Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac

Eugenie Grandet is a quiet tragedy.

The eponymous character is the quiet and industrious daughter of a miser. His entire life is devoted to making more money, even faking a stutter to put other people off their guard in business transactions. Eugenie has known no other life - every day, she and her mother sit in their freezing sitting room (the fire can only be lit between November and April), mending and sewing. For her, this is not unusual, and she accepts at face value her father's complaints that they are poor and need to scrimp.

Those around her, however, have a fairly good idea how much money Monsieur Grandet has amassed, and plot to have a son or nephew marry her. Then her cousin appears on her doorstep, penniless and fatherless, and she gathers him to her heart, not knowing enough about the world to see his Parisian manners as a true expression of his shallow callousness.

Eugenie's life is ruined by money, by her father's love of it, by her neighbours' focused energy on it, by her cousin's consideration of monetary gain. Eugenie loves, truly, and her love is misspent. Money, having it, not having it, and others consideration of it taints the entire world Eugenie must live in.

Although Eugenie is shown as good and pious, Balzac does not let her off the hook, either. Hamstrung by money and a provincial outlook, she dwindles even as her fortune swells.

The prose is powerful and merciless. The story steps lightly along, building towards a climax that is not powerful but quiet. The uneventful nature of her fate is even more wrenching than a tempestuous tragedy would be.

In this book, everyone falls under Balzac's eye - the selfishness of Parisian youth, the ambition of provincial powers, the miserliness of Monsieur Grandet. Because of this, I'm not sure if anything could have changed to make Eugenie's fate a happy one - not if she was raised in Paris, not if she was given more materially, not if she interacted more with her society, not if she retreated from it.

Money is the root of all evil, in this world. And Eugenie's family has far too much of it while enjoying none of it.

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