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Literature / Eugenie Grandet

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One of the best-known novels of the French prose writer Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet is a classic study of avarice and its effect on family life, as well as of the manners of the provincial bourgeoisie. Published in 1833/4, it is set in the small town of Saumur in Western France. The titular character is the daughter of Félix Grandet, a wine merchant who through business, acquisition of land, inheritance, and shrewd investments, has become fabulously wealthy. At the same time, Father Grandet is a miser of epic proportions, neglecting the old house in which he lives with his wife, daughter Eugénie and housekeeper Nanon, and living for nothing but for acquiring wealth and instilling it as a value in Eugénie. Unaware of how much wealth Father Grandet really has, mother and daughter lead a peaceful and uneventful life until one day in 1819, on Eugénie’s 23rd birthday, Father Grandet’s nephew Charles, whose bankrupt father has just committed suicide, pays them a visit that threatens to throw a spanner into the works of the old miser’s wealth-hoarding machinery.

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This tightly-written classic of French literature offers a picture of how stinginess can be acquired and passed through generations. It also has a lot to say about the oppression of women through patriarchy and religious indoctrination. As such, it may be read as a proto-feminist work.


This work provides examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Once Charles goes out into the world and begins to amass wealth, his passion for Eugénie evaporates. Eventually, supposing that she would not be suited for the worldly lifestyle that he wants to lead and wishing to get ahead in society, he contracts a marriage with the plain daughter of a nobleman.
  • Abusive Parents: Father Grandet is stingy and despotic toward his kind-hearted wife, daughter and housekeeper and has absolutely no tolerance for any defiance on their part. When Eugénie gives away the collection of gold coins that he had gradually gifted her to her impoverished cousin Charles and refuses to reveal the secret of who she gave it to, he takes both the loss of the gold, which in his mind is still his property, and Eugénie's refusal to confide in him, personally, furiously berates her, declaring at one point that Eugénie "has no father", and forces her to stay in her room as long as she insists on hiding from him who she gave the coins to. He only ends the punishment when he thinks he can have a financial advantage from being in his daughter's good books, and his persistence in ostracizing her until then causes his wife's death.
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  • Arranged Marriage: Eugénie having reached an age at which, according to the customs of the day, it was high time for her to get married, there is competition for her hand by those who seek to benefit from the match. Father Grandet implies that he will arrange a marriage for her with a wealthy husband; when the conflict over her gold erupts, Madame des Grassins, on seeing that Eugénie has been crying, theorizes that they are trying to marry her against her will. Ultimately any such arrangements are averted and Eugénie does not marry until after her father’s death, though she does so due to social/religious pressure rather than for love.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Pretty much holds true for Father Grandet; it is certainly a case of Karma Houdini. He confirms who Eugénie gave her gold coins to (the answer to which was likely obvious to him anyway), retains control over his household and all the family wealth as long as he lives, and never has to suffer consequences for the wrong he has done to his wife and daughter. At least, he croaks (of old age) in the end.
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  • The Beard: Eugénie is implied to have accepted Monsieur de Bonfons' marriage proposal in order to get herself off the marriage market and prevent further pressure to settle down. It is self-evident that on his side, he is only marrying her for her money.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: The very religious Eugénie and her mother bear father Grandet's despotism in large part out of respect for the father's supposedly God-ordained status as head of the household. When the father forces Eugénie to remain in her room until she tells him who she gave her gold to, Notary Cruchot and Monsieur de Bonfons suggest suing him for wrongful cruelty; Eugénie remonstrates that "My father is master in his own house. As long as I live under his roof I am bound to obey him. His conduct is not subject to the approbation or the disapprobation of the world; he is accountable to God only." Her mother agrees. Eugénie is finally released when Cruchot suggests to her father that by reconciling with her, he will increase the chances of her accepting to renounce her mother's inheritance in his favor. This Eugénie does - to Cruchot's horror without any resistance whatsoever - in exchange for an allowance (which her father fails to pay her, except in the form of giving her some of the gold that Charles gave him on leaving France).
  • Blatant Lies: Father Grandet hides the fact that he is extremely wealthy, in order to justify his avaricious behavior. Shortly after his nephew Charles comes to Saumur, Grandet, who has just found out that Charles' father has gone bankrupt and committed suicide, tells him straight out: "You may perhaps hear people say that I am rich,—Monsieur Grandet this, Monsieur Grandet that. I let them talk; their gossip does not hurt my credit. But I have not a penny; I work in my old age like an apprentice whose worldly goods are a bad plane and two good arms."
  • Brawn Hilda: The mannish servant woman Nanon stands 5 feet 8 inches and was taken on by Father Grandet when he was setting up his household because he judged her physically strong enough to be able to get a substantial amount of labor out of her. She is not referred to as "la Grande Nanon" by the townsfolk for nothing.
  • The Dandy: Cousin Charles is a well-dressed Parisian youth who stands in contrast to his provincial relations. He aims to impress them and comes to Saumur at his most elegant and fashionable, with curled hair, an eye glass on a chain, a carrying cane, and a whole wardrobe of finery in his luggage. The guests who are present when he arrives find him odd, but the novelty of such an impeccably attired young man impresses Eugénie.
  • Downer Ending: This appears to have been the author's intention. Despite having inherited a vast fortune, Eugénie has only learned to hoard her money and continues to live under the austerity regimen originally instituted by her father, including only lighting the fire from November 1 through March 31, regardless of the weather. The money that she does spend is on donations to charity rather, than on herself. And she seems to be fated, for the time being at least, to a life of solitude without a family of her own. On the other hand, she is now able to live life on her own terms, and not on those of her greedy menfolk, and seems to be the wiser as regards the ways of the world than she was at the beginning.
  • Driven to Suicide: Father Grandet's brother commits suicide shortly after sending his son Charles to the former, due to having gone bankrupt.
  • Easily Forgiven: Eugénie is not seen to hold any resentment toward her father for his awful treatment of her and her mother. Once his anger abates and he has restored a veneer of tenderness towards her, their relationship continues as it had before their falling out as if nothing had ever happened. She even showers her love on him and feels sorry when he is on the point of death.
  • Extreme Doormat: Madame Grandet is described as being of the type of woman who fears her husband. She defers to Father Grandet in everything. Her daughter Eugénie grows up in the same vein. Her one attempt at asserting herself is crushed when her father punishes her by ordering her to remain in her room at his pleasure. Not only does she patiently bear her punishment, she refuses an offer to fight his treatment of her in court because "my father is master in his own house". Later, after the conflict has ended, she slavishly accepts her father's request to renounce her mother's inheritance in favor of him retaining the entire estate in his own name, thereby giving up the opportunity to become the mistress of a lot of property and thus strip her father of some of his power.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Father Grandet has mannerisms which give off a certain bonhomie and which suggest to those who come in contact with him that he has the potential for joviality and affability. In fact, this is all a pose, and when push comes to shove, his actions are those of a corrupt, self-serving, despotic miser.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Cousin Charles starts off as a romantic youth with genuine moral principles; when he hears of his father's bankruptcy and suicide, he is genuinely grieved that he has lost a father and is not concerned that he is now impoverished and will have to make his own way in the world. However, his good principles do not run deep, and once Charles actually gets the chance to do business, he becomes corrupt and greedy.
  • First Love: Cousin Charles is this for Eugénie.
  • Generation Xerox: After inheriting her father's wealth, Eugénie continues living according to the habits established in the household during his lifetime hoarding her revenues and not spending anything substantial upon herself or her house. However, her large donations to charity save her from becoming a miser in the full sense of the word.
  • I Will Wait for You: Eugénie waits for Charles for seven long years, idealizing him all the time together with her mother and Nanon, even though he never writes. Finally, Charles sends her a letter in which he encloses a check to cover the gold she gave him before he departed, with interest, and in which he explains that he has decided to marry for convenience purposes.
  • Honor Before Reason: One of the reasons that Eugénie gives Monsieur de Bonfons and Notary Cruchot for not wanting to sue her father in order to end his harsh treatment of her is that "To blame my father is to attack our family honor."
  • Hypocrite: Father Grandet. He exploits and invokes religion to exact obedience from his wife and daughter, while not being shown to be particularly religious himself, and in fact flagrantly committing the deadly sins of avarice and wrath.
    • Cousin Charles makes his fortune abroad as a ragamuffin adventurer, where he starts going by the pseudonym of "Charles Shepherd", so that his actions will not sully his reputation and good name back home in France.
  • The Ingenue: Eugénie knows nothing of the world but her little provincial town and the teachings of her austere father and complacent mother. She will suffer serious disappointment as the novel progresses.
  • It's All About Me: Father Grandet's enraged reaction to Eugénie's giving away her gold pretty much boils down to this, as do his actions in general.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Monsieur de Bonfons dies eight days after having been elected deputy of Saumur. The author specifically attributes this to God’s punishment for having married Eugénie in hopes that she will predecease him, allowing him to inherit her wealth.
  • Last-Name Basis: There is some of this between the members of the Grandet family. The mother refers to the father as "monsieur"; Cousin Charles is so unknown to Eugénie and her mother that the latter refers to him in the same way after he has spent one night in their home and he has to tell them to call him Charles.
  • Marriage of Convenience: upon returning to France, Cousin Charles decides to marry the unattractive daughter of the Marquis D'Aubrion as it would give him an aristocratic title and the place of gentleman-of-the-bed-chamber to King Charles X. In the letter that he sends to Eugénie to explain why he will not be marrying the latter, he openly admits that he does not love Mademoiselle D'Aubrion and that his marriage will strictly be one of convenience.
  • My Way or the Highway: Miserly father Grandet gets furious at his daughter Eugénie for giving away her gold coins; and pulls this card after essentially losing the debate to her well-argued defense of her actions: "Eugénie, you are here, in my house,—in your father's house. If you wish to stay here, you must submit yourself to me." - and promptly banishes her to her room until further notice.
  • Outdated Outfit: Father Grandet always wears the exact same outfit of breeches with silver buckles and a striped waistcoat and "those who saw him to-day saw him such as he had been since 1791."
  • Parental Marriage Veto: The day after Cousin Charles' arrival, Eugénie has already fallen in love with him and Notary Cruchot has already marked him out as a suitor for her. To her dismay, when Cruchot mentions out loud to her father the idea of Charles marrying her, Grandet, who knows that Charles is penniless and currently has no prospects, replies that he would rather fling his daughter into the Loire than give her to her cousin. Later, when attempting to make up with her after their quarrel over her giving Charles her gold, an offhand comment he makes in his ramble is that she may marry Charles if she wants.
    • Later, the Marquis D'Aubrion will not give his daughter to Charles until his father's bankruptcy debt has been paid. The Marquis would have relented in this matter on the intercession of a Duchess, but Eugénie voluntarily pays off the debt for him, allowing Charles to proceed with the marriage either way.
  • Passing the Torch: In the five years between Madame Grandet's death and his own, Father Grandet introduces Eugénie to his shrewd and avaricious methods of managing his assets. His last words to her before dying pass the torch in his usual authoritarian way: "Take care of it all [the fortune she is about to inherit]. You will render me an account yonder [i.e. in the next life]!"
  • The Scrooge: Taken Up to Eleven with Father Grandet, who is caricatured as a miser to put Ebenezer Scrooge to shame. Although a multimillionaire of feudal proportions, he limits the repairs made to the house, claims to his family that he does not have money, sometimes wanting to borrow back from his wife and daughter what he gives them, and on one occasion even intends to have crows shot to make soup for his household!
  • Self-Made Man: Originally a cooper by trade, Father Grandet rose to be a civil servant during the French Revolution, had a stint as Mayor of Saumur, became a successful wholesale wine merchant, and added farms and a commercial woodlot to his name. Through his exploitation of vineyards, other land, and ruthless investments, he became a multimillionaire. Truth be told, the dowry that he received when he married his wife helped, as well as the three inheritances that he and his wife got in one year.
  • Sexless Marriage: As a condition of marrying him, Eugénie requires Monsieur de Bonfons not to require sex of her. She persists in this course when she realizes that her husband hopes she will predecease him in order to inherit her fortune.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: Implied. Charles' descent from an innocent youth to a cynical businessman starts with his finding it profitable to engage in the slave trade.
  • Stop, or I Shoot Myself!: When Father Grandet finds that Charles has given Eugénie a case decorated with gold, he wants to remove the gold as compensation for that which she had given Charles. Eugénie grabs a knife and tells him that she will pierce herself through if he disturbs the gold from the case, which she must return intact to Charles. He gives in.
  • Taking the Veil: After Eugénie has been in her inheritance for some time, she gets a visit from the local priest, who, being a relative of the Cruchots, wishes to hint to her that she should marry Monsieur de Bonfons, who is of this family himself. The pastor tells her that in order to assure her salvation, she needs to either get married or become a nun. Eugénie brings up the possibility of entering a convent but the priest advises her against it, claiming that "Marriage is life, the veil is death" and that, given the charitable gifts that she makes from her wealth, it would be wrong of her to give everything up, and stop living in the world. She chooses to ask Monsieur de Bonfons to marry her.note 
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Madame Grandet dies as piously as she has lived; happy to leave this world for the next. Her last words to Eugénie are: "My child, there is no happiness except in heaven; you will know it some day."
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