The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Eugénie Grandet

Posted on: November 18, 2006

Honoré de Balzac is one of the few classics author whose books I can quickly read. There is something about his prose style that makes my mind and eyes run along to the next word, eager to see what is coming next. His characters, even the minor ones, are memorable and really fill the story up. They will make you laugh archly, in fun, in derision, with disbelief, with irony. This particular skill reminds me of Jane Austen.

And Eugénie Grandet is as if not more moralistic than Mansfield Park. Unfortunately this tone bothered me more in the former. If my memory correctly serves the number of fun, pointed, ironic, deadly accurate moments of narrative perception was more balanced in Austen’s work. Grandet more obviously suffered as Balzac was wont to go on and on about true Christian duty, old faces made beautiful by spiritual transfiguration, pious almost angelic women constantly being compared to the Virgin Mary pre & post-anunciation. The patriarchal condescension to women and their lot of love and sorrow and self-sacrifice didn’t help.

(I know, I know, different times, different mores. If the novel had been better I would not have minded.)

It came as a surprise to me as Le Père Goriot moral tone was not as heavy-handed or handled so clumsily. I did notice that the Grandet scenes in Paris adopted the sharper, archer more amusing tone that I am used to. Perhaps the sombre Christian moralising that filled most of the novel was done to fit the rural setting and its inhabitants. I prefer my social values lectures to have style.

The story is centered on the Grandet family. There is the miser Grandet who would hesitate if given the choice between saving his daughter or a bag of gold from a burning building. Madame Grandet the epitome of the subservient, quiet, long suffering Christian wife who de Balzac loves to admire and whose hearty constitution–an inherent family trait–her husband most appreciates. Nanon, the physically ugly but spiritually radiant, sensible, browbeaten yet ever faithful servant that de Balzac loves to shower with praises. And Eugénie Grandet, the usually docile, loving, deeply religious yet fiercely individual daughter.

I loved how de Balzac developed her character. She had gumption and fortitude and, to de Balzac’s credit, her shining goodness never cloyed. As time goes on we see her own flaws but she never loses her grace or quiet force of nature. Of course she does not have a happy ending but she’s a character who you admire to the end. I could not buy all that “eye on the heavenly prize” talk but I could not begrudge her this comfort, considering how everything else turned out.

Yes, a fairly good book.

On a different note, I want to highlight the excellent painting from which Penguin Classics used a detail for its cover. It is “Early Morning” (1858), an oil on canvas, done by Mortiz von Schwind (1804-1871) an Austrian painter. It fit perfectly with the opening lines of the novel and the titled character. (Click on image to see in full.)

In some country towns there exist houses whose appearance weighs as heavily upon the human spirits as the gloomiest cloister, the most dismal ruin, or the dreariest stretch of barren land. Those houses may combine the cloister’s silence with the arid desolation of the waste and the sepulchral melancholy of ruins. Life makes so little stir in them that a stranger believes them to be uninhabitated until he suddenly meets the cold listless gaze of some motionless human being, whose face, auster as a monk’s, peers from above the window-sill at the sound of a stranger’s footfall.

schwind_moritz_von_early_morning.jpg

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2 Responses to "Eugénie Grandet"

It’s interesting what you say about Eugenie Grandet because in his day, Balzac was considered a writer of appalling moral depravity, and EG was the only novel that was popular with the critics. However, Balzac was still a bit sly, as his Christian characters (like Eugenie’s mother) are shown to be powerless and unhappy despite their faith – faith in fact looks rather like something the very weak cling to to excuse their passivity. Eugenie ends up by making the best of a bad inheritance by giving her father’s money away to charitable works. But it is a very different novel to the ones he usually wrote. You might like Cousin Bette also, which is more his typical mode.

Thanks for your comment litlove–it’s a good point you made about the passivity of his Christian characters. I hadn’t looked at them from the perspective of Balzac being sly..put’s things in a new light.

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