July 30, 2012

Paris In July: Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac

by Honore de Balzac
published in 1833
Penguin Classics edition: 248 pages

It just so happened, while I was reading this little novel, that we lost the electricity in our home. I sat by candlelight, much as Eugenie herself might have done, and was immediately thrust into the darkness of her life.

Hers is a life which is dominated by a rich father. He is a cooper, and a winemaker, who owns acres upon acres of land. He is wealthy beyond belief, but does this make him happy? Or, generous? He is a miser, a tight-fisted, manipulative, selfish man with a hard heart which can only appreciate his accumulated gold. As Balzac reminds us, "Misers thrive on money and contempt." (p. 131).

When Eugenie's cousin, Charles, comes from Paris to visit them in Saumur, he is unaware that his father has lost everything. Now bankrupt, Charles' father sees no other option but to shoot himself in Charles' absence, thereby leaving his son his debts as sole inheritance.

Eugenie's great sense of compassion flares, and she comforts her cousin with every delicacy she can find to put on the table (such as a whole bowlful of sugar rather than the tiny lumps her father portions out). She even goes so far to give him her entire collection of gold, coins her father has given her each year on her birthday, for of what purpose is it to her when she can offer Charles a future? Off he sails to India, after leaving her his valuables, and promises for a future together on which she rests all her hope.

This hope, and the memories she has of their two kisses on the garden wall, sustain Eugenie through great distress when her father discovers what she has done. He cannot abide the fact that she has given her gold away, given it to help someone else, and he confines her to her room with bread and water. Thus begins the demise of her mother, distraught over all the anxiety in the home, while Eugenie remains strong and calm.
'To put a girl of twenty-three on bread and water!...' exclaimed the President de Bonfons. 'And without just and sufficient cause! But that constitutes actionable cruelty; she can proceed against him; inasmuch as...'

Eugenie heard them talking about her, and came out of her room.

'Gentlemen,' she said, as she came forward with dignity, 'I beg you not to do anything about this matter. My father is master in his own house, and so long as I live in his house I must obey him. What he does should not be subject to the approval or disapproval of other people; he is answerable only to God. If you have any friendly feeling for us, you will say nothing whatever about this; I beg you not to talk about it. To criticize my father is to belittle us all in the eyes of the world. I am very grateful for the interest you have taken in me, but you would oblige me much more if you would silence the offensive rumours that are going about the town: I heard of them only by accident.' (p. 203-4)
Eventually, Eugenie's parents die. We wait for Charles to come back and fulfill his promise to her, for surely such a good and noble woman deserves such a happy ending? But Balzac determines to show us two important lessons instead. One, that money in and of itself can never satisfy. And two, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Luke 12:33-34)

May our hearts be in the right place.

(I read this novel for Paris in July, 2012, and also with Richard, whose views can be found here.) 

18 comments:

  1. Great review! I've not read any Balzac but this one sounds accessible and interesting.

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    1. This is the first Balzac I've read, and I was moved by his message regarding the accumulation of wealth. Our materialistic society does not address it often, but seems to place the value of money above all else. So sad to me.

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  2. I love Balzac, thank you for you review and youur love of things French.

    I fixed my bloc the only way I could, there is much to put back

    madeleinesbookandphotoblog.blogspot.com

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    1. It's. Not hard to love all things French is it Madeiine?! So glad your blog is up and running again.

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  3. Do not click on Madeleine for some reason it will take you to the dead blog. The address is correct.

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  4. My favorite Balzac! Just a few characters, a few events, what more does a novel need?

    One thing this novel does not do is connect in much with the big world Balzac creates in his other novels, where characters wander into each other's books and a big portrait of society is built up. Eugénie just exists by itself.

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    1. I'm intrigued about what you say in terms if a bigger portrait where characters walk into one amother's lives; I would have liked an expansion of that sort in this novel. Yet we do commiserate with Eugenie's life when we exist in her small world with her.

      Your comment makes me want to read more of Balzac...I found myself comparing this book to Madame Bovary; while they are completely opposite kinds of women, both authors look deeply into family issues.

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  5. Not read any Balzac in years, but remember enjoying this book.

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    1. Sometimes it's nice to read something powerful...but short. I'm weary of a few tedious reads that Will Not End.

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  6. Thanks for a great review of what sounds like a satisfying book. This is the kind of protagonist whom I can cheer for, noble in character. Quite unlike the French novel I read for my last entry of Paris in July, Bel Ami by Maupassant. Your comment is most welcome, Bellezza.

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    1. Arti, I'm hoping to get to Bel Ami soon, although now it won't be in time for Paris in July; how about Paris in November? ;) Anyway, how sad that the character seems to be less than noble. That was certainly true for Madame Bovary and even Cecile in Bonjour Tristesse (although it seems she came to recognize her "sins".

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  7. Wonderful review, Bellezza. How perfect that you read this by candlelight! I have not read Balzac--yet. His work sounds quite profound.

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    1. It was so interesting to be reduced to candlelight as Eygenie herself was. I csn't say that Ii'd always xhoose to read that way, though, no matter how many Austrn films make it seem glamorous. ;)

      I' really recommend this Balzac which was my first read by him, too.

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  8. The Drama! Balza is master of creating a good claustrophobic mood. Have you tried Zola?

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    1. Yes, I tried Emile Zola for the first time a few years ago. I've read Therese Raquin and loved it! (As I recall.) These French authors are something! They sure have a lot to say on societal issues that's important to me. And, I think that 'claustrophobic mood' is another effect achieved by such good writing.

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  9. I enjoyed this for the most part, Bellezza, but I also felt the writing was rather flat and uninteresting compared to something near-contemporary like Madame Bovary or Moby-Dick. I think I'd have to read another Balzac to say this for sure, but right now I don't understand why anybody would want to take on all of Balzac's novels as a reading project. Are there many more by him you'd like to read after this one?

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    1. Ah, well, when it comes to Madame Bivary what other novel can compare? Possibly only Anna Karenina. No, I'm perfectly happy to rest on my Balzac reading with this one. It was short, it was plain, I know what you mean about uninteresting...still, I liked that I could admire Eugenie's strength and liveliness (both inside and out).

      I'm ready to move on with Flaubert as we read Sentimental Education for the end of August. Thanks for sharing this Balzac with me!

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    2. I meant Eugenie's loveliness, not liveliness...

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