Novel Readings

“A bourgeois tragedy”: Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet

Using the hashtag #IHaveNeverRead, Penguin UK recently urged people on Twitter to “confess” their “shocking literary shortcomings” — an exercise in weirdly inverted snobbery that inevitably recalls David Lodge’s game ‘Humiliation‘. I’m actually less and less humiliated by the vast array of titles (classic or otherwise) that I haven’t read: there are just so many books, after all, and it only takes a moment to figure out for sure that I’ll only ever read a tiny fraction of them. And what counts as a “shortcoming” in someone’s reading depends so much on what purpose we think that reading is supposed to serve. Since I’m supposed to be something of an expert in a particular subcategory of literature, it’s easy enough to point to books that in some sense I should have read by now (Dombey and Son, say, or Pendennis). But even within those parameters, is it “shocking” that I haven’t read, say, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, or anything by Disraeli? What about Charlotte Yonge? And in the larger context, while I regret not having read Moby-Dick (yet) or Crime and Punishment (again, yet!), I hardly see this as something I need to be ashamed of.

You can probably guess where I’m going with this. Until now, I hadn’t read anything by Balzac: Eugénie Grandet (which is the latest selection of the Slaves of Golconda reading group) is my first. I have read about Balzac, here and there and especially at Wuthering Expectations, where, I realize, exploring the archives, Tom called Eugénie Grandet “Balzac’s best book” and his own favorite. I’m actually glad I hadn’t remembered that as I read through the novel myself. It might have discouraged me, as I found Eugenie Grandet pretty hard going. On the other hand, knowing why Tom rated it so high might have helped me appreciate it more as I plugged along. If Eugénie Grandet is indeed the best of Balzac, then perhaps I am not (yet) very good at Balzac. That’s OK: you have to start somewhere!

Because it’s what the library had, the edition of Eugénie Grandet that I actually read is the 1950 Modern Library College Edition, translated by E. K. Brown, Dorothea Walker, and John Watkins. It doesn’t have any notes: when I read more Balzac, I think I would benefit from them. It does have a brief introduction, which I looked over before reading the novel (I skipped any parts that looked like they’d spoil the plot). The most helpful bit for me was its explanation of the unprecedented importance Balzac placed on characters’ “material circumstances” — and the passing editorial remark that this is what accounts for his “characteristic openings,” which are “such fatiguing obstacles to most modern readers who prefer a more insinuating exposition.” Knowing that this info-dumping was a Balzac thing, I persevered through the opening of Eugénie Grandet, which is indeed dense with details which (to my newcomer’s eye) never really took on a great deal more than descriptive significance: did we really need to know that much about the streets, houses, trade, and residents of Saumur to appreciate the moral and personal implications of Monsieur Grandet’s miserly ways?

This is thin ice for a lover of George Eliot, obviously; more than once I have made the case to bored students (following Eliot herself) that the action of Middlemarch  can’t be rightly understood without her long sections of exposition, and my favorite chapter of The Mill on the Floss is “A Variation of Protestantism Unknown to Bossuet.” I’m a fan of telling! Showing can’t do everything. But I couldn’t discern any way in which the crux of Eugénie Grandet depended on the contexts so meticulously established: the tyrannical Monsieur Grandet didn’t seem in any particular way a creature of his time and place, any more than did his daughter, the almost-insufferably patient and virtuous Eugénie. She does, however, exemplify a specific ideal of femininity: “Women have this in common with the angels,” intones our narrator; “– suffering humanity belongs to them.” “To feel, to love, to suffer, to sacrifice will always be woman’s fate,” we’re told; “Eugénie was to be in all things a woman.” So on the one hand we have painstaking specificity, while on the other we have transcendent, platitudinous universals.

That’s not quite fair, though. Grandet isn’t altogether a caricature, and Eugénie has some surprises in store for us, as does Balzac, as he throws a elegant but tragically impoverished cousin into the plot to help Eugénie find her spine and then cheats us of either obvious ending: we get neither the tragic “daughter sacrificed on the altar of forbidden love” nor the comic “true love triumphs over bad dad.” Instead, things go in weird directions in this “bourgeois tragedy”: the cousin is morally degraded by making his fortune in the slave trade; disappointed in the lover whose memory (and “dressing case”) she has cherished against all odds, Eugénie nonetheless enables his marriage to someone else and then marries herself — after insisting her husband-to-be accept her terms, which include preserving her virginity. Left a rich widow, she continues the penny-pinching ways learned from her father in her own life but puts her wealth to good use otherwise: “pious and charitable institutions, a home for the aged, and Christian schools for children, a richly endowed public library.”

I enjoyed being surprised by the story in this way. I wonder if rereading the novel would help me see what it means: is it singular, for instance, a simple slice of imagined life, or is there a larger idea at work here, about money or marriage or virtue or love? There are definitely ideas floating around in the book: the other aspect of it that I especially liked, in fact, was the intrusive narration, which seemed a bit haphazard but provided many quotable bits: “Isn’t this the only god in which we believe today,” he asks, “money, in all its power, symbolized in a single human image?” “How terrible is man’s estate!” he continues; “there is not one of his joys which does not spring out of some form of ignorance.” “Misers do not believe an a life hereafter,” he tells us later on, in the passage that I thought probably came closest to telling us the moral of the story:

 the present is everything for them. This thought throws a horrible light on the present day, when, more than at any other time, money controls the law, politics, and morals. Institutions, books, men, and doctrine, all conspire to undermine belief in a future life — a belief on which the social edifice has rested for eighteen hundred years. . . . To attain per fas et nefas to a terrestrial paradise of luxury and empty pleasures, to harden the heart and macerate the body for the sake of fleeting possessions, as people once suffered the martyrdom of life in return for eternal joys, is now the universal thought — moreover a thought inscribed everywhere, even in the laws which ask the legislater: What do you pay? instead of asking him: What do you think? When this doctrine has passed down from the middle class to the populace, what will become of the country?

Against that dystopian vision, he puts the angelic figure of Eugénie — except that her sacrifice is made for love, not God (and an unworthy love, at that), while her “noble heart,” tender as it is, has been irrevocably tainted by her father’s example, “always to be subject to the calculations of human selfishness.” So where does that leave her — or us? Maybe when I read more Balzac, I will know better.