Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Eugénie Grandet

In many ways La Maison du chat-qui-pelote is a rehearsal for Eugénie Grandet (1833), Balzac’s first great novel and a great popular success.

The underlying story for the two works is similar, at least in the beginning. The daughter of the senex iratus, the angry old man, falls in love with the handsome stranger, the exotic inhabitant of a more worldly society of which she, kept sequestered, cannot conceive. That lover falls for her innocent beauty, and she for his urbane beauty.

As we have noted, this is a classic plot device in comedy. Like Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, Eugénie hands over her tangible treasure to her beloved. Like countless locked-away and innocent daughters and wards, she fall sin love and learns to resist the tyranny of the older man who seeks to exact obedience.

Now there are major differences between Eugénie and Chat-qui-Pelote. While the draper Guillaume in the latter story is simply a thrifty and conservative member of his class, Père Grandet is clearly unhinged by his avarice. We’ll get to the miser in a later post.

Unlike the bland heroine of so many comedies, Eugénie grows and learns in the course of the novel. In the beginning she is as one with the unthinking "ilotisme" of her mother. (Ilotisme, which denotes unthinking servitude, as with the helots of Ancient Sparta). At the age of 23, she is still a naive and dutiful daughter, who knows nothing of the outside world.

The arrival of her dashing and suddenly impoverished cousin, the Parisian dandy Charles Grandet, makes her doubt for the first time her father, subverting his commands in helping to properly feed and give comfort to the cousin, finally giving her gold to her cousin to help him off as he sets off to the tropics to re-make his fortune.

They have pledged their love, and she waits for him over the course of eight years. By the time she hears from him many years later, she has learned how to manage her father’s estate and takes it over at his death. An increasingly confident and fabulously rich heiress, she becomes a magnet for suitors, which she keeps at a distance with knowing irony. In many ways she has become her father’s daughter, thrifty and clever, but without his psychotic avarice.

The fairy tale should be completed by the return of Charles, ready to sweep her off her feet. The reality is that Charles has made his fortune, but by getting involved in the slave trade and, we are led to assume, even worse – “résolu de faire fortune quibuscumque viis” (resolved to make his fortune by whatever means). His innocent passion for the virginal Eugénie has been forgotten in the arms of woman of all races: "les Négresses, les Mulâtresses, les Blanches, les Javanaises, les Almées, ses orgies de toutes les couleurs". And in returning with a comfortable fortune to France, he has struck up with a well-connected but impoverished Marquis whose ugly daughter he will marry in exchange for a title and a position in society.

At first, Eugénie is momentarily devastated by the news. But in the end, she pulls strings and spends money from afar to expunge Charles debts from his father’s bankruptcy, allowing the marriage to go forward.

And she herself gets married – to a much older and rather unattractive judge who has been courting her for his whole life. This ambitious man is described in most unflattering terms – “ressemblait à un grand clou rouillé" (resembled a big rusty nail), and “une cruche –dont les cheveux ébouriffés ajoutaient encore à la mauvaise grâce de sa physionomie brune” (a jerk…whose ebony-tinted hair enhanced the ill grace of his brown complexion).

But Eugénie is empowered enough to dictate her own conditions – no conjugal relations, the ability to live her own life, and, in the end, she outlives her husband and inherits his property. She lives a rather sad and very frugal life, spending her time and money endowing churches and helping the poor – “La main de cette femme panse les plaies secrètes de toutes les familles.” (The hand of this woman bandages the secret wounds of all families.)

She becomes a kind of Mother Teresa:
"Telle est l’histoire de cette femme, qui n’est pas du monde au milieu du monde ; qui, faite pour être magnifiquement épouse et mère, n’a ni mari, ni enfants, ni famille.” (Such is the story of this woman, who is not of the world even in the midst of the world, who, made to be magnificently wife and mother, has neither husband, no money, nor family.)
A somewhat sad, if wise, end – but imagine how much worse had she married Charles and been pulled into Parisian society!

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