Friday, April 12, 2013

Book Review - Eugenie Grandet by Balzac

What is a miser? The dictionary says it means either one of two types of persons: (1) one who lives very meagerly in order to hoard money; or (2) a greedy or avaricious person. I’ve lately been reading Honore de Balzac’s famous novel Eugenie Grandet and am impressed by the 19th century French author’s perspicacious insight into the traits of misers.

This is an excerpt from the novel that illustrates Balzac’s perception:-

“A miser’s life is a constant exercise of every human faculty in the service of his own personality. He considers only two feelings, vanity and self-interest; but as the achievement of his interest supplies to some extent a concrete and tangible tribute to his vanity, as it is a constant attestation of his real superiority, his vanity and the study of his advantage are two aspects of one passion – egotism. That is perhaps the reason for the amazing curiosity excited by misers skillfully presented upon the stage. Everyone has some link with these persons, who revolt all human feelings and yet epitomize them. Where is the man without ambition? And what ambition can be attained in our society without money?.......

Like all misers he had a constant need to pit his wits against those of other men, to mulct them of their crowns by fair legal means. To get the better of others, was that not exercising power, giving oneself with each new victim the right to despise those weaklings of the earth who were unable to save themselves from being devoured? Oh! Has anyone properly understood the meaning of the lamb lying peacefully at God’s feet - that most touching symbol of all the victims of this world - and of their future, the symbol of which is suffering and weakness glorified? The miser lets the lamb grow fat, then he pens, kills, cooks, eats and despises it. Misers thrive on money and contempt.”

In the novel, Felix Grandet is depicted as the stingy, egotistic and mean-spirited money hoarder in suburban France against a money-grubbing social backdrop with the rise of the bourgeoisie. He rations everyday food for his weak-minded wife, his only daughter Eugenie and his loyal house servant, and purposely keeps his house in shabby disrepair, while making immense fortunes secretively. He almost seems to derive sadistic pleasure in ruling his domestic household with an iron fist.

The only two persons who have knowledge of his true worth are his lawyer and his banker. Knowing that these two are trying to get their nephew/son to win the hand of Eugenie, he plays off one against the other to draw the greatest monetary advantage. He employs devious means to cheat and benefit from his deceased brother’s creditors and insists on Eugenie breaking romantic ties with his nephew Charles, who is left penniless by his deceased father’s bankruptcy. Charles is forced to go off to the Indies to find his fortune and Eugenie gives him all her gold coins that her father has given her over the years, to the miser’s furious dismay.

When he comes back to France a rich man, having made his fortune from dealing in slaves, he forsakes Eugenie for an aristocrat, mistaken that she is poor.

Eugenie, by nature a kind-hearted country girl, after experiencing the heartbreaking end to her love story and getting to know about her father’s deeds, becomes a skeptic as she learns about the hypocrisy and shallowness of the bourgeois class. She later inherits both her father’s and husband’s fortunes (the husband being the lawyer’s nephew, who dies shortly after their loveless marriage) and lives on her own terms.

The loud and clear message in the novel is how avarice (in the case of Felix Grandet) and materialism (in the case of Charles) can corrupt the soul. Isn’t the essence of the story in constant replay in our money-idolizing societies, East and West, that have blind faith in unbridled capitalism?

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