Balzac immediately draws the reader in with his description of a melancholy house, the home of the Grandets. The Grandets live in Saumur (of the province of Anjou), and his description of the desolation of the house immediately sends shivers up my spine at the thought of living there. “In some country towns there are houses more depressing to the sight than the dimmest cloister, the most melancholy ruins, or the dreariest stretch of sandy waste.” Saumur is an agricultural town attuned to the weather and its effects on the vineyards. The streets are narrow and dark, the people live most of their lives on their doorsteps, and everyone knows everyone else’s business.
M. Grandet is among the wealthiest men in the town. At the time of the French Revolution he was a cooper (one who makes and repairs wooden barrels). He was literate, had married an heiress, and was in a position to benefit from the republican government’s selling of church lands. Through bribery, he obtained the best vineyard lands for a small sum – all legal if somewhat shady. M. Grandet displayed an understanding of how things work and continued to prosper. He became part of the local administration and worked to prevent the sale of émigré properties. He sold wine to the Army of the Republic. He made sure his estates were valued such that he paid little property tax. Although he had to quit as town mayor under Napoleon (who did not like Republicans), he inherited from several relatives around this time and continued to prosper. As such Grandet is a representative of the new social type for which the Revolution was fought to equalize the bourgeois with the nobility. At the time of this story M. Grandet is so rich that only his notary Cruchot and des Grassins the banker have any idea of his total wealth. Money is Grandet’s passion, and he is feared and admired by the town.
Personally M. Grandet was of retiring habits, speaking seldom and in predictable speech patterns. Starting with the Revolution he began stammering when called upon – people think this is a lack of education but indeed M. Grandet has adopted this habit much like Columbo wears his old raincoat to disarm his foes. He never makes a definite decision right away and always claims he has to ask his wife. He is small of stature and looks vaguely evil and most definitely avaricious. He is reminiscent of a Bengal tiger and boa constrictor. “He could lie low and wait, crouching, watching for his prey, and make his spring, unerringly at last; then the jaws of his purse would unclose, a torrent of coin would be swallowed down, and, as in the case of the gorged reptile, there would be a period of inaction; like the serpent, moreover, he was cold, apathetic, methodical, keeping to his own mysterious times and seasons.” Just about everyone in town has been in his money-lending clutches at one time or another.
M. Grandet is a social recluse. Only 6 people in the town were allowed to call at his house: M. Cruchot the notary, his nephew, his uncle the abbe Cruchot, M. des Grassins the banker, his wife, and his son Adolphe. M. Grandet loves only his money, which he counts nightly, and his daughter Eugenie, who will inherit his fortune someday. The nephew Cruchot calls himself C de Bonfons and is “Le President” or the presiding judge of the town. Both he and Adolphe Grassins call on Eugenie in hopes of eventually marrying the heiress. M. Grandet plays one against the other and seems to slightly favor which one whose parent has done him the most recent favor. All the town watches the two competing families and wonder who will win Eugenie. Some think perhaps neither, that M. Grandet may marry her to his brother’s son in Paris even though the two brothers do not communicate. M. Grandet’s brother is a wholesale wine merchant with ambitions of title for his son.
Life at M. Grandet’s house is bleak. He is a true miser, never spending money on food – they eat what is paid in kind for services, never even had game until M. Grandet acquired a woodland and a keeper who supplied them game. Eugenie and her mother spend their days in the parlor mending the household linen. No matter what the weather, a fire is not permitted before the first of November or after the end of March. The work of keeping things in repair is so exhausting that if Eugenie wants to sew anything else she had to take time from her normal sleep – as well as steal a candle (candles are carefully controlled by her father). The only company for the household is big Nanon, who had been taken as a servant when young and very hard up by M. Grandet. Nanon does all the work of the household and is doggedly loyal to M. Grandet because of his taking her in. She’s a strong, sturdy worker of limited intelligence but good heart.
In mid-November in 1819 it is Eugenie’s birthday. The Grandets attend church and hold court to all of their eligible visitors afterwards. Eugenie’s father has presented her with the usual birthday rare gold coin. She also gets a new dress, one of two per year. M. Grandet gives Eugenie 4 gold coins per year on special occasions allegedly as an accumulation of a dowry. Periodically he requires Eugenie to display her coins. Eugenie is 23 on this day, and the family talks of it being time for her to marry. Eugenie’s mother speaks timidly. She’s a good woman though there’s a “dim suggestion of a resemblance between her and some shriveled, spongy, dried-up fruit.”
Nanon goes to retrieve a special bottle of wine upstairs and nearly falls coming back down because the steps are in such bad repair. Mme Grandet observes that Eugenie nearly twisted her ankle the day before, and M. Grandet magnanimously declares since it is Eugenie’s birthday he will fix the stair. I think we are to understand he would never permit paying someone to fix the stair or anything else! He begins the repair when the visitors begin to call. Nanon is unobtrusively spinning in the kitchen when M. Grandet tells her to come join the party – by which he means bring her spinning into the parlor. The competition for favor with Eugenie begins with Le President’s presentation of a plant and later Adolphe’s presentation of a more glamorous workbox with the letters “E. G.” engraved on its lid. Eugenie is ecstatic over the box. She’s not used to such presents and looks to her father for permission to accept it. The Cruchots are aghast that the des Grassins have upstaged their present. All settle down with ‘sham affection’ to play cards. Only Eugenie, her mother, and Nanon are sincere in their simplicity. None have any idea of the wealth of M. Grandet.
Suddenly there is a knock on the door. Who could it be, all the permissible visitors are already present? It is a young man, M. Charles Grandet, the son of M. Grandet’s Paris brother. He has been sent with baggage by his father for a visit to this provincial society. Eugenie looks at him with wonder as he has the manners and dress of a Paris gentleman. In fact, in his bags are all the latest fashions and accessories. He has even brought the writing case which was the gift of his beloved Annette, a married Parisian woman now traveling in Scotland with her husband. We wonder why he has come to the provinces.
Charles expected to visit a provincial baron on a large estate –perhaps he’d do some hunting on his lands, etc. He dresses the part complete with freshly curled hair, black satin cravat, fitted overcoat, cashmere waistcoat and gold watch and chain. He is indeed handsome and represents himself as a Parisian well. Imagine the mutual shock with which he and the country folk with snuff-encrusted collars and dingy linen look at each other! The Cruchots and des Grassins frankly stare: “if a giraffe had been in their midst they could hardly have gazed with more eager curiosity.” To Eugenie he “was some seraphic vision, some creature fallen from the skies.” Eugenie hurries off to make Charles’ accommodations as comfortable as possible, thinking that among the family only she can understand his sensibilities. She insists upon a fire in his room, something unheard of in this miserly family. She gives Nanon money to run out and purchase a wax candle so Charles will not have to endure the smell of their accustomed tallow candles. And, oh, my, she’s planning to serve him sugar!
Meanwhile Mme des Grassins strikes up a conversation with Charles, flirting with him and inviting him to her house where he can meet both the wealthy merchant society and the noblesse. She is quick to size up the Grandets to him: “Your uncle is a miser, his mind runs on nothing but his vine cuttings; your aunt is a saint who cannot put two ideas together; and your cousin is a silly little thing, a common sort of a girl, with no breeding and no money, who spends her life in mending dish-cloths.” Adolphe says he once danced in the same quadrille as Charles at a ball given by the de Nucingens.
M. Grandet reads the letter from his brother. Astonishingly his brother tells him he is bankrupt and is going to commit suicide. He begs M. Grandet to watch over Charles, gently break the news of his father’s demise, and perhaps stake him to a shot as a trader in the Indies.
The visitors depart concerned that Charles is a new suitor for Eugenie. Instead, the Abbe more or less suggests to Mme. des Grassins that she establish a liaison with Charles to keep his focus away from Eugenie, who he says is not much to look at but is still the desired rich wife for Adolphe. Charles has promised to dine with the family in a day or two, and Mme des Grassins decides to ask some female company that will distract Charles from their prey.
M. Grandet does not immediately tell Charles of his father’s letter. Instead he suggests they all go to bed after telling Charles that he might amuse himself after their meager breakfast by looking around the town. He cautions him that, even though the townspeople may say the Grandets are rich, this is not so, they are poor. He calls for the candle from Nanon, not having a suspicion that it is wax because he simply couldn’t imagine such a thing in his house and because the purchased candle is rather shopworn. Charles is now beginning to see the house for what it is, a `hen-roost’, though he observes the house’s inhabitants don’t seem to realize it.
We learn of the house’s physical layout and in particular that there is a counting room for M. Grandet behind his bedroom. Only he has access to this room, and this is where he keeps all his title deeds and we suspect much of his gold. Nanon turns out a vicious dog at night that only she can control, and M. Grandet tells Charles he will have to call Nanon should he want to step out of doors at night. M. Grandet is startled that there is a fire in Charles’ room and amazed that Nanon is showing up with a warming-pan to warm Charles’ bed! Charles is in a bit of a state of shock and asks Nanon to confirm that indeed he is really at his uncle’s house. When Nanon is awed with Charles’ finery and in particular his silk embroidered dressing gown, he tells her he will give it to her when he leaves. She doesn’t really believe him. M. Grandet goes to sleep worrying about what to do with Charles, Nanon dreams of the dressing gown, and Eugenie is showing the signs of love.
The next morning Eugenie is up early and dresses with care. The world is alive and bright and shiny to her, she is full of thoughts of Charles. She worries she is not pretty enough for him, but Balzac corrects our impression up to now that this might be true. “..but in her, the beauty of the Venus of Milo was ennobled and purified by the beauty of Christian sentiment, which invests woman with a dignity unknown to ancient sculptors.” He says her beauty is of a robust type often found among the lower middle classes ` “…no doubt she possessed little of the grace that is due to the toilette, and her tall frame was strong rather than lissome, but this was not without its charm for judges of beauty….She had nothing of the prettiness that ordinary people admire; but her beauty was unmistakable, and of a kind in which artists alone delight.”
Eugenie begs Nanon to make a cake, a practically unheard of happening at the Grandets. Nanon obligingly wheedles extra flour and butter out of M. Grandet and later begs eggs of a tradesman to make Charles a late breakfast. Eugenie learns on a walk with her father that the fears of the des Grassins are unfounded: M. Grandet declares he would never marry Eugenie to Charles. She is very upset by this declaration and is comforted by her understanding mother when she returns home. Though nothing is explicitly said, Mme Grandet understands all.
Charles finally rises and asks for something light, perhaps a fowl, for breakfast. He does not yet understand the world he has entered. He makes do on the fresh eggs, and when he asks for butter Nanon exclaims he cannot later have cake if he has butter. Eugenie insists on the butter, and Charles unknowingly complicates the cooking for the day. He is served cream and sugar with his coffee, much to the disapproval of M. Grandet. Charles and M. Grandet retire to the garden to discuss business. The women throw him sorrowful looks as they realize he will now learn of the death of his supposedly rich father.
M. Grandet walks the garden with Charles and worries about how to tell him that his father has committed suicide. He thinks, “You have lost your father!” he could say that; there was nothing in that; fathers usually predecease their children. But, “You have not a penny!’ All the woes of the world were summed up in those words…” He greatly disapproves of Charles’ reaction, grief at the loss of his father, and instead thinks he should be grieving for the loss of his fortune. “But that fellow is good for nothing…he is so taken up with dead folk that he doesn’t even think about the money.” And so it is clear what kind of man M. Grandet is, he thinks of absolutely nothing but money.
Eugenie and her mother and even big Nanon are concerned for Charles and his consuming grief, but M. Grandet declares to them, “Charles is nothing to us, he has not a brass farthing.” He tells Eugenie about the bankruptcy and implies Charles’ father was an out and out swindler. Eugenie is not worldly wise enough to understand that a person can become bankrupt through unavoidable circumstances. M. Grandet says the only thing he will do for Charles is pay his passage to Nantes, from where presumably Charles can work his way to the East Indies and try to make his fortune – an idea presented in Charles’ father’s suicide letter. The old miser won’t pay his passage the whole way or give him any funds to use for investment, but Eugenie has no idea of this and declares her father good to pay Charles passage to Nantes.
But then Eugenie starts thinking, and slowly is beginning to realize her father is rich. Her mother tells Eugenie that M. Grandet might be strapped for cash due to recent investments, but the seed is planted.
Eugenie longs to comfort Charles and continues to be impressed with his nobility when she sees his extreme grief at the loss of his father. She urges him to try to divert himself by thinking now how to save his honor as a poor man and son of a bankrupt. Eugenie continues to try to think of ways to support Charles and is thwarted at every avenue: her father refuses the cost of their going into mourning clothes, he has an absolute fit when he finally sees the wax candle, tells Eugenie that there is to be no more sugar served at breakfast, etc. In her first words of resistance Eugenie tells her father that with the two hundred thousand francs he just made by breaking a vineyard owners’ resolution to hold back their wines he can easily help Charles. “The surprise, the wrath and bewilderment with which Belshazzar beheld Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin written upon his palace wall were as nothing compared with Grandet’s cold fury” when he heard this declaration.” Belshazzar was the last king of Babylon. The inscription was eventually interpreted as “Thou art weighed in the balance and art found wanting”. The divine menace against the dissolute Belshazzar, whose kingdom was to be divided between the Medes and Persians, was swiftly realized: in the last verse we are told that Belshazzar was slain in that same night, and that his power passed to Darius the Mede. This Biblical story is the source of the popular phrase “the writing on the wall” as a euphemism for impending doom that is so obvious only a fool would not see it coming. It also provides the origin for the similar expression “your days are numbered.” (Wikipedia).
M. Grandet tells Eugenie if she continues talking about this he will send her away to the Abbey, I presume a convent. But Eugenie will never sleep as soundly again. In her dull life empathy and the passion of love have been awakened for Charles and she begins to judge her father. “And this passion, which had its roots in the depths of Eugenie’s nature, should perhaps be studied as if it were the delicate fibre of some living organism to discover the secret of its growth. It was a passion that would influence her whole life, so that one day it would be sneeringly called a malady.” Portends of the story to come.
We continue to be repelled by the avariciousness of M. Grandet. Examples are numerous. I am reminded that there are parts of M. Grandet that are like the author – constant scheming to get rich quick, etc. But Balzac always failed, alas.
Worst of all, M. Grandet begins a scam to clear the debts of his brother (perhaps to keep injury from his own name) without having to pay a penny. He delights in the idea of getting the best of some clever Parisians. In the execution of this scheme, he invites the Cruchots for dinner, only the third time ever he has had dinner guests! In conference with them, M. Grandet begins his affected stuttering, which he had learned makes other people unwittingly adopt his point of view and finish his sentences for him. C. de Bonfons ends up suggesting that the creditors be persuaded to go through a liquidation process instead of having the estate declare bankruptcy with the vague promise that M. Grandet of Saumur would see to it that his brother’s accounts would be settled. But M. Grandet never actually said he’d pay his brother’s debts. C. de Bonfons ends up volunteering for the trip free of charge except for traveling expenses. Then the des Grassins show up, realize what’s up, and M. des Grassins gets the task by promising not even to charge travel expenses. Each is afraid the other will become favored in the pursuit of Eugenie of course.
In the night with big Nanon’s help M. Grandet leaves for Angers with a large quantity of gold – he’s heard that the price of gold would double there due to a shortage. His departure awakens Eugenie, who gets up and goes to Charles’ room. She finds him asleep over letters he is writing. Eugenie reads the letters and discovers he’s had a four year passionate love affair with Annette but that he as a penniless man with a bankrupt father is renouncing her. Charles knows he cannot return to Paris or his old life without money or reputation and figures he’d be in a duel in a few days as a ruined man if he were to go there. Eugenie is ecstatic that Charles is to give up Annette, then she reads on that Charles is interested in getting married and thinking of Eugenie. He trailed off his letter saying that Eugenie was someone Annette would approve of, “besides, seems to have…”. Obviously Charles was going to allude to Eugenie’s position as a rich heiress, but this never occurs to Eugenie. Another letter reveals that Charles is going to sell all he owns to pay his own debts. Eugenie is overflowing with compassion and love and thinks of how to help Charles with her own money.
It appears thus far that Charles is a man of character and nobility. He grieves most for his father, not his lost fortune. He wants to pay his debts and is willing to sacrifice to do so. But Balzac takes pains to tell us that there a core of selfishness in Charles. He grieves for his father because of the extreme love his father gave him, not so much because he loved his father. He does recognize the beauty of Eugenie’s character but thinks also of her fortune. And he has been trained by the long association with Annette to be a cynic and a materialist. “He had received the detestable education of a world in which more crimes (in thought and word at least) are committed in one evening than come before a court of justice in the course of a whole session; a world in which great ideas perish, done to death by a witticism, and where it is reckoned a weakness not to see things as they are. To see things as they are – that means, believe in nothing, put faith in nothing and in no man, for there is no such thing as sincerity in opinion or affection; mistrust events….” Indeed Balzac says even though he’d never had occasion to put his Parisian maxims in practice, his “egoism had taken deep root in his nature.” This does not bode well for Eugenie!
Eugenie grabs her bag of treasures – given to her as gifts by her father and others. It is worth 2,000 francs, enough money to help Charles. She goes to his room and begs him to accept her help as a sister. Charles hesitates – is he still noble? – but then accepts the gift with Eugenie’s pleadings. He gives to her in exchange a gold case with portraits of his mother and father. He asks her to keep it for him, it is too valuable and precious for his journey, and it has too much sentimental value to sell- it was the prized possession of his mother. If he does not come back, he says Eugenie can sell it and recover her loan. He also asks her to protect his parents’ pictures and to even destroy them rather than let them get into other hands. Eugenie promises to hold the gold box and pictures and gives Charles a look of unmistakable love. They seem to have the beginnings of a lovers’ relationship, and the next day Eugenie and Charles walk in the gardens. “The tones of Eugenie’s voice had grown strangely sweet; it was easy to see from her face and manner that the cousins had some thought in common. Their souls had rushed together, while perhaps as yet they scarcely knew the power or the nature of this force which was binding them to each other.” And yet when Eugenie told Charles her father was rich, he is not sure – he cannot imagine that he would not have helped his father and not let him die a bankrupt. We can see he does not yet understand M. Grandet.
M. Grandet returns from Angers 14,000 francs richer thanks to his gold deal. M. des Grassins comes to get his instructions for Paris and mentions that gold prices are up at Angers. M. Grandet tells him not to bother to send any gold there, that he has already been there and satisfied the need. M. des Grassins is surprised, how does M. Grandet do it? M. Grandet asks M. des Grassins to buy him bonds in Paris with the money he has made at Angers as well as proceed with the estate liquidation of his brother. M. des Grassins asks Charles if there is anything he can do for him while he is in Paris and Charles dispiritedly says no. But then M. Grandet announces that M. des Grassins is going to settle Charles’ father’s affairs. Charles is ecstatic and impulsively hugs his uncle. Eugenie is proud of her father’s generosity. But then the family notices what a great mood M. Grandet is in, and it worries them: “The vinegrower’s ecstasies never boded any good.” They all retire: all must sleep when M. Grandet sleeps.
M. Grandet’s lust for gold has been temporarily satisfied, and he is pleased he is going to get rid of Charles simply by paying his expenses to Nantes. So he goes on about his ordinary business, not paying much attention to the household. Charles and Eugenie have the time to court, and “Charles learned to think of love as something sacred” – not filled with the perils and storms of his relationship with Annette. Indeed, “He turned to this love in its purity and truth.” He even developed some fondness for the old decrepit house. Eugenie and Charles meet alone in the garden each morning, and later after breakfast Charles sits with mother and daughter in the parlor while they work.
Meanwhile the paperwork and activities necessary for Charles’ departure proceed. He signs over all rights to his father’s estate and makes out powers of attorney for the friend who is commissioned to sell his personal effects and for M. des Grassins to conduct the liquidation in Paris. He gathers all his jewelry, makes small but valuable presents to Eugenie and Mme Grandet and asks M. Grandet to help him sell the rest. M. Grandet examines the jewelry and offers to buy it from him for a little under 1,000 francs. Then Charles makes M. Grandet a present of some valuable sleeve-links. M. Grandet sees the presents Charles has made to his wife and daughter. He apparently has a feeling of guilt and says he will pay him 1,500 francs and says he only valued the jewelry as base metal and that it is probably worth this much because of the workmanship. He makes a point of paying in livres, not sure why, but surely that is some advantage to him. He also says he will pay his passage all the way to the Indies. One can’t help but think the jewelry is worth A LOT more than his estimation!
Charles is now ready to leave. He’s sold all his clothes and appears in a plain mourning suit. “He had ceased to pity himself; he had become a man. Never had Eugenie augured better of her cousin’s character than she did on the day when she watched him come downstairs in his plain, black mourning suit…” Charles tells Eugenie that his friend Alphonse has satisfactorily settled all his debts by selling his belongings and has also purchased with some leftover funds some trinkets he can take with him to the Indies to sell. He has his trading venture and 10,000 francs which two of his friends sent him – and also Eugenie’s 2,000 francs I presume? I wonder why Charles didn’t consider giving Eugenie back her money since he now has 10,000 other francs. Charles tells Eugenie it may be years before he can return and thus they cannot consider themselves bound, but Eugenie says she will wait no matter how long when Charles says he loves her. “Dear Eugenie, a cousin is better than a brother; he can marry you,” Charles declares. They kiss, “The purest, sweetest, and most perfect of all kisses.” Charles professes undying love: “Are we not married? I have your word; take mine.” “Thine forever” they said together and repeated it a second time. “No holier vow was ever made on earth; for Charles’ love had received a moment’s consecration in the presence of Eugenie’s simple sincerity.”
We finally find out that M. Grandet’s first name is Felix. It is listed in the list of great fortunes in the Paris departments. M. des Grassins handles the estate liquidation, and the merchants agree because they believe M. Grandet is going to pay in full. The estate pays 47 percent of the debts and waits for M. Grandet to pay the remaining 53 percent. But over the next three years M. des Grassins stalls the creditors with legalese and paperwork to the point that many of them give up their bills and now is owed only about 10 percent of the debt. A fourth year lowered the deficit even more – without Grandet paying a cent – and then M. Grandet announces that his nephew in the Indies has made a fortune and will settle in full all remaining claims. A fifth year is in progress with M. Grandet claiming he is still consulting with his nephew. Grandet’s bonds have gone up, and he’s sold out for a total of 2,400,000 francs in gold. He adds this to his other treasures – he is rich, rich, rich. M. des Grassins has taken a liking to Paris, acquires a lover, and spends extravagantly. His son Adolphe, giving up the chances of marrying Eugenie, eventually joins him and acquires “an unenviable reputation.” Mme des Grassins remains at home managing as best she can.
All this time Eugenie remains at home. She longs for Charles but is filled with sacred love. She follows Charles’ progress with a map of the world. She sits under the great walnut tree each morning thinking of him, and “this solitary persistent love mingling with all her thoughts became the substance, or, as our forefathers would have said, the `stuff’ of her life.” The new year approaches, and the women wonder what Eugenie will do about having to make her yearly showing of her gold treasures to her father. M. Grandet doesn’t have a clue about Eugenie’s engagement to Charles, of course. When Grandet calls to examine Eugenie’s gold – he wants to invest it in bonds – Eugenie boldly tells him she does not have it. She will not tell him what she has done with it and proudly stands up to her father – the first time in her life. M. Grandet is outraged and eventually guesses she gave it to Charles “with his morocco boots and his stand-off airs”. But Eugenie never admits what she did with it, says she is of age to do as she likes, and gives her father back the gold he just gave her since he obviously thinks she is not free to spend her money as she pleases. M. Grandet orders Eugenie confined to her room on bread and water, and Mme. Grandet collapses and has to be put to bed. When Mme des Grassins and the Cruchots visit later that evening, M. Grandet just says his wife is ill and Eugenie is attending her. As she leaves, Mme. des Grassins, who has visited Mme Grandet, says Mme. Grandet is sicker than she thinks and wonders what’s up.
Nanon has bonded with Eugenie and her mother over the romance with Charles, and she sneaks Eugenie a pie and continues to sneak her food out of her own funds. The games keeper brought a hare, and she paid for the lard and bay-leaves to make the pie out of her own money. Months go by and M. Grandet visits his wife in her room – she is getting worse and worse and does not go downstairs. M. Grandet pretends Eugenie doesn’t exist. He goes about his business but is a bit off his game, making book-keeping errors and not stammering to obtain crafty benefits. Everyone knows something is wrong at the Grandet household. Eugenie still goes to church and evades all questions but eventually the secret is out that Mlle Grandet is locked up in her room by her father’s orders and lives on bread and water. M. Grandet is shunned.
Eugenie endures for she has the love of Charles to keep her company. She feels remorseful and responsible for her mother’s illness though, and she goes to sit with her mother as soon as her father leaves the house each day. Mme Grandet is dying but becomes more beautiful as if the spirit of prayer had purified her. She daily asks Grandet to forgive their daughter, but he remains resolute. Finally Mme Grandet tells her troubles to the Cruchots. M. Cruchot is outraged and wants to put an end to Eugenie’s imprisonment at once. Eugenie overhears him talking with her mother and intervenes, telling him to do nothing because it would lower the dignity of the family. M. Cruchot leaves with thoughts in his mind how to end this situation.
I’ve read that Balzac has trouble with numbers, and I’m wondering if he does in his gold calculations. When Eugenie gave her gold to Charles, she said it was worth about 2,000 francs. But later her father said it was worth 6,000 francs. And when Charles pays it back, he says it was worth 6,000 francs and he is sending 8,000 to include interest. Huh? And there’s more number confusion. Balzac says 300,000 francs will clear Charles’ debts, and he comes back from the Indies with 2,000,000 francs. But when Eugenie sends money to Paris, she sends 1,500,000 francs. That could be because she is paying full value and interest, but that’s quite a leap and not at all clear. And if the number was 300,000 and Charles has 2,000,000, surely he would have realized he should pay to keep his marriage prospects alive. Very confusing!!
Anyway, back to the story. M. Cruchot pays a visit to M. Grandet and tells him that Eugenie will inherit his wife’s estate if she dies – and that she is near death. Furthermore, all of Grandet’s assets will have to be tallied up, fees, will have to be paid, a total accounting will have to be taken. So M. Grandet needs to make up with Eugenie before Mme. Grandet passes on. So he does in short work, cancels her bread and water ration. But then he comes upon Eugenie and her mother looking at Charles’ gold box and grabs it up in greedy glee. He starts to pry away a plate to check the gold content when Eugenie goes postal – she will kill herself with a knife if he proceeds. Mme Grandet faints, and ole Felix puts the case down. Whew, close one, he doesn’t want the woman to die and have to face a division of his assets. He makes it up in the only way he knows how – goes and gets some gold and scatters it around the bed.
M. Grandet urges the doctor to save his wife, even if it costs him a 100 or 200 francs. (Note, in earlier editions, this read 1,000 or 2,000, but Balzac changed it, presumably to caricature the miserliness of Grandet.) We presume Grandet wants to keep his wife alive to save his fortune, but maybe he does care about her a bit in his own small way. But the wife dies. M. Grandet becomes exceedingly supportive of Eugenie, and she wonders if he has changed. But of course we know he wants Eugenie to sign away the rights to her mother’s property, which she does readily. It will still come to her when her father dies. In the interim he says he will give her 100 francs a month, which he fails to do. When she mentions it, he instead starts parceling back to her Charles’ jewelry (which he bought from him). A good deal, less cost than the 100 francs a month!
M. Grandet grows feebler over the next five years, and soon he begins giving Eugenie lessons in running his business. Pretty soon she can do everything as well as he can. M. Grandet in his dying breathe warns Eugenie that she would have to render an account of everything to him in the other world!
Eugenie discovers she has 17 million francs, but it means little to her. She has the habit of parsimony and changes her daily life little. She does engage in considerable charitable works, though, and plaintively says to Nanon every now and then that she wonders where Charles is. She gives Nanon an independent income of 1200 francs a year, which makes her marriageable – and she soon marries M. Cornoiller, the caretaker at Froidfont, one of the Grandet acquisitions. Nanon still works for Eugenie, but now employing a cook and a housemaid whose efforts Nanon directs.
Now that Eugenie is a rich heiress, she is pursued by many. But she sticks to her original crowd of des Grassins and Cruchots. She develops the assurance that comes from constantly being catered to and told how great she is – but still all she wants is Charles to come back to her. M. de Bonfons still courts her, though Eugenie is now 30 and he is 40. Bonfons brings her flowers every day, and Nanon carefully puts them in a vase – and then tosses them when the Cruchots leave!
Charles has made a fortune in the slave and merchandise trade in the Indies. He’s compromised himself to accumulate his fortune and has become hardened. On the way back home he meets a plain young noble woman Mlle d’Aubrion. The girl is not pretty and has not much to offer, but as her mother points out she can give Charles a title and an entry into society. Charles decides to marry her after consultation with his old lover Annette, who is delighted he’s marrying such a plain girl. From Paris he writes to Eugenie that although he will always care for Eugenie he would like to marry Mlle d’Aubrion so he can pursue high society – something he knows Eugenie does not want and is not suited for. He encloses payment for her loan plus interest and asks her to post his gold box. He’s actually asking her to release him from his promise, but later we hear the banns for his marriage had already been published when he writes the letter. I thought this letter-writing action was not very realistic. A hardened man like Charles wouldn’t even think of such, or if he did he would realize that Eugenie was now rich and maybe decide to pursue her instead.
Eugenie gets the letter and weeps. But shortly afterwards when she hears Charles’ engagement is in danger because he refused to pay his father’s debts, she swings into action. She tells M. de Bonfons she will marry him in name only (a girl can’t apparently stay single in France, she must have a husband – according to her advisors), but first he must go to Paris and clear Charles’ debts. He does so, and he takes the results to Charles. Charles is dumbfounded – apparently this is the first time he’s realized she’s rich.
Eugenie marries M. de Bonfons, and he rises in society for 3 years but then dies. Balzac says perhaps it was his secret hope that Eugenie would go first that killed him – he had gotten Eugenie to name him as sole beneficiary in the event of her death. She continues doing good works and living parsimoniously. There was talk of her marrying the former Marquis de Froidfond, whose ancient and ruined family would be restored if the heiress gave him back his estates through marriage.
We hear nothing more of Charles. It seems the story ends a little vaguely, and I have notes which say that in the original manuscript Balzac provided a more traditional ending. In this version, Eugenie does marry the Marquis de Froidfond and spends the rest of her life in Paris. She meets Charles occasionally in society but never reveals her emotions to him. She becomes a member of the highest aristocracy. Which ending to you like best?
Is Eugenie a saint for insuring that Charles’ marriage takes place?
Summarized by Pamela, December 2008