but ultimately superior to, his native environment.

One of the principal challenges faced by Balzac in Eugénie Grandet was how to generate dramatic interest from an apparently mundane small-town setting. The theme of provincial life had a long history in French literature before the 1830s, though an enduring tradition of theatrical satire, exemplified by Molière’s Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (1669), meant that provincial characters often appeared as little more than one-dimensional figures of fun. This was not the only obstacle to the development of small-town life as a literary theme, however, since by the early nineteenth century, French novelists had also begun to turn their attention away from the relative familiarity of the provinces, and towards a preference for more exotic settings. Encouraged by the success with which several of his contemporaries – principally Stendhal, with Le Rouge et le Noir [The Red and the Black] (1830) – had begun to reverse this trend, Balzac nevertheless sensed an opportunity to depict the provinces through a new lens, one that would invest small towns such as Saumur with an interest and exoticism of their own. This ambition is reflected with particular clarity in the 1833 preface to Eugénie Grandet, in which he appointed himself to the task of mining the under-exploited resources of the provincial setting:

Il se rencontre au fond des provinces quelques têtes dignes d’une étude sérieuse, des caractères pleins d’originalité, des existences tranquilles à la superficie, et que ravagent secrètement de tumultueuses passions [. . .]. Si tout arrive à Paris, tout passe en province: là, ni relief, ni saillie; mais là, des drames dans le silence.
[In the depths of the provinces, one finds individuals worthy of serious study, characters full of originality, lives that are calm on the surface, and in which frenzied passions are wreaking havoc. If everything happens in Paris, in the provinces everything simply slips by: there, life has no contours or protrusions; but there, dramas are played out in silence] (Balzac, H. de, 1976-81, 3: 1025; my translation).

The silent backdrop of the provinces offered Balzac the perfect contrast for the stories of domestic turmoil in which he was already a proven specialist, and, in Eugénie Grandet, he can clearly be seen in the role of detective, guiding readers through the ancient streets of Saumur, and escorting them, finally, across the shabby threshold of the Grandet home. Once inside, he demonstrates that, for provincials born into a life of monotony, even the smallest changes to the daily routine can become sources of high drama. Thus, Eugénie’s placing a sugar-bowl on the tightly-monitored breakfast table is interpreted as a sign of her growing love for Charles, just as her simple instruction to Monsieur de Bonfons at the end of the novel (“Restez, monsieur le président” [“Please stay, Monsieur le Président”], Balzac, H. de, 1976-81, 3: 1193; my translation) is no more than is needed for her neighbours to realise that she is to marry. Far from being, as its author claimed, “le récit pur et simple de qui se voit tous les jours en province” [“the plain and simple account of what happens every day in the provinces”] (Balzac, H. de, 1976-81, 3: 1026; my translation), Eugénie Grandet stands as a remarkable illustration of Balzac’s ability to transcend, while also perpetuating, the cultural topos of the small town as a place of boredom and inertia.

Eugénie Grandet is sometimes regarded as an anomaly within Balzac’s output, not least because, in a departure from the author’s famous system of reappearing characters, none of the key protagonists is featured elsewhere in La Comédie humaine. A closer reading, though, suggests that this is a novel with multiple connections to the rest of the Balzacian universe. Eugénie’s life of religious devotion, for example, with which she seeks to relieve her worldly disappointment, foreshadows the experiment in spiritual self-healing attempted by Madame de Mortsauf, in Le Lys dans la vallée [The Lily of the Valley] (1836). Similarly, Grandet’s battle with his late brother’s creditors hint at the tension between Paris and the provinces that would come to dominate Balzac’s later provincial works, foremost among them Illusions perdues [Lost Illusions] (1837-43). These parallels have not always been sufficient, of course, to disguise the novel’s minor shortcomings, such as the size of Grandet’s fortune, which even one of Balzac’s closest friends accused him of having exaggerated to unrealistic proportions (Balzac, H. de, 1960-69, 2: 462). Eugénie Grandet has nevertheless retained a constant appeal for readers who have been seduced by its vivid characterisations and narrative power. Even the literary critic Sainte-Beuve, one of Balzac’s earliest and most formidable detractors, was forced to concede that this was clearly the work of an artist climbing rapidly towards the peak of his powers:

Il s’en faut de bien peu que cette charmante histoire ne soit un chef-d’œuvre – oui, un chef-d’œuvre qui se classerait à côté de tout ce qu’il y a de mieux et de plus délicat parmi les romans en un volume.
[It would take very little indeed to make this charming story into a masterpiece – yes, a masterpiece that could be bracketed together with the best and most subtle of single-volume novels] (Sainte-Beuve, C.-A., 1932 [first published 1834], 583; my translation).

Works cited

Balzac, H. de (1960-69), Correspondance (ed. R. Pierrot), 5 vols, Paris: Garnier.
- - -. (1976-81), La Comédie humaine, (ed. P.-G. Castex), 12 vols, Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.
- - -. (1990), Lettres à Madame Hanska, (ed. R. Pierrot), 2 vols, Paris: Laffont, Bouquins.
Surville, L. (1858), Balzac: sa vie et ses œuvres d’après sa correspondance, Paris: Jaccottet, Bourdillat.
Sainte-Beuve, C.-A (1932, first published 1834), ‘Honoré de Balzac’, in Les Maîtres de la littérature française: portraits, critiques et extraits de C.- A. Sainte-Beuve (ed. J.-J. Mayoux), London: Bell, 576-95.

Citation: Watts, Andrew. "Eugénie Grandet". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 11 February 2008 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=5279, accessed 02 December 2021.]

5279 Eugénie Grandet 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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