by Honore de Balzac
published in 1833
Penguin Classics edition: 248 pages
It just so happened, while I was reading this little novel, that we lost the electricity in our home. I sat by candlelight, much as Eugenie herself might have done, and was immediately thrust into the darkness of her life.
Hers is a life which is dominated by a rich father. He is a cooper, and a winemaker, who owns acres upon acres of land. He is wealthy beyond belief, but does this make him happy? Or, generous? He is a miser, a tight-fisted, manipulative, selfish man with a hard heart which can only appreciate his accumulated gold. As Balzac reminds us, “Misers thrive on money and contempt.” (p. 131).
When Eugenie’s cousin, Charles, comes from Paris to visit them in Saumur, he is unaware that his father has lost everything. Now bankrupt, Charles’ father sees no other option but to shoot himself in Charles’ absence, thereby leaving his son his debts as sole inheritance.
Eugenie’s great sense of compassion flares, and she comforts her cousin with every delicacy she can find to put on the table (such as a whole bowlful of sugar rather than the tiny lumps her father portions out). She even goes so far to give him her entire collection of gold, coins her father has given her each year on her birthday, for of what purpose is it to her when she can offer Charles a future? Off he sails to India, after leaving her his valuables, and promises for a future together on which she rests all her hope.
This hope, and the memories she has of their two kisses on the garden wall, sustain Eugenie through great distress when her father discovers what she has done. He cannot abide the fact that she has given her gold away, given it to help someone else, and he confines her to her room with bread and water. Thus begins the demise of her mother, distraught over all the anxiety in the home, while Eugenie remains strong and calm.
‘To put a girl of twenty-three on bread and water!…’ exclaimed the President de Bonfons. ‘And without just and sufficient cause! But that constitutes actionable cruelty; she can proceed against him; inasmuch as…’
Eugenie heard them talking about her, and came out of her room.
‘Gentlemen,’ she said, as she came forward with dignity, ‘I beg you not to do anything about this matter. My father is master in his own house, and so long as I live in his house I must obey him. What he does should not be subject to the approval or disapproval of other people; he is answerable only to God. If you have any friendly feeling for us, you will say nothing whatever about this; I beg you not to talk about it. To criticize my father is to belittle us all in the eyes of the world. I am very grateful for the interest you have taken in me, but you would oblige me much more if you would silence the offensive rumours that are going about the town: I heard of them only by accident.’ (p. 203-4)
Eventually, Eugenie’s parents die. We wait for Charles to come back and fulfill his promise to her, for surely such a good and noble woman deserves such a happy ending? But Balzac determines to show us two important lessons instead. One, that money in and of itself can never satisfy. And two, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:33-34)
May our hearts be in the right place.
(I read this novel for Paris in July, 2012, and also with Richard
, whose views can be found here