[Note: I read this novel in March/April 2013 and posted a review on my Asia Sentinel blog on April 12, 2013. I’ve just dug out the review from my files and am posting it here with some minor changes.]
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 read Honore de Balzac’s famous novel Eugenie Grandet and am impressed with the 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 respective nephew/son to win the hand of Eugenie, he plays one against the other to extract the greatest monetary advantage. He employs devious means to cheat and fleece his deceased brother’s creditors and insists on Eugenie breaking romantic ties with his own 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 Charles comes back to France a rich man, having made his fortune from dealing in slaves, he forsakes Eugenie for a wealthy aristocrat, mistaken that the former is now poor.
Eugenie, by nature a kind-hearted country girl, faces the music after having her heart broken by Charles and discovering her father’s base deeds. She becomes disgusted with the wealthy class as she learns about its hypocrisy and shallowness. Upon inheriting both her father’s and her husband’s fortunes (the husband being the lawyer’s nephew, who dies shortly after their loveless marriage), she chooses to live a modest and philanthropic life on her own terms.
The novel makes one ponder on whether there is an effective cure for avarice and excessive materialism in our society of today.