I’ve never met a miser, or certainly not one that could be said to meet the standards of the great 19th century authors. I have not, so far, come across anyone who, regardless of the size of their fortune, counts every penny, scrimps and saves and hoards. Perhaps it is simply that times have changed. The 21st century, it strikes me, is about ostentation, about displaying your wealth like peacock feathers. What is the point, we feel, of having money if you don’t spend it, if other people don’t know that you have it? Indeed, even the people who have little often attempt to convince others that they have greater means; they covet and even mimic, as much as possible, the lifestyles of the rich.
This kind of attitude would be completely alien to Monsieur Grandet, Honore de Balzac’s chief miser. Grandet was once a lowly cooper, who made his money through his own ingenuity [although his wife also brought with her a large income]. Yet, as with many people skilled in business, he is not exactly brimming with virtues; indeed, he is crafty and manipulative, affecting a stutter and partial deafness in order to bamboozle competitors and, when asked a difficult question, maintains that he must discuss it with his wife [who in reality is entirely subservient]. Moreover, despite his eye-watering wealth, he would rather the world thought him poor, because that way one is more likely to pick-up bargains and can avoid having to give charity to others [including his newly arrived nephew, Charles]. This is not to say that he is entirely successful in this regard; other misers can nose out one of their kind, and it is said that hours gazing at his huge mound of coins has given his eyes a noticeable yellow, metallic glitter. Balzac, in one of the book’s best metaphors, describes Grandet as something like a cross between a tiger and a snake. The old man, we’re told, is adept at lying in wait for his victim, ready to pounce and kill, and, once he has his prey, opens wide the mouth of his purse to swallow his bounty.
“Grandet unquestionably “had something on his mind,” to use his wife’s expression. There was in him, as in all misers, a persistent craving to play a commercial game with other men and win their money legally. To impose upon other people was to him a sign of power, a perpetual proof that he had won the right to despise those feeble beings who suffer themselves to be preyed upon in this world. Oh! who has ever truly understood the lamb lying peacefully at the feet of God?—touching emblem of all terrestrial victims, myth of their future, suffering and weakness glorified! This lamb it is which the miser fattens, puts in his fold, slaughters, cooks, eats, and then despises. The pasture of misers is compounded of money and disdain.”
However, it should be noted that Grandet is not entirely villainous, or is not grotesquely, exaggeratedly so. Often 19th century bad guys are without redeeming features, are cartoon figures, but that isn’t really the case here. We are told that the cooper loves his daughter dearly, although he certainly doesn’t spoil her. Furthermore, he was the only landowner prepared to take in and employ the ugly, warty big Nanon. Yes, one could say that is this instance he simply spied an opportunity, and that he has had more than his money’s worth out of her. Yet it is also true that she is genuinely devoted to him as her benefactor, and he treats her with some kindness [he gives her his watch, for example]. Were the old man overly cruel or excessively unpleasant Eugenie Grandet would be a different book, a tragedy; as it is, with Grandet being tight-fisted but recognisably human, it is more of a light, domestic comedy of manners.
The title character begins the book as a naïve, but happy young woman. Grandet hides his wealth from her, and so she has no reason to complain about her situation, about the unglamorous, and often tough, nature of her existence. What Balzac does with Eugenie is very clever. She is a kind, caring and selfless soul, who thinks little of her own comfort, and therefore it takes the arrival of someone who she wants to make happy and comfortable to open her eyes to her father’s attitudes and behaviour. She wants to give her cousin nice things to eat, to arrange his room, to treat him, essentially, as befitting an honoured guest. Of course, all this hugely irritates old Grandet, who charges the girl with wanting to ruin him financially. For the first time, Eugenie notices how unreasonable he is, as he argues over a lump or two of sugar; more significantly, she is exposed to his callousness when he shows his nephew no sympathy in his grief, stating that it is more upsetting to lose a fortune than to lose one’s father. Charles is, in this way, the catalyst for Eugenie’s awakening, he, or rather her love for him, allows her to see her world differently.
“In the pure and monotonous life of young girls there comes a delicious hour when the sun sheds its rays into their soul, when the flowers express their thoughts, when the throbbings of the heart send upward to the brain their fertilizing warmth and melt all thoughts into a vague desire,—day of innocent melancholy and of dulcet joys! When babes begin to see, they smile; when a young girl first perceives the sentiment of nature, she smiles as she smiled when an infant. If light is the first love of life, is not love a light to the heart? The moment to see within the veil of earthly things had come for Eugenie.”
As with nearly all of Balzac’s major works money is the principle theme and primary motivating factor for many of the central characters. Grandet’s obsession with coin is clear, but he is not the only one. The des Grassins and Cruchots are, from the beginning, engaged in trying to win Grandet’s esteem and, in the process, win his daughter – a potentially very rich heiress – and draw her into their family. Even the foppish Charles is not without blemish in this regard; he too, at least initially, sees Eugenie as a way to secure his future following the bankruptcy and death of his father. Balzac, ever the psychologist, makes an interesting point about how, for Eugenie, Charles’ grief in some way obscures his real motives, that she sees in his tears proof of a loving, sensitive soul, not realising that sensitivity in one area does not preclude calculating behaviour in another. What is unusual about Eugenie Grandet, in comparison with the other Balzac novels I have read, is that the money eventually ends up in the best hands, but, this not being Dickens, the outcome is not a happy one, for the person who possesses the multi-millions is the one person in the book who least values it, who least craves it, who is not satisfied in owning it.
[Eugenie Grandet, directed by Mario Soldati, 1946]
I wrote previously that Eugenie Grandet is not a tragedy, but I guess that it is, in a way, because the good do not prosper, they suffer instead. Balzac makes no secret of his admiration for Eugenie, who is the most warmly described and exaggeratedly praised of all his saintly women [and there are quite a few of them throughout La Comedie]. However, for all that, and to my surprise, I did not find her excessively irritating. I think the reason for this is that, unlike Eve in Lost Illusions, she is not absolutely blind to the faults of others, is not essentially a doormat. She is, in fact, rather strong-willed and brave and perceptive, certainly after falling in love. For example, she stands up to her father on more than one occasion, takes a husband on her own terms, and so on. I must also admit that I found her devotion very touching, and not unbelievable. Yes, there was very little substance to her affair, and the cynical amongst us might scoff at the idea of holding a candle for someone for seven or more years, but one must remember that it was her first love, and those are incredibly potent, and that Eugenie was not exactly a socialite. Indeed, that is another of the book’s themes: the provincial attitude in comparison with the Parisian attitude, the worldy vs the cloistered.
While Eugenie Grandet lacks the fire and fevered genius of his later novels, it was nice to encounter the good-natured, the less intolerant and judgemental Balzac. Yes, he was, even at this early stage, fond of generalising but the book is mercifully free of the unpleasant comments about women [the old maid stuff in Cousin Bette, for example, where the title character is likened to a savage] or other races [the deplorable anti-semitism in Cousin Pons] that mars some of the work he produced towards the end of his life. Moreover, the focus of Eugenie Grandet, whose action takes place for the most part in one or two rooms of the Grandet house, is much narrower than most notable 19th century novels, including Balzac’s own Lost Illusions, which I consider to be his masterpiece, giving it a pleasing intimate feel. Indeed, the book has the sweet simplicity, melancholic undertone, and slow place one often encounters in Japanese literature or even Jane Austen [it does, in fact, remind me strongly of her Persuasion]. Personally, I prefer my Balzac strung out on coffee, unrelentingly cynical and melodramatic, but there is space for this sort of thing too, for tenderness and sentimentality and gulping down the odd tear.