Sunday, 17 January 2021

On Eugénie Grandet, or my problems with Balzac

Spoiler alert: I usually don’t put up a spoiler alert even though I spoil everything, but Eugénie Grandet has an interesting plot and I will discuss significant plot points that you may not want to know, including the ending. 

1/ Eugénie Grandet, if you don’t know the book, is about the daughter of the richest man in Saumur, who happens to be a miser. There are 2 families in town competing for Eugénie, because of her inheritance—Eugénie doesn’t know because she’s not aware of how rich her family is, Monsieu Grandet knows they’re after his money but keeps hanging out with them in order to squeeze money out of them. Everyone in town watches and gossips and speculates about which family will get Eugénie, but everything takes a new turn when one day her handsome cousin Charles from Paris crashes her 23th birthday party. 

Check out this line.   

““Dear Eugenie, a cousin is better than a brother, for he can marry you,” said Charles.” (Ch.9) 


2/ Do I become grumpier and more irritable over time? I wonder. Or is it still Hong lou meng hangover? I mean, look at this passage about first love in Eugénie Grandet

“Eugenie took delight in lulling her cousin’s pain with the pretty childish joys of a new-born love. Are there no sweet similitudes between the birth of love and the birth of life? Do we not rock the babe with gentle songs and softest glances? Do we not tell it marvellous tales of the golden future? Hope herself, does she not spread her radiant wings above its head? Does it not shed, with infant fickleness, its tears of sorrow and its tears of joy? Does it not fret for trifles, cry for the pretty pebbles with which to build its shifting palaces, for the flowers forgotten as soon as plucked? Is it not eager to grasp the coming time, to spring forward into life? Love is our second transformation...” (ibid.)  

I cut that short—Balzac went on a bit more. I don’t doubt that her feeling is genuine, but I can’t get out of my head the thought that this is love at first sight, she barely knows the guy. I can’t take it very seriously.  

However I like this, which is said by Nanon the ugly servant: 

““If I had a man for myself I’d—I’d follow him to hell, yes, I’d exterminate myself for him; but I’ve none. I shall die and never know what life is…”” (ibid.) 

That’s a moving moment that may almost be corny, but so far Nanon has been nothing but a simple, faithful, and accepting servant, a cliché of a character—this line suggests that there’s something more. 

Later on, Nanon also secretly disobeys her master when he punishes Eugénie, though I’m not going to get ecstatic and praise the “realism” of the character after seeing the wide range of servants depicted in Hong lou meng.

3/ Balzac has sympathy for women: 

“In all situations women have more cause for suffering than men, and they suffer more. Man has strength and the power of exercising it; he acts, moves, thinks, occupies himself; he looks ahead, and sees consolation in the future. It was thus with Charles. But the woman stays at home; she is always face to face with the grief from which nothing distracts her; she goes down to the depths of the abyss which yawns before her, measures it, and often fills it with her tears and prayers. Thus did Eugenie. She initiated herself into her destiny. To feel, to love, to suffer, to devote herself,—is not this the sum of woman’s life?” (Ch.9) 

Such a good passage. 

This, of course, is about the 19th century. Now there are plenty of things for women to do to distract themselves. 

However, I’m getting rather fed up with all the stuff about moral qualities and love and sadness improving the beauty of the female characters. 

“From that day the beauty of Mademoiselle Grandet took a new character. The solemn thoughts of love which slowly filled her soul, and the dignity of the woman beloved, gave to her features an illumination such as painters render by a halo. Before the coming of her cousin, Eugenie might be compared to the Virgin before the conception; after he had gone, she was like the Virgin Mother,—she had given birth to love. These two Marys so different, so well represented by Spanish art, embody one of those shining symbols with which Christianity abounds.” (ibid.) 

Later on: 

“…answered the old notary respectfully, struck with the beauty which seclusion, melancholy, and love had stamped upon her face.” (Ch.11) 

Come on. 

Her mother also becomes more beautiful: 

“…his angel of gentleness, whose ugliness day by day decreased, driven out by the ineffable expression of moral qualities which shone upon her face. She was all soul. The spirit of prayer seemed to purify her and refine those homely features and make them luminous. Who has not seen the phenomenon of a like transfiguration on sacred faces where the habits of the soul have triumphed over the plainest features, giving them that spiritual illumination whose light comes from the purity and nobility of the inward thought?...” (ibid.) 

This is the way Balzac describes her at the beginning:

“Madame Grandet was a dry, thin woman, as yellow as a quince, awkward, slow, one of those women who are born to be down-trodden. She had big bones, a big nose, a big forehead, big eyes, and presented at first sight a vague resemblance to those mealy fruits that have neither savor nor succulence. Her teeth were black and few in number, her mouth was wrinkled, her chin long and pointed.” (Ch.2) 

Her yellow skin is mentioned several times throughout the novel. Now go back and look at the “angel of gentleness” passage again. 

Do you like those passages? I don’t, but can’t quite explain why I find them irritating. Balzac’s better at describing the house.  

4/ The miser is hard—his daughter’s suffering doesn’t bother him, his wife’s illness doesn’t concern him, the only thing that can soften him is the fear of losing his wife’s estate to the daughter. The only thing that holds any meaning for him is money. 

Eugénie does change through the course of the story, (almost) like James’s Catherine Sloper—love and belief in herself give her the strength to stand up against her father, for the first time in her life. But at the same time I can’t help thinking, is Balzac not one-sided in reinforcing the miser’s hardness and unreasonableness over and over again, and siding with Eugénie in the matter of gold? Of course it is her gold and she can do whatever she wants with it, but is it wise to give away all of it when she herself isn’t aware of how rich she is and that’s all she thinks she has? In Washington Square, Dr Sloper may be unkind to Catherine but he isn’t wrong about Morris Townsend and isn’t wrong about expressing his concern. 

Monsieur Grandet remains consistently himself all the way to the end. Once in a while he feels a bit bad, (almost) like he has a conscience, and there is one moment when he feels torn between remaining where he is and coming to hug his daughter but the feeling doesn’t last long. He thinks like a miser, talks like a miser, and acts like a miser—there is no complexity, no more depth to him, and he has that monomania, that pointless obsession with gold till the last moment. He is defined by a single trait, a single obsession. 

5/ There is a mistake in the book: in the first chapter, the narrator says that in 1806, Monsieur Grandet is 57 (his wife is 36 and Eugénie is 10). 

Now in chapter 12, the narrator says Monsieur Grandet is 82 in the year 1827, when he should be 78. 

6/ Nobody told me that Charles went to the Indies and became a slave trader! 

“Crossing the line had brushed a good many cobwebs out of his brain; he perceived that the best means of attaining fortune in tropical regions, as well as in Europe, was to buy and sell men. He went to the coast of Africa and bought Negroes, combining his traffic in human flesh with that of other merchandise equally advantageous to his interests.” (Ch.13) 

Fucking hell. I didn’t expect that. 

Balzac expands: 

“He sold Chinamen, Negroes, birds’ nests, children, artists; he practised usury on a large scale; the habit of defrauding custom-houses soon made him less scrupulous about the rights of his fellow men.” (ibid.) 

I don’t mean that I didn’t expect Charles to do it because of what I thought about him, I mean that I didn’t expect Balzac to write it in his novel. 

This passage is interesting: 

“By dint of jostling with men, travelling through many lands, and studying a variety of conflicting customs, his ideas had been modified and had become sceptical. He ceased to have fixed principles of right and wrong, for he saw what was called a crime in one country lauded as a virtue in another. In the perpetual struggle of selfish interests his heart grew cold, then contracted, and then dried up. The blood of the Grandets did not fail of its destiny; Charles became hard, and eager for prey.” (ibid.) 

That’s good.

Charles’s letter to Eugénie at the end is, I think, excellent. Cold, frank. I won’t put it here—you have to read it for yourself.  

7/ After the letter, which is written so well, Balzac throws this in my face: 

“Some women when they see themselves abandoned will try to tear their lover from the arms of a rival, they will kill her, and rush to the ends of the earth,—to the scaffold, to their tomb. That, no doubt, is fine; the motive of the crime is a great passion, which awes even human justice. Other women bow their heads and suffer in silence; they go their way dying, resigned, weeping, forgiving, praying, and recollecting, till they draw their last breath. This is love,—true love, the love of angels, the proud love which lives upon its anguish and dies of it. Such was Eugenie’s love after she had read that dreadful letter.” (ibid.) 

I’m sorry but what kind of bullshit is this? 

Throughout the novel, Balzac’s intrusive narrator keeps making generalisations about women—women this, women that…, which I find nonsensical and utterly annoying. This is even more annoying because it comes right after the letter, which is excellent. 

Remember that Eugénie falls in love with Charles at first sight and knows him for 3 days—3 days! She barely knows him, and more importantly, the Charles she knows is not him in his normal environment, but him in exceptional circumstances, staying in her house instead of living in Paris, and facing the shock of grief and loss of fortune at the same time. 7 years have passed, and I’m expected to think that this is true love and “the love of angels”? 

I understand that women in the past had confined lives, but I don’t think that I’m imposing modern standards on a 19th century novel. I’m sure that Jane Austen would have laughed at it, considering her views on first impressions and love at first sight. 

It is one thing to portray Eugénie as she is, it’s a different thing for the intrusive narrator to express that view. 

8/ The ending is thought-provoking, I can see why many readers love it. In a way she changes—she becomes hardened and turns part of herself off. But in a way she doesn’t—she is still a Grandet, her lifestyle remains exactly the same as when her father’s alive, and she puts on a mask before the world, just like her father. 

I think Henry James got the inspiration from Balzac’s novel and wrote a greater book. Apart from characters’ complexity, I think the difference is in vision. In Washington Square, Catherine becomes hardened and disillusioned as she comes to understand, and see through, the 2 men that mean the most to her—her own father despises her and the man she loves only wants her money. She doesn’t give in to them and in the end has her triumph—a triumph that has nothing to do with happiness, but it’s about dignity and self-respect. 

In other words, it is specifically about 2 individuals—Dr Sloper and Morris Townsend. 

This is Balzac’s vision: 

“She has the noblest qualities of sorrow, the saintliness of one who has never soiled her soul by contact with the world…” (Ch.14) 

His view, as we hear from the narrator over and over again throughout the novel, is that society is full of corruptions and calculations, everyone is scheming, dishonest, and full of flattery, and the only noble people are those who have no contact with the world and don’t understand its calculations and customs, such as Eugénie, her mother, or Nanon.   

In the end, having lost her illusions, Eugénie turns off a part of herself, rejects the world as a whole, and becomes a miser with her feelings. Everyone is dishonest, everyone is calculating, the only one who cares about her is Nanon. 

I don’t accept that vision of life. 

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