Honore de Balzac (May 20, 1799 – August 18, 1850) was a realist writer and playwright who wrote with a precise observation of the environment and an accurate detail to character. Realism represents one of four styles of writing that evolved in a period known as the long nineteenth century, the other three forms of script were, romanticism, naturalism, and Parnassian. Furthermore, the novel titled, Eugenie Grandet is a brilliant analysis of the social, political, and economical history of France during this period. Moreover, the novel is an analysis of the relationship between men and women during the height of the bourgeoisie movement. Essentially, this paper will compare bourgeoisie culture to today’s societies. The conclusion will present some reasons for writing this novel and similar works of fiction from the romantic era.
This novel is set in the early nineteenth century in the quiet, melancholy French village of Saumur. Melancholy is an accurate picture of the town and the characters in the novel, because the characters evoke death, gloom, and deception. The author’s melancholic brilliance is on display in the opening paragraph of the novel. The following citation depicts the melancholic gloom of the novel.
“The writer states, “In certain provincial towns there are houses whose appearances arouse a melancholy as great as that of the gloomiest cloisters, the most desolate moorlands, or the saddest ruins. There is perhaps, in these houses, a combination of the silence of the cloisters, the desolation of moorlands, and the sepulchral gloom of ruins. In them life is so still and uneventful that a stranger would think them uninhabited, if his eye did not suddenly meet the pale, cold look of a motionless figure whose almost monk-like face appears above the window-ledge at the sound of an unknown step. These melancholy characteristics are sitting in the house in Saumur, at the end of the steep street. The street not much used nowadays is cold winter and dark in parts.”
It is the Grandet family household where all these melancholic, greedy, and sad characters meet. The head of the household is Felix Grandet. Monsieur Felix Grandet reminds me of the Grim Reaper because his main passion in life is to destroy, manipulate, and swindle everyone who encounters him. He is the largest landowner and mayor of the town. He has cheated his wife out of her fortune and position in life. Madame Grandet is a rich heir twenty years younger than her husband Felix Grandet, yet destined to die before him because of the neglect and pain from a marriage obviously, construed out of economic aspiration, rather than love.
A prime example of Monsieur Grandet cold and calculating behaviour came in 1789. This was a period in French history when the newly elected Bourgeoisie party had put church property, in the Saumur district up for sale. “Grandet went to the office bribed the district officer and slipped by his father-in-law and purchased the church property which had contained the finest vineyards of the region.” Rather than purchase the vineyard with his father-in-law, Monsieur Grandet preferred to destroy his in-laws chance of economic growth. Furthermore, life was changing politically for all French people. This change came in the period known as the French revolution (1789-99). The French government and society constituted of three estates. The first state being the clergy, the 2nd being the nobility and the third estate was the common people. The commoners were not only peasants and farmers; commoners were from the merchant class, lawyers, and skilled artisans. The third estate had executed a King and Queen in 1789. The third estate had endured 9 centuries of heavy taxes and oppression. Monsieur Grandet and the rising Bourgeoisie had not intended to relinquish this newfound political power and wealth. This is one reason why Grandet was so shrewd, miserly, and calculating with his money.
Secondly, Eugenie is the female protagonist of the story. For her birthday, she receives dresses from her mother and a gold coin from her father. Rival suitors such as Monsieur Cruchot, son of the town barrister and Monsieur de Grassins, the local banker’s son, court Eugenie. “The secret struggle between the Cruchots and the Des Grassins for the prize of Eugenie Grandet’s hand was a source of passionate interests to all of society in Saumur.” The author touches on the importance of wealth and ownership of property when discussing marriage. The two suitors were worthy of Eugenie, nonetheless, her father was more concerned about losing his property and wealth to one of these men’s as a son-in-law. The local population who eagerly witnesses the fight for Eugenie dowry state these words. “The former cooper was eaten up with ambition, and was looking for some peer of France, as a son-in-law, a peer who, for an income of 300,000 livres a year would overlook all Monsieur Grandet assets.” Accordingly, this statement gives you the precarious situation of many European families in the nineteenth century. People married money and titles. The rising Bourgeoisie for the past two centuries had financed and capitalized on the return of the nobility and monarchy. The Bourgeoisie party were interested in extricating themselves from the poverty and commonness of the third estate. The nobility had titles and they craved the economic wealth and genius of the rising bourgeoisie. Sometimes, it was a match made in heaven.
An unexpected visitor appears on Eugenie’s birthday in 1819. Eugenie’s cousin Charles Grandet arrives for an extended visit. Eugenie falls in love with Charles and they begin a nineteenth century romance. Charles delivers a sealed message to his uncle only to find out that his father committed suicide because he was bankrupt. In the nineteenth century, losing of a fortune is shameful. In direct contrast to today’s society it would have been somewhat of a noble thing to take one’s life rather than descend to a lower caste. In this world, prestige meant everything. Upon hearing that his father has committed suicide and he is penniless, Charles is heartbroken. Eugenie falls in love with her cousin, and she gives Charles all her gold coins to invest in the West Indies. Charles gives her one passionate kiss and promises to return when successful to marry her. Since the 16th century, Europeans were heading to the West Indies to make their fortune in the plantation system. The prime trade was in the selling of African slaves to work the farms. Slavery is outdated, but more interesting was how the Noble and Bourgeoisie society would allow first cousins to marry. This was a common practice throughout Europe. It was a way of keeping wealth and power within a family. In today’s society, a marriage between first cousins would be incest.
Monsieur Grandet discovers that, Eugenie has given away her life savings. He imprisons his daughter in her room for this deception. He vows never to have anything to do with his wife and daughter because he feels that they have deceived him. Eugenie mother is very ill and heartbroken. Monsieur Grandet’s legal representative advises him of the situation upon his wife’s death. Monsieur Grandet does not want to divide the fortune between him and his daughter. He reconciles with his wife and daughter before she dies and he then coerced his daughter into signing over her inheritance to him. Eventually old man Grandet dies of old age himself. Death truly adds to the melancholy of the drama. Before Eugenie’s mother dies, she states these words. ‘My child,’ she said, just before she died, ‘there is no happiness except in heaven. You will know that one day.’ In previous statement, Madame Grandet is reflecting on the position of women in nineteenth century Europe. Marriage was about possessions and all female heirs became an economical possession of their husbands. There is no love or romance because their husbands subjugated women. Madame Grandet was a millionaire; however, she looked and dressed like a peasant woman. Ultimately, Madame Grandet was saddened at the future for her daughter living in a lonely Capetian village.
The ending of the story is brilliant because it comes full circle back to the beginning, thus adding to the melancholic setting of the novel. Eugenie receives a letter from Charles, stating that he longer loves her and he wishes to marry a countess. Remarkably, Eugenie pays off Charles debt. She then marries one of her old suitors Monsieur Cruchcot, but he dies. Eugenie is now a wealthy woman. The audience in the words of the writer describes a vivid déjà vous of this story rotating to the introductory paragraph. The author states, “The pack was still pursuing Eugenie and her millions, but it had increased in size, barked more loudly, and encircled its prey according to a strategic plan. If Charles had arrived from the Far Indies, he would still find the same people pursuing, the same interests.”
In conclusion, Eugenie Grandet is truly a feminist masterpiece of journalism. Honore de Balzac is man who is very sympathetic to the plight of nineteenth century French women. Women did not achieve the right to vote until 1945. The French society was home to many unmarried women or single women who realized that marriage meant relinquishing of properties and social freedom. What fascinated me about this novel is the realist approach to the historical period and the subtle identification of the historical events in French history. I compare this novel to the, “Wives of England” by Sarah Stickney Ellis, “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte and “Little Women” by Amy May Alcott. All of these novels have strong female characters that persevere and overcome the stigma of their position.