Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Eugénie Grandet: descriptions, character introduction

1/ This is my first Balzac. Tom at Wuthering Expectations calls it his favourite one.

The translation is by Katharine Prescott Wormeley. 

Look at the description of Monsieur Grandet, the father: 

“Physically, Grandet was a man five feet high, thick-set, square-built, with calves twelve inches in circumference, knotted knee-joints, and broad shoulders; his face was round, tanned, and pitted by the small-pox; his chin was straight, his lips had no curves, his teeth were white; his eyes had that calm, devouring expression which people attribute to the basilisk; his forehead, full of transverse wrinkles, was not without certain significant protuberances; his yellow-grayish hair was said to be silver and gold by certain young people who did not realize the impropriety of making a jest about Monsieur Grandet. His nose, thick at the end, bore a veined wen, which the common people said, not without reason, was full of malice. The whole countenance showed a dangerous cunning, an integrity without warmth, the egotism of a man long used to concentrate every feeling upon the enjoyments of avarice and upon the only human being who was anything whatever to him,—his daughter and sole heiress, Eugenie.” (Ch.1) 

Very clear. Straight to the point. One comparison (the basilisk). Very different from descriptions in Flaubert, say. 

Eugénie Grandet begins with a long, detailed description of the street and its houses before the narrator mentions the phrase “the house of Monsieur Grandet”, and adds: 

“It is impossible to understand the force of this provincial expression—the house of Monsieur Grandet—without giving the biography of Monsieur Grandet himself.” (ibid.) 

Balzac then writes about Monsieur Grandet—the biography and the man. Then chapter 2 describes the house, in detail. An abundance of detail. 

Why so much description? some readers might ask. He means to contrast the lives of the neighbours, many of whom depend heavily on the weather for their living, with the comfort and wealth of Monsieur Grandet. The house is an extension of the man. 

What do I see? I see the luxury, but also notice “cold, silent, pallid dwelling”, “some resemblance to the gateway of a jail”, “red with rust”, “yellow with age”, a figure that is now effaced, “sickly herbage”, “dirty shelves”, “tapestry representing the fables of La Fontaine; it was necessary, however, to know that writer well to guess at the subjects, for the faded colors and the figures, blurred by much darning, were difficult to distinguish”, etc. (Ch.2)  

That’s interesting. 

2/ The sketch of Monsieur Grandet is striking. What a miser. I want to know more. But I’m not so sure about the sketch of his servant Nanon, often called La Grande Nanon because of her stature and strength. Several times the narrator evokes a dog—she is blindly loyal like a dog and Monsieur Grandet loves her like one loves a dog. Look: 

“In the famous year of 1811, when the grapes were gathered with unheard-of difficulty, Grandet resolved to give Nanon his old watch,—the first present he had made her during twenty years of service. Though he turned over to her his old shoes (which fitted her), it is impossible to consider that quarterly benefit as a gift, for the shoes were always thoroughly worn-out. Necessity had made the poor girl so niggardly that Grandet had grown to love her as we love a dog, and Nanon had let him fasten a spiked collar round her throat, whose spikes no longer pricked her.” (ibid.) 

I mean, what? Perhaps I have certain expectations because of Cao Xueqin’s depiction of servants in Hong lou meng, but I have always disliked the simple, blindly loyal and forever grateful servant trope. 

“Though she received only sixty francs a year in wages, she was supposed to be one of the richest serving-women in Saumur. […] Every servant in the town, seeing that the poor sexagenarian was sure of bread for her old age, was jealous of her, and never thought of the hard slavery through which it had been won.” (ibid.) 

These lines are, I think, enough. But Balzac goes further:  

“To the poor peasant who in her youth had earned nothing but harsh treatment, to the pauper girl picked up by charity, Grandet’s ambiguous laugh was like a sunbeam. Moreover, Nanon’s simple heart and narrow head could hold only one feeling and one idea. For thirty-five years she had never ceased to see herself standing before the wood-yard of Monsieur Grandet, ragged and barefooted, and to hear him say: “What do you want, young one?” Her gratitude was ever new. Sometimes Grandet, reflecting that the poor creature had never heard a flattering word […] Grandet, struck with pity, would say as he looked at her, “Poor Nanon!” […] Such compassion arising in the heart of the miser, and accepted gratefully by the old spinster, had something inconceivably horrible about it. This cruel pity, recalling, as it did, a thousand pleasures to the heart of the old cooper, was for Nanon the sum total of happiness.” (ibid.) 

Even if I accept Nanon the way I accept (and like) the caricatures in the world of Dickens (who feel utterly real in their world), personally I don’t like the “had something inconceivably horrible about it” part. 

However, it’s too early to say. Maybe she’ll change and do something interesting. 

3/ So what do we have? A very, very rich man—richest man in town (Saumur). A daughter, who would be an heiress. That makes me think of Washington Square, though this seems to be a very different book—the father here is nothing like Dr Austin Sloper, except for the wealth and the coldness. 

In chapter 2, our Eugénie turns 23 in 1819. 

I calculate that her mother is now 49 and her father is 70. That is rather old, no? Especially in 1819. Too old to continue amassing so much money without spending—what’s the point when you can’t bring money with you when you die? 

The miserliness of Monsieur Grandet makes me think of Ebenezer Scrooge—I see you’re wondering, Eugénie Grandet was published 10 years before A Christmas Carol

As Balzac introduces Madame Grandet and continues sketching the Monsieur, I’m starting to think that each character would be defined by a single trait: Monsieur Grandet economises in everything, even movement; Nanon the servant is loyal like a dog; Madame Grandet gives her husband a fortune but barely gets anything out of it but doesn’t ask because of her “foolish secret pride” and “nobility of soul” (Ch.2), etc. 

The one I expect to become more interesting is Eugénie. 

4/ Let’s look at the scene of Eugénie’s birthday—the des Grassins and the Crouchots are here, competing for Eugénie: 

“…this laughter, accompanied by the whirr of Nanon’s spinning-wheel, sincere only upon the lips of Eugenie or her mother; this triviality mingled with important interests; this young girl, who, like certain birds made victims of the price put upon them, was now lured and trapped by proofs of friendship of which she was the dupe,—all these things contributed to make the scene a melancholy comedy. Is it not, moreover, a drama of all times and all places, though here brought down to its simplest expression? The figure of Grandet, playing his own game with the false friendship of the two families and getting enormous profits from it, dominates the scene and throws light upon it. The modern god,—the only god in whom faith is preserved,—money, is here, in all its power, manifested in a single countenance.” (ibid.) 

This is the obsession with money in Balzac’s novels that people have told me about. I can’t help thinking, though, is it not too clear, too obvious what Balzac thinks about his characters and how he views things?

My guess is that the novel will be less about the titular character than about her father, and less about who she will marry than about the father’s pointless obsession with money. Let’s see.  


  1. Wonderful. Good palate cleanser if nothing else.

    The peasant miser is a common French trope going back to folktales and fairy tales. Balzac uses such characters several times. Maupassant, much later, has plenty of them. Those loyal servants are common, too, the most prominent being Flaubert's Félicité, although that book may well have murdered the trope.

    Honestly, a lot of Balzac's misers look to me less like tropes than clichés, but what is a trope but a cliché I like?

    I'm reading some Balzac now - nothing as good as this novel - and those descriptions of rooms are everywhere, his thing, something close to new in the novel. If I find the energy I will write these up.

    1. Wait, why palate cleanser?
      Knulp told me about the miser in Moliere.
      Tell me which ones have the blindly loyal servant so I can avoid them :p
      I saw a blogger complain about the detailed descriptions. Which Balzac are you reading?

    2. A short book with few characters after a long one with many. But perhaps your palate has been sufficiently cleansed.

      I've been reading Balzac's fiction about art, hybrids where a narrative is packed with ideas about painting or opera, with the essayistic part often taking over the story. "The Unknown Masterpiece" still looks like the best one of these. It does more, even if by accident.

    3. Ah.
      I've got "The Unknown Masterpiece", wondering if I should read it after or go straight for Père Goriot.

  2. Replies
    1. I see. Which one is a better choice right after Eugénie Grandet then?

  3. "Goriot" is the center of the thing we call Balzac. "Unknown Masterpiece" should be a curiosity but turned into something greater because later painters loved it.

    1. All right, noted.
      Btw, I know you never talk about top 10 favourite novels, but if you have one, is Eugenie Grandet on it?

    2. 10, no. 100, maybe? 200? 500? No, higher than that, if I've read let's say 3,000 novels.

    3. Right.
      I assume your top 10 has the Alice books (possibly together). What about Tolstoy?

    4. I suppose the first Alice book but not the second. So little room in ten. Probably Anna Karenina, but "favorite" seems so tied to lucky encounters in childhood, and I only read Tolstoy later.

    5. Ah. I first read Tolstoy when I was 20, Jane Austen after. I think most of my favourite books are from around the time I was in university in Norway and after.

  4. Dang. I don't understand the whole liquidation discussion in chapter 7.

  5. Balzac liked complicated financial schemes. They may be accurate, I don't know, but they sometimes sound like nonsense.

    1. Lol.
      I don't understand the liquidation thing and Grandet's attempt to avoid paying, and I feel like it's hindering me from understanding the character and the story a bit. But I guess I'll read more to see if it becomes clearer.