Monday, June 29, 2015

Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac

For love or money
Eugénie Grandet is one of the better known works from Honoré de Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, and for good reason. This enjoyable novel, originally published in 1833, shows Balzac at the height of his storytelling powers. It boasts a memorable cast of stars and supporting characters, and makes some valuable and insightful points about love, greed, and loyalty.

The story begins around 1816, with occasional references to incidents of earlier times. In the quiet, picturesque village of Saumur dwells Monsieur Grandet, a master cooper with a talent for purchasing profitable vineyards and a shrewd eye for investment opportunities. Through hard work and intelligent dealings he has become a wealthy man, and is rumored to have amassed an enormous hoard of gold. Despite his riches, however, Grandet lives like a pauper and forces his family to do the same. He is an inveterate miser who gathers gold for gold’s sake and never parts with a single sou if he can help it. His home is furnished in squalor rather than splendor, and he rations out the family’s daily portions of sugar as if they were threatened with starvation. Though his habits may be ridiculously frugal, Grandet isn’t fooling anyone. His neighbors consider him the richest, most prominent, and most formidable man in the arrondissement, and they all long for a way to get their hands on some of his fortune.

Families with bachelor sons see the surest way to the old man’s treasure is through his daughter’s heart. Eugénie is an innocent girl, somewhat of a plain Jane, though not without her charms. Every young man of Saumur would be happy to take her for his bride, particularly given her eventual inheritance of her father’s money. Two families in particular offer eligible candidates for Eugénie’s hand. The Cruchots and the des Grassins are frequent visitors to la maison Grandet. Monsieur Grandet has no intention of marrying his daughter to either of these small-town oafs, but he humors both sides in order to see what favors he can drag out of them. Eventually, however, when a man enters Eugénie’s life that truly does captivate her heart, Grandet begins to lose his hold on his daughter.

There are some powerfully moving scenes of joy and sorrow in Eugénie Grandet, but this is by no means a sappy love story. Balzac’s bitingly cynical humor permeates the novel, and this reader found himself laughing out loud on more than a few occasions. The cast of characters is as vividly drawn as an assortment of Daumier caricatures. The reader derives vicarious pleasure through Grandet’s wily schemes. In his own despicable way, he is more likable, and more fun than Balzac’s other famous miser, Gobseck. Eugénie, in contrast, is the embodiment of chastity and naiveté. She begins the book as almost a fairy tale heroine, but becomes more real and more aware as the story progresses. The reader can’t help wishing her the happiness and love for which she seeks.

The downside to Eugénie Grandet is it’s a bit long-winded at times, and Balzac frequently indulges his preoccupation with financial wheelings and dealings, stocks and bonds, legal briefs and the like, which aren’t really my cup of tea. Notwithstanding such nitpicking, this is one of his best works. Though not quite as good as Père Goriot or Lost Illusions, it’s still a great read for the author’s diehard fans or an excellent introduction to Balzac’s work for those who’ve never read him before.
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