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“A Fortuitous Invention or a Legal Theft”: the Innovation of the Miser in Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, by Sophie van den Elzen


“Molière avait fait lAvarice dans Harpagon; moi, j’ai fait un avare avec le père Grandet” (Balzac qtd. in Watts 159).[1] In his letter to his lover Eveline Hanska, written eleven years after the first publication of Eugénie Grandet (1833), Honoré de Balzac seems confident that he has written the archetypal miser of his time in Mr. Grandet; so much so that he compares him to Molière’s infamous Harpagon, who has together with Scrooge perhaps come to be the Western European ideal of the literary typecast of the scheming hoarder. Eugénie Grandet has become Balzac’s classic work, both because it was his first novel to be included in the French university curriculum in 1889, and because his contemporary critics saw it as his finest and the most exemplary of his style.[2] Iconic Grandet, however, is as far from the miser as the embodiment of the vice of Avarice, as he is from the farcical Pantalone of the Commedia dellArte which has set up the archetypal plot surrounding the figure. Of the work that has been done on the theatrical intertexts in Eugénie Grandet and the economic realities that underlie the character of Grandet, Pierre-Georges Castex’s “L’Ascension de Mr. Grandet” is one of the key pieces of scholarship. Castex, in his insistence that historical realism infuses Grandet’s career, fully separates the character from the traditional literary miser. It is, however, of interest to see how the realist character interacts with his farcical forebears, especially considering that a widespread theoretical reconsideration of greed as “interest” that constitutes a “taming passion,” rather than a vice, was fundamental to the eighteenth-century’s cultivation of the “spirit of capitalism” (cf. Hirschman, esp. 31). This paper explores the ways in which Félix Grandet responds to this societal change of heart, as he diverges from the time-worn literary stereotype, and innovatively displays typical proto-capitalist characteristics. Studying the interplay between the capitalist and the miser offers a way to investigate how Balzac approaches the topic of bourgeois greed, suggesting that instead of the embodiment of the proper re-evaluation of “interest,” successful bourgeois men are in fact injurious misers.

In the first section, the paper examines the way in which Balzac sets up the countryside as a backdrop of greedy Grandet-like merchants, who are within Grandet’s sphere of influence. In the second, it shows how Grandet’s rise to power is the result of his unscrupulous character, combined with precise historical circumstances. As a result of the occult ways in which Grandet increases his fortune, the narrative suggests that far from democratization, the French turmoil has led to the rise to power of unscrupulous men, whose leadership in turn has a corrupting effect on their surroundings. Finally, the paper suggests that the character’s particular menacing quality relies on Balzac’s decision to empower the traditionally powerless miser. Grandet not only fetishizes his gold, but also understands the social relations that generate more gold and power. By moving him from the periphery to the centre of capitalist society, Balzac shows that the miser has now been promoted to John Stuart Mill’s standard of men: the socially acceptable homo economicus at the centre of a universe under the illusion that money can buy anything.

Herbert Hunt has labelled the preoccupation with money one of the most salient aspect of Balzac’s oeuvre. He says that it is not only “the root of all evil, but . . . the mainspring of activity, as one of those powerful motive forces . . .. Pick up almost any novel of Balzac . . . and you will find that behind the particular heroes and villains looms a universal hero or villain, the ‘pièce de cent sous’” (445-446). Hunt’s views are indicative of the way in which Balzac’s blatant discussions of money have influenced the reception of his oeuvre. It is a remarkable characteristic, and perhaps shamelessly “bourgeois”—like his kin, Balzac has “left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’” (Communist Manifesto, qtd. in Moretti 101). Perhaps that blatancy is also the reason that Hunt’s, as well as many older studies of La Comédie Humaine, attribute the prevalence of business and the detailed narrations of the workings of money to the financially tough, debt-ridden disposition that Balzac was in, which gives it a more Romantically artistic gloss.[3] Other theorists, like Pierre Barbéris and Nicole Mozet, have also extensively documented the tumultuous nineteenth-century French economic situation, in which the Revolutionary agenda of social equality brought matters of economic equality to the fore. This, too, no doubt brought the politically-engaged “master of realism” to consider the determinist influence of money and burgeoning capitalism on the everyday life and struggles of divergent French citoyens, both in the cities and the provincial towns (Engels, Selected Correspondence).

Charles Affron gives an eloquent account of Balzac’s views on the changed economic system in France in his Patterns of Failure in La Comédie Humaine (1966). According to Affron, Balzac saw his age as particularly rapacious and money-fetishizing, and he believed that the new egalitarian laws further encouraged the uneducated masses in their egoistic tendencies. In Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1838-42), Balzac-narrator says: “aujourd’hui, les clartés géographiques ont si bien pénétré les masses, la concurrence a si bien limité les profits, que toute fortune rapidement faite est: ou l’effet d’un hasard et d’une découverte, ou le résultat d’un vol légal” (185).[4] This passage highlights succinctly the dissociation of integral merit from amassing fortune that Affron perceives in Balzac’s writing; fortune cannot be made honestly. A Conservative Royalist, Balzac took an uncharitable view of the rise of the bourgeoisie after the abolishment of the privileges of the First and Second Estate (the clergy and the nobility), denying the democratizing impulse that people supposed it had.

Recently, Thomas Piketty has used Balzac’s oeuvre in his Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and in particular Père Goriot (1835) and César Birotteau (1837), as part of his evidence that between 1790 and 1830, an individual needed a fortune to live a comfortable life, a fortune which could generally only be acquired through inheritance.[5] This system was only possible where there was great monetary stability. Eugénie Grandet seems to confirm this idea, especially in the way it deals with Charles’s bankruptcy, and in the fact that Grandet needs inheritances and a rich marriage to be able to acquire his start-up money. The rise of Grandet, however, is only possible because of great instability. That this instability is found in the countryside is what marks Mr. Grandet’s ascent as particularly dangerous.

Mr. Grandets Saumur

Emphasis in scholarly work is often put on the way in which Balzac provided a faithful portrayal of the France of the era he lived in. This focus is in line with the Realist mission statement Balzac himself provided for his project, in which he stated he wanted to capture different facets of daily life in France, as “[l]e roman est l’histoire privée des nations”[6] (qtd. in Akemark 10). Moreover, he classified himself not so much as a novelist than as a historian, noting what historians overlook in his composition of a “histoire des moeurs” and analyzing the world through description and classification (“Avant -propos”). He actively affirmed that he travelled around the country and based his characters on people he encountered and interviewed. Insofar as we are to take seriously Balzac’s claims of being a historian of morals, who “ne veut être ici que le plus humble des copistes”[7] (“Préface de 1833” 280), rather than an imaginative artist, his descriptions of Saumur reflect that there was awareness of how the provincial towns, which had been supposed stagnant and been the object of ridicule since long before the Revolution of 1789, had actually undergone radical demographic changes and developed new lines of ascent for the Third Estate, evident in the emergence of capitalist figures heretofore associated more with centres of industry like Paris. Nicole Mozet suggests that “le drame bourgeois” of the early nineteenth century is the first genre to portray rural life without ridiculing it (9). Moreover, she characterizes the countryside as the last refuge of maternity (39), in contrast to the Parisian world of business. In Eugénie Grandet, however, it is clear that business has already irrupted into the idyll. Grandet is a successful self-interested man in the middle of self-interested villagers, who are avid participants in the economy. Balzac characterizes Saumur as “any other” provincial town, where the petit bourgeois, despite the apparent calm and agelessness of the town, have a keen eye for money:

Vous verrez un marchand de merrain assis à sa porte et qui tourne ses pouces en causant avec un voisin, il ne possède en apparence que de mauvaises planches à bouteilles et deux ou trois paquets de lattes; mais sur le port son chantier plein fournit tous les tonneliers de l’Anjou; il sait, à une planche près, combien il peut de tonneaux si la récolte est bonne; un coup de soleil l’enrichit, un temps de pluie le ruine: en une seule matinée, les poinçons valent onze francs ou tombent à six livres. En ce pays, comme en Touraine, les vicissitudes de l’atmosphère dominent la vie commerciale. . . . Il y a un duel constant entre le ciel et les intérêts terrestres . . . D’un bout à l’autre de cette rue, l’ancienne Grand’rue de Saumur, ces mots: Voilà un temps dor! se chiffrent de porte en porte. Aussi chacun répond-il au voisin: Il pleut des louis, en sachant ce qu’un rayon de soleil, ce qu’une pluie opportune lui en apporte. Le samedi, vers midi. . . ces braves industriels . . . [vont] passer deux jours à la campagne. Là, tout étant prévu, l’achat, la vente, le profit, les commerçants se trouvent avoir dix heures sur douze à employer en joyeuses parties, en observations, commentaires, espionnages continuels (60-61).[8]

In this passage, it becomes clear that the notion that the country folk live calmly with the season is not just a naïve urban illusion, but a well-crafted façade to maximize their interests. In Saumur, the craftsmen pretend to be simple, but are in fact constantly calculating, spying, and actively hiding their enormous trades. Even if their trade is dependent on the weather, when it is good they “chiffrent” (calculate) it instantly, focusing only on what profit it translates into.

Far from ridiculing their local miser, the villagers revere him and follow his example: “une si grande fortune couvrait d’un manteau d’or toutes les actions de cet homme . . . . Sa parole, son vêtement, ses gestes, le clignement de ses yeux faisaient loi dans le pays, où chacun . . . avait pu reconnaître la profonde et muette sagesse de ses plus légers mouvements” (68).[9] Mr. Grandet is neither anomaly nor laughing stock, as misers are traditionally portrayed, but in fact epitomizes, and offers an instructional example of, a bourgeois greed that has not spared the countryside.

Balzac sets up the time in which Grandet rose to own a fortune as a particular historical moment. In the opening descriptions of Saumur, the narrator comments that “L’Histoire de France est là tout entière” (58), after he tells the reader that on the doors and walls of the town are weather-beaten marks of Catholics and Protestants, and Monarchists and Revolutionaries alike, referring to the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution respectively. It has been often commented, by critics as well as by Balzac himself, that the country is a place of stagnancy and backward old-fashioned ways, but these marks indicate that in fact much history has taken place at the country town of Saumur, and it was specifically Grandet’s ability to sail the tumult of the decennia before that allowed him to rise above his modest station of being a cooper. As Grandet has no interest in politics for moral advancement, he takes advantage of the historical happenings around him like a leech, rather than an active participant. In the aftermath of the revolution and after the restoration of the monarchy, France was more open to mercantile opportunists and the rise of a new wealthy class of citizens. In The Bourgeois, Franco Moretti claims that one of the major characteristics of French conservative thought in that period and the realism that it had closely allied itself with is that in “political philosophy and literary representation alike, the present becomes a sediment of history; while the past, instead of simply disappearing, turns into something visible, solid, concrete” (92-93). In this case, that concrete remnant is a new power: the likes of Mr. Grandet, money-oriented and in awe and envy of his particular success, that now populate the countryside.

Mr. Grandets Rise and Changing Society

The basic timeline of Grandet’s rise is teased out in the opening of the novel, with particular attention to how he obtained his initial fortune (63): unscrupulously, by clever dealings with monarchists and republicans alike. His complete disinterest in both God and his fellow people shows when he comes to possess an old abbey and has all the windows boarded up for tax purposes (72). Later on, it is also explained how he learned his most valuable business trick– a feigned stutter in order to manipulate his associates–from a Jewish merchant who conforms to the social stereotype of the untrustworthy usurer (166-167). The reader is also told that miserliness runs in the family, Grandet having received the large inheritances of three family members deceased in succession. His relatives’ greed, however, varies from his own: “L’avarice de ces trois vieillards était si passionnée que depuis longtemps ils entassaient leur argent pour pouvoir le contempler secrètement. Le vieux monsieur La Bertellière appelait un placement une prodigalité, trouvant de plus gros intérêts dans l’aspect de l’or que dans les bénéfices de l’usure” (65).[10] Grandet’s avarice might have run in the family, but he is the first member to display the proto-capitalist streak by actively making money with money. He comments on the size of his big hands that they, instead of being good for honestly labouring with, are tailored solely for collecting money: “Voilà des mains faites pour ramasser des écus ” (144).[11]

Lastly, a heretofore seemingly overlooked source of profit is Eugénie herself; in her father’s hands, she becomes a valuable stock. This also explains why even though Grandet loves her (78), which, paradoxically, speaks in equal measure from his kind words as from the harsh education he bestows on her to be able to adopt his miserly ways, he cannot marry her to anyone (172). Her stock value increases through the bidding war that constitutes her courtship, and Grandet is able to manipulate her suitors and so obtain costless favours.

Martine Reid subdivides the sources of Grandet’s fortune into three categories: the classical source—the selling of land; the modern source—annuities and interest; and Grandet’s monomania—his particular taste for business (298). It seems, however, that it is the latter that actually dominates. His good instincts for business, which extend to being able to foretell the weather, and are so accurate that the other villagers follow Grandet’s ways, are never explained. For example, when Grandet hurries to the port early in the morning to trade his gold as the market value has doubled, he has supposedly heard it in morning gossip (“les causeries du port” [178]). Incredulous and glossed over, this does not serve as an explanation for how Grandet hears and assesses these rumours before anyone else. The cooper is often described as an alchemist in a laboratory (eg. 116, 177). The alchemist is able to make gold out of lesser materials, and this comparison makes Grandet’s practice sound more mysterious, even occult. In a fashion, alchemy also suggests unlawful possession, rather than legal earnings or bequests.

Much in line with the Balzacian rule of nature that Marceau distinguishes at work in La Comédie Humaine, that there is no happiness without energy (152), is Charles Affron’s proclaimed “great law” of the principle of survival of the fittest in LCH (13):

[The survival of the fittest] neatly describes the play of self-interest and ambition that lies at the roots of men’s actions. By the “fittest” Balzac means the strongest, the healthiest, the cleverest, the most ruthless men. Saintly qualities are worthless arms in the battle of survival. There are many ways of describing La Comédie Humaine and one of the most apt is as a brutal, detailed report of this battle (13-14).

Certainly for Grandet this characterization rings true. Grandet is calculating and travelling all the time in order to increase his money. He expands his sphere of influence to Paris when this is made possible by his brother’s demise, as well as constantly changes the form in which he owns his fortune. This is evident when Grandet rides out early in the morning to sell gold at the harbour, which will fetch highly because there is a shortage, planning to use his paper earnings to buy government bonds, which he can then sell again at a profit. By circulating between different media of value, moving his money around, he is able to create more value (193): a hallmark feature of capitalism. Grandet shows how money-managing is itself a full-time business operation.

Looking at the way Grandet comes by his money, it becomes clear that there are many nebulous, even fabulous elements in the narrative when it concerns him. One passage in which the tacit metaphysical connection between misers and gold is elucidated, is when the narrator tells us:

Les avaricieux en avaient une sorte de certitude en voyant les yeux du bonhomme, auxquels le métal jaune semblait avoir communiqué ses teintes. Le regard d’un homme accoutumé à tirer de ses capitaux un intérêt énorme contracte nécessairement, comme celui du voluptueux, du joueur ou du courtisan, certaines habitudes indéfinissables, des mouvements furtifs, avides, mystérieux qui n’échappent point à ses coreligionnaires. Ce langage secret forme en quelque sorte la franc-maçonnerie des passions (66).[12]

The mystical language used in this passage (franc-maçonnerie, coreligionnaires) has a comic effect, but suggests a dangerous idolatry. The select group of owners of capital have obtained their fortunes due to mysterious propensities that are never fully explained. It is not important how much money Grandet actually owns; Balzac laconically cut it down from his initial manuscript to make the narrative more realistic (Akemark 15). This contrasts with the detail with which Balzac describes how Grandet acquired his money and habits. Akemark calls the sprawling accounts of sums very technical (17), but it might also be read contrarily; the sums and reckoning that the Grandets are so good at, are dazzling, and it is hard to imagine that an average reader would be tempted to tease out the arithmetic at the centre of Grandet’s career. Moreover, the exact size of his fortune is always kept unknowable; in the opening, the narrator continually states that he is merely conjecturing the actual amount, and Eugénie’s yearly “gift” of foreign coins cannot be converted into French equivalence (“Commentaires” 301). This “mystical” disconnect between value and labour is just one of the malformations that occur in the gravitational field surrounding the miser.

Moretti has suggested that some of Balzac’s novels about Paris may be read as a “sinister parody of Smith’s invisible hand” (95), as several unconnected agents independently turn against the protagonist. Grandet, however, may be read as the malicious agent that profits from turning a seemingly fair playing field to his advantage. He performs the discontinuity between credibility and honesty, showing instead how his credit tricks people into trust. He also deforms the notion of a transaction as an exchange of two objects of equal value into one which is about competitive swindle, and in which the ready mobility to coming into money effectively means illegitimate rises to power. Grandet does not have a typically bourgeois status, in spite of his bourgeois career. In fact, his surroundings are more reminiscent of a gloomy court, in the living room of which suitors battle for the graces of the locked-up princess. In The Bourgeois, Moretti discusses the works of Henrik Ibsen in the light of capitalism, suggesting that one of his main creative motors was “the dramatic potential of a conflict between honest Bürger and scheming financier” that is present in the grey area surrounding banking (174).[13] This is singularly applicable to Eugénie Grandet as well, but the conflict is perhaps even heightened: all the Bürgers carry the schemers within themselves.

The observation that social risers like Grandet are particular malicious agents goes against the general notion that the rise of the bourgeoisie meant the democratization of the ability to become rich or attain wealth, as was believed by the optimistic likes of Daniel Defoe. Eugénie Grandet portrays the rise of the middle class not as an effect of rationalization and equal opportunity, but as individuals taking advantage of a historical situation. Balzac also overtly proclaims to fear what this holds for the future:

Les avares ne croient pas à une vie à venir, le présent est tout pour eux. Cette réflexion jette une horrible clarté sur l’époque actuelle, où, plus qu’en aucun autre temps, l’argent domine les lois, la politique et les moeurs. Institutions, livres, hommes et doctrines, tout conspire à miner la croyance d’une vie future sur laquelle l’édifice social est appuyé depuis dix-huit cent ans. Maintenant le cercueil est une transition peu redoutée . . . . Quand cette doctrine aura passé de la bourgeoisie au peuple, que deviendra de le pays? (156).[14]

This passage seems to voice a real fear that illegitimate fortune will be detrimental to social fabric, and that miserliness is a quality that is spreading. This is a negative version of the trend that Hirschman has discerned. He suggests that in the eighteenth-century build-up to the notion of Smith’s “invisible hand,”[15] the idea of interest as a basis for a “viable social order” which permitted citizens to openly pursue gain while still being seen as moral citizens (48), was of pivotal importance. He says:

[O]ne set of passions, hitherto known as greed, avarice, or love of lucre, could be usefully employed to oppose and bridle such other passions as ambition, lust for power, or sexual lust. . . . In the numerous treatises on the passions that appeared in the seventeenth century, no change whatever can be found in the assessment of avarice as “the foulest of them all” or in its position as the deadliest Deadly Sin that it had come to occupy in the Middle Ages. But once money-making wore the label of “interests” and re-entered in this disguise the competition with the other passions, it was suddenly acclaimed and even given the task of holding back those passions that had long thought to be less reprehensible (41-42).

Grandet declares that people are like crows: “ils mangent, comme tout le monde, ce qu’ils trouvent. Est-ce que nous ne vivons pas des morts? Qu’est-ce donc que les successions?” (129).[16] This foregrounds his assumption that all men are opportunists, that they all play the game he does, only he is better at it, and the descriptions of Saumur seem to validate his claims. If Grandet in some respects is no more than a peculiarly successful specimen of the average man of his generation, the question arises: what made him so successful?

To be successful, Balzac suggests, one needs to be ruthlessly anti-social, nearly inhuman. Over the course of the narrative, Grandet’s self-imposed social isolation and his anti-social behaviour are reflected in the way his characteristics are explained through animal similes. Initially, he is described as a tiger and a boa constrictor: “monsieur Grandet tenait du tigre et du boa: il savait se coucher, se blottir, envisager longtemps sa proie, sauter dessus; puis il ouvrait la gueule de sa bourse, y engloutissait une charge d’écus, et se couchait tranquillement, comme le serpent qui digère, impassible, froid, méthodique” (67).[17] He is described as having the cunning expression of a basilisk (71). In contrast to these animals, though, which the average French reader would only encounter in picture books, Balzac tells us that every villager had been “politely ripped off by his steel claws” [senti le déchirement poli de ses griffes d’acier] (67). The initial image already goes a long way to show Grandet’s dangerous anti-social attitude, but over the course of the novel the animalistic tendencies intensify, as he is likened to a crocodile by des Grassins, and a famished tiger by the narrator (131). Grandet’s death is brought about by a cat-like lunge for the crucifix his priest tries to bless him with on his deathbed: “il fit un épouvantable geste pour le saisir et ce dernier effort lui coûta sa vie” (246).[18] His animal nature has increased with his monomania, ostracizing him from his community as well as his family, and is both caused by and reflected in his disbelief in an afterlife. Many of the animals used for comparison are exotic, which might hint that not only is Grandet not part of human community, he is also an anomaly: a creature able to rise due to the extraordinary historical circumstances.

One of the major French worries after 1817 about the rise of the bourgeoisie was that even though it abolished the artificial inequalities, it did not overthrow natural inequalities: “L’un a beaucoup de talents, de richesses et de considérations, l’autre est inepte, pauvre et méprisé: peut-être ils sont égaux avant la loi, mais assurément, ils ne le seront point devant ses interprètes[19] (Senancour qtd. in Barbéris 90, original emphasis).[20] As a result of this, there would still be social imbalance, which is neatly encapsulated in Friedrich Engels’s remark that “l’or remplaça l’épée comme principal levier de puissance sociale; le droit du seigneur passa du seigneur féodal au commerçant bourgeois” (qtd. in Barbéris 100).[21] Barbéris claims that among the most ardent critics of this sort were the unsuccessful bourgeois themselves (99). Grandet speaks exactly to this fear; his extraordinary abilities, his malice and ruthlessness lead to his commercial success and power. This meant that the Revolution had failed: “elle a été la révolution de l’argent. . . . Parler d’égalité, de liberté politique dans une société marchande, c’est parler de la liberté des marchands, et d’eux seuls” (Barbéris 90).[22]

Grandet and the Miser

G.K Chesterton has lamented the modern miser, saying: “The round coins in the miser’s stocking were safe in some sense. The round noughts in the millionaire’s ledger are safe in no sense; the same fluctuation which excites him with their increase depresses him with their diminution. The miser at least collects coins; his hobby is numismatics. The man who collects noughts collects nothings” (n.p.). Grandet does not make this mistake: his ultimate goal is to convert his assets into gold, the only medium of fixed value amid the government bonds and coinages from different periods of rule. In this fetishist fixation for the metal, he shows his true miser’s colours, referring back to the traditional literary notion of the miser that started with stooped Euclio guarding a pot of gold that will inevitably be stolen (Aulularia).

The narrator in Eugénie Grandet tells the reader about the miser in general:

Il ne s’appuie que sur deux sentiments: l’amour-propre et l’intérêt . . . . De là vient peut-être la prodigieuse curiosité qu’excitent les avares habilement mis en scène. Chacun tient par un fil à ces personnages qui s’attaquent à tous les sentiments humains en les résumant tous. Où est l’homme sans désir, et quel désir social se résoudra sans l’argent? (160).[23]

This suggests that to some extent man is homo economicus, and strives to ever satisfy his needs, acting out of selfish motives. The extent to which Grandet takes this, under the banner of political theories that are supposedly for the greater good such as Bentham’s Defence of Usury (210), is excessive. Moreover, where the more traditional miser is a comic literary character binding together the logic of the world of the Commedia, Grandet is truly menacing. He swindles everyone, including his own daughter, and uses tricks and lies, such as pretending to stutter, to manipulate people. He has no respect for religious practices or belief. Nevertheless, his excessive miserliness is the reason for his success: baseline miserliness is present in all merchants.

According to Andrew Watts, Balzac saw avarice as one of the major obstacles to progress in the countryside. He quotes him as saying “pour la province, la richesse des nations consiste moins dans l’active rotation de l’argent que dans un stérile entassement” (11). This suggests that Balzac views the “backward” countryside as not partaking of the flowing, modern economic system. However, even though Balzac actively sought to emulate Molière’s comic Harpagon to portray the stereotypical miser (Watts 159), Grandet is “neither a comic character, nor a nineteenth-century Harpagon . . . Grandet is less a stereotype of the miser than a successful businessman and a part of the landowning bourgeoisie” (159-160). In his enduring position of power, he is the opposite of the traditional literary miser, who loses his power over the course of the plot. Even his weakest moment, when he finds out Eugénie has given her money away, is only temporary; it only enhances his power, as his clever navigation of the ensuing row and the death of Eugénie’s mother leaves him even more in control. The miser is no longer the laughing stock depiction of a vice, but a character lurking in every successful parvenu.

The narrator concedes that the villagers have gotten tired of mocking Grandet: “Si d’abord quelques particularités de sa vie donnèrent prise au ridicule et à la moquerie, la moquerie et le ridicule s’étaient usés” (68).[24] The villagers soon found out that Grandet is a force to be reckoned with, and to be respected for his success. He displays the same features as the villagers, but intensified and more wickedly anti-social. Balzac’s miser is to be found in all the bourgeoisie, and gainsays the illusion of equality. His avarice underlies his actions on the market, and testifies against the principle of the “invisible hand.” Grandet’s literary heritage is a powerful objection against the foundational narratives of the honest man and the common good that modern capitalism is founded on, even though he is not the laughable personification of a vice, but a state-of-the-art character, the proto-capitalist parvenu.

[1] “Molière has created Greed with Harpagon; I have created a miser with Père Grandet” (translation mine).

[2] For an extensive overview of his contemporary critics’ unanimous preference for Eugénie Grandet, see David Bellos, Balzac Criticism in France 1850-1900 (London: Clarendon Press, 1976), esp. 10-12.

[3] cf. Hunt 446, Marceau esp. 474, Affron 6.

[4] “Today, the masses have wizened up to such extent, the competition has so greatly limited profits,that all fortunes rapidly made are either the result of a fortuitous invention or the result of a legal theft” (translation mine). See also Affron, 19.

[5] “For both writers [Balzac and Austen], the material and psychological threshold was about 30 times the average income of the day. Below that level, a Balzacian or Austenian hero found it difficult to live a dignified life. It was quite possible to cross that threshold if one was among the wealthiest 1 percent (and even better if one approached the top 0.5 or even 0.1 percent) of French or British society in the nineteenth century. This was a well-defined and fairly numerous social group— a minority, to be sure, but a large enough minority to define the structure of society and sustain a novelistic universe. But it was totally out of reach for anyone content to practice a profession, no matter how well it paid: the best paid 1 percent of professions did not allow one to come anywhere near this standard of living (nor did the best paid 0.1 percent)” (Piketty 411-412).

[6] “The novel is the private history of nations” (translation mine).

[7] “here intends to be but the humblest of scribes” (translation mine).

[8] “You will see a dealer in barrel-staves sitting in his doorway, twiddling his thumbs as he chats with his neighbour. He appears to have only a few inferior pieces of shelving for bottles and two or three bundles of laths. But on the quay, his well-stocked timber-yard supplies all the coopers of Anjou. He knows, down to a stave, how many barrels he can dispose of if the harvest is good. A heat wave makes him rich, a wet spell ruins him. In a single morning, casks can rise to eleven francs or fall to six [livres] . . . There is a perpetual duel between celestial power and terrestrial interests . . . .From one end to the other of this street, the old Grand’rue of Saumur, the words ‘What golden weather!’ are passed from door to door and translated into figures. And so everyone remarks to his neighbour, ‘It’s raining gold louis’, for they know how much money a ray of sunshine or a timely shower can bring them. After about mid-day on a summer Saturday . . . these worthy businessmen . . . [go] off to spend the week-end in the country. Since they know beforehand what they are going to buy and sell and how much profit they will make when they are there, they find themselves with ten out of twelve hours free to spend in convivial parties and in continually observing, commenting, and spying on their neighbours” (Oxford ed., 5).

[9] “So much money covered all Grandet’s actions with a mantle of gold . . . . His most trivial acts carried the weight of a juridical decision. His words, his clothes, his gestures, the flicker of his eyelids were looked on as authoritative in the district, where everyone . . . had been able to appreciate the profound, unspoken wisdom of his slightest movements” (Oxford ed., 10).

[10] “These three old people were such inveterate misers that for a long time they had been hoarding their money so that they could contemplate it in secret. Old Monsieur La Bertellière thought that to invest money was to throw it away and that to look at his money gave him a higher rate of interest than to lend it” (Oxford ed., 8).

[11] “Behold these hands made to rake in écus!” (translation mine).

[12] “The other misers of the town felt almost certain of this [Mr. Grandet’s secret hoard of gold] when they saw the old fellow’s eyes, which seemed to have taken on some of the glints of the yellow metal. Like the eyes of a gambler, of a libertine, or of a courtier, the gaze of a man who is used to deriving an enormous profit from his capital investments is bound to acquire certain indefinable habits, a furtive, greedy, shifty flicker, which didn’t escape those who worship the same gods. This, in a way, constitutes the freemasonry of those passions” (Oxford ed, 9).

[13] Moretti argues that this conflict is based on the core value of honesty that the bourgeois identify with, a thesis that is based in large part on his own interpretation of Deirde McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues. Honesty is of fundamental importance to capitalist transactions, which sets up a discomfort with the“grey” qualities verging on dishonesty that are required for tricks on the money market—the “unresolved dissonance of bourgeois life” (Moretti 178, emphasis original).

[14] “Misers do not believe in an afterlife. The present is everything for them. This thought casts a terrible light in the present day, when, more than ever before, money dominates the law, politics, and social behaviour. Institutions, books, men, and doctrines, all conspire to undermine the belief in a life to come, which has been the foundation for social fabric for eighteen hundred years. Nowadays people have little fear of the grave as a transition period . . . . When this attitude to life has passed down from the middle to the lower classes what will become of the country?” (Oxford ed., 84-85).

[15] This government strategy, while not going under the same name, had been promoted in France as well, and one of the major critical works written against it, L’Industrie et la morale considérées dans leurs rapports avec la liberté, had been published in 1825 by Balzac’s friend Auguste Sautelet (Barbéris 98).

[16] “They eat, like we all do, what they find. Do we not live off corpses? Then what are inheritances?” (translation mine).

[17] “Monsieur Grandet had the qualities of both a tiger and a boa-constrictor. He had the art of lying in wait, hidden, studying his prey for a long time, and finally jumping on it; then he would open the jaws of his purse, gulp down a load of coins, and lie down again to digest, like a serpent, impassive, cold and methodical” (Oxford ed., 9).

[18] “He made a terrifying effort to grab it, and the effort cost him his life” (Oxford ed., 166).

[19] “One has many talents, riches and considerations, the other is inept, poor and misunderstood: perhaps they are equal before the law, but surely, they are not equal to its interpreters” (translation mine).

[20] For an extensive discussion of this strand of criticism in France and Balzac’s position in that debate, see Pierre Barbéris, 90-93.

[21] “Gold has replaced the sword as the principal tool for social power; privileges have passed from the feudal lord to the commercial bourgeois” (translation mine).

[22] “It had been a revolution of money. . . . To talk about equality, about freedom in a mercantile society, is to talk about the liberty of merchants, and only theirs” (translation mine).

[23] “He is sustained only by two feelings: vanity and self-interest . . . . Perhaps that explains the enormous interest aroused by the skilful presentation of the miser on stage. Everyone has one link with these characters that both outrage and incorporate all human feelings. Where is the man who does not want something, and how can anyone get what he wants in a society without any money?” (Oxford ed., 88).

[24] “If, initially, some of his idiosyncratic ways gave rise to ridicule or mockery, the mockery and ridicule had become stale” (Oxford ed., 10).

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