Fascinating Study of a Blighting Avarice

Eugenie Grandet - Honoré de Balzac, Katharine Prescott Wormeley

<i>Eugenie Grandet</i> is one of the signature works of French literature, and Flaubert, who wrote <i>Madame Bovary</i> and is arguably the most celebrated French novelist, was supposedly greatly influenced by Balzac. It's easy reading <i>Eugene Grandet</i> to trace the line of realism in French literature from Stendahl's <i>The Red and the Black</i>, its predecessor, and <i>Madame Bovary</i>, its successor. All three concern themselves with people from the French provinces, which are presented as largely petty and grasping. All feature styles that are amazing in their command of details--rich but never rambling. All three novels deal with monomania. In the case of Madame Bovary, she seeks passion--the search for love (or lust?) rules all. With Julian Sorel of <i>The Red and the Black</i> it's ambition, as Sorel seeks to rise above his peasant roots. In this novel the ruling, blighting passion is avarice--money, gold, miserliness.

Mind you, that's not Eugenie's guiding passion--and I think that's the one aspect of the novel that makes me deny it a fifth star. This is a pretty short novel, less than 200 pages--yet richer than many a bloated classic that goes on for hundreds of pages. It's rich in incident, style and character--that comes through even in translation. It's easy to understand why Henry James thought Balzac the greatest novelist in literature. And indeed I can see a strong resemblance between Catherine Sloper of James' <i>Washington Square</i> and Eugenie. Except Catherine feels more real, more an individual and more the center of her own story. For that matter to me so do secondary female characters in Stendahl's <i>The Red and the Black</i>, let alone Emma Bovary. For a title character Eugenie seems rather pallid to me, more acted upon than acting. Her father and love are more interesting, more central to her fate--it's their avarice that matters. Eugenie never quite seemed real to me, but more the "angelic" kind of figure that annoyed me in so much of Dickens that I've read.

That said, yes, this is well worth reading and I'll remember this novel for a long time. Pere Grandet is a monster of miserliness like none I've read in literature. And I'm told with Balzac there's much more to him than one novel can convey. He embarked upon the ambitious project of linking his novels in a shared world, "La Comédie humaine," so minor characters in one often become the protagonists of others. And believe me, after reading this novel, this won't be the last I read of Balzac.