Essay: Eugénie Grandet – Honoré de Balzac

The story of Eugenie Grandet is nothing, a mere narrative of every-day life, in which the self-abnegation of woman and the egotism of man are depicted in a series of interior,The lives of women, and especially of young women, are often strangely separated from the life of the principal personage of the house they live in. There are houses, especially in small country towns, where there is a remarkable difference of scale in the interests of the lives that are passed in them; where the father is occupied with vast pecuniary transactions, and the daughters are economizing shillings; where the father takes a share in considerable public concerns, and the daughters have the field of their activities limited to the garden and the Sunday-school; where the father gets richer or poorer every day, and yet no one in the household knows anything of the fluctuations in his fortune, so regularly goes the round of the little household matters, so unfailing are the fixed supplies. This separation of interests’this exclusion of the women from the man’s thoughts and anxieties, arising partly from true paternal kindness which desires to bear the burden of life as much as possible alone, partly from a well-grounded fear of the talkative indiscretion of young people, partly from an apprehension that if they knew the full gains of a successful year, they might count too readily upon their permanence’is not rare in our own country, but it is still less rare in France. The French girl is educated on the principle that it is well, in her case, to prolong the ignorance and inexperience of her childhood to the very eve of marriage. She believes that ‘Papa is rich,’ or she is told that ‘Papa is not rich;’ or, more frequently, she has no distinct idea on the subject, either one way or the other, but simply sees the smooth working of the housemachine, as ladies see steam-engines going steadily in some mysterious way, without inquiring how much coal they burn, or whether the supplies are likely to be ample or insufficient. The wife knows these things in most cases pretty accurately, but the daughter hardly ever knows them till she is a married woman; perhaps even then her knowledge will be limited to the extent of her own dowry, until the old man dies, and his last will and testament reveals the secret of his affairs. In some exceptional cases the mother is treated with the same reserve, and is purposely kept in ignorance of the progress of an increasing fortune, lest her expenditure should hinder accumulation. The most perfect type of the money-maker deeply enjoys secrecy for itself; he feels as if his beloved treasure would be less securely his own if another knew the full extent of it. He likes the vague reputation for wealth, but he is intensely, even morbidly, anxious that the reputation should remain vague, and he dreads an approach to any accurate publicity.
All communications concerning household matters passed directly between old Grandet and the strong servant, la grande Nanon, whilst Madame Grandet and her daughter sat in the gloomy salon, by their accustomed window. Hardly any money passed through their hands. M. Grandet gave a few gold pieces occasionally, but always asked for them back again, one by one, under pretext that he had no change. Since his wife was so entirely excluded from the government of her own house, it is unnecessary to add that she was permitted to take no part in the administration of old Grandet’s estates. He managed everything for himself, and he managed everything so well that his riches increased prodigiously.
At the ripe age of twenty-three Eug??nie Grandet knew as much of the world as a young nun, and as much of money matters as a baby. The old man’s reserved ways and frequent harshness had driven the two women to seek consolation in each other’s affection, and that affection had come to be their whole life. Madame Grandet could not enlarge her daughter’s mind beyond the narrow circle of her limited and sad experience, but the warmth of her tender maternal love did good to Eug??nie’s heart, and strengthened it with gentle nurture. A girl so educated was likely, if ever she loved a man, to love him with the greatest singleness and persistence. Having had no experience of variety in affection, she would probably concentrate all her strength of feeling in a single devoted attachment, of which the good or evil effects would color her whole life.
The mixture of womanly self-reliance in Eug??nie’s character with the hesitation of the most absolute inexperience in love affairs, the completeness with which at last she invested her happiness in the hope of her cousin’s enduring affection and fortunate return, are painted with great care and the most finished detail. A girl in Eug??nie’s position, totally ignorant of men and men’s ways, easily puts her trust and confidence in the first male creature that she loves. The gravity of character which a superior young woman acquires after twenty, when her life is dull and solitary and occupied in the discharge of monotonous duties, gives to her first love affair a seriousness beyond the evanescent attachments of children in their teens. In this case the seriousness of the attachment was on the female side considerably enhanced by the melancholy circumstances of the case. The scene on the f??te-day, when the money was not forthcoming, is one of the most dramatic in Balzac. It ends by a discovery of the girl’s secret, and, to punish her, the old man imprisons her in her own room on a diet of bread and water, happily varied in practice by the devotion of the servant-woman, who at great risk conveys to her more substantial aliments.

The old man’s temper after this produces complete domestic misery. His wife, whose health has been declining for years, is unable to bear the wretched moral atmosphere she has to live in, the constant unkindness, the separation from her daughter; so she loses her remnant of strength and quickly passes away. Eug??nie is now dreadfully isolated, having nobody to love her but old Nanon. Finally Grandet himself dies, and then Eug??nie finds herself the possession of an enormous fortune.So ended poor Eug??nie’s dream of seven years. Charles is punished by learning, too late, the extent of her enormous fortune. She adds a little to his punishment by paying what remains due to his father’s creditors. Afterwards, persuaded by her religious adviser, she marries a magistrate capable of attending to her affairs, but her life is a broken life.

Balzac’s desire to anchor Eug??nie in more than one world: she must represent enduring beauty, celestial beauty in particular, yet remain of this world, and the reference to slight blemishes in her physical makeup, such as the smallpox which ruined her complexion, achieved the secularization and convey the fact of exile. Despite her many virtues, however, Nanon is no exile from heaven. What distinguishes her, as the last line of the novel tells us, is that she does not have wits enough to understand the corruption of the world. Eug??nie, on the other hand, overcomes her initial na??vet??, learns to assess those about her at their worth, and follows her confessor’s advice by coming to terms with the world, albeit uneasily. Her heavenly antecedents and destiny, which may have been clich??s at the outset, allow evaluation of her career in the world and explain the nature of her compromise with it, notably in her insistence on remaining a virgin.a single maidservant, a tall, strong, ugly, devotedly faithful, and simple-hearted creature, who worked all day long at man’s work and woman’s work, not being ornamental in the least, but useful to the utmost of a domestic’s possible utility.

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