This little tale from Balzac’s scenes of provincial life is one of my favorites, having a simple plot anchored by a character of monumental greed and miserliness, Old Grandet. He has amassed a fortune in land, farms, shares, and wooden casks of gold coins that he loves to gaze upon, but he lives like a simple workman with not a centime to his name. His good wife and lovely daughter, Eugénie, are completely dominated by his tyrannical personality. Eugenie has never known any other life, and hardly dreams that one is possible, let alone that she is an heiress to millions.
Into this small town darkness flashes the meteoric path of Charles, Grandet’s nephew, whose father killed himself to escape the shame of bankruptcy. Charles visits his relations in Saumur at his father’s direction, not knowing why, and learns the awful truth from his uncle. He is a rich, spoiled, foppish dandy, but he is truly despairing when he learns of his father’s end, and he resolves to remake his fortune in the West Indies. But first, through a few secret interviews, he and Eugénie fall in love. To help him on his way, Eugénie gives him her entire life savings, a bag of gold coins, resolving to wait for him forever, blissfully enslaved to the only true love she has ever known.
Charles sails away, and Grandet finds out about Eugénie’s absolutely foolish, blasphemous action with her gold. Initially, he punishes her by locking her in her room on a diet of bread and water. The mother’s health fails, the town gossips, and the two top families scheme to get their sons married to Eugénie. Charles grows rich trading slaves, and becomes corrupt and miserly – Eugénie is orphaned. Charles returns to France and feels obligated to write Eugénie a “Dear Jane” letter so he can proceed to marry into a decrepit but prestigious noble family with a clear conscience. Eugénie marries one of the sons, but insists that she remain a virgin, and lives a life of humility, austerity, and generous charity. Her husband never gets to enjoy his wife’s wealth; he dies young. Charles is shocked to learn that the pretty cousin he jilted, the one who lives in poverty in the country, is far more wealthy than he – he calculated wrong!
Such is the plot – another French tale of sharp provincial dealing and financial chicanery – of which Balzac is a master. It is the character and psychology of Old Grandet that makes it an epic of obsession and sexual repression. Grandet seems hardly human, a mass of granite, and completely devoid of feelings. He drives hard bargains always, and only shows delight and humor when he manages a particularly crafty financial triumph. He has a wen, a cyst or wart, on his nose that is his principle indicator of internal passion – it becomes inflamed and pulsating when he is agitated or angry. The symbolism is obvious.
Eugénie, his daughter, is a beautiful young woman who is practically living the life of a nun, married, in bondage, to her father and his gold. He gives her gifts of coins on special occasions, but his gifts come with strings. He asks now and then to view the coins with her -”Go and bring your coins, girlie. Looking at them warms me up.” His use of the diminuitive is unsettling – Eugénie is a fully grown and lovely woman. The coins give him heat and life: money is always something supernatural in Balzac, and here it is the life-sexual force itself. There is nothing else for Old Grandet. Locked in his office, gazing at his barrels of gold, Grandet is like a boy ashamed of his sexual longing, hiding himself away with his favorite girlie magazines. At one point, he exclaims: “You ought to kiss me on the eyelids for telling you the secrets and mysteries of the life and death of money. Really, coins live and swarm like men’ they come and go and sweat and multiply.” Such are the facts of life according to Monsieur Grandet. Swarming, multiplying, sweating…only gold lives. It’s the only sex education Eugénie gets.
When Eugénie gives Charles her coins, he gives her a golden casket of his mother’s in return, to hold for him in trust, promising to repay her the value of her coins. Eugénie and her mother, who sympathizes with her, delight in looking at the box, rehearsing their memories of the handsome cousin, now far away. Upon learning of this exchange, Old Grandet leaps upon the casket “like a tiger” and begins clawing it, almost destroying it to get some goldwork that he can sell to recoup her idiotic squandering of her treasure. Eugénie tries to stop him, shouting that the cask is neither hers nor his, it is only held in trust against Charles’ return and repayment of the loan of her coins. Grandet shoves her aside, hurting her, and cries, “Why were you looking at it if it was given you in trust? Looking is worse than touching.”
Ah, yes, the looking! His gloating over his coins has an element of sexual looking, voyeurism. This is more explicit when, after punishing his daughter with house arrest, he fumes and walks in his garden, but can’t resist looking at her as she mournfully brushes her hair at her windowsill. His gaze is filled with anger, love, paternal and avaricious, and sexual? The scene made me think of this painting by Thomas Hart Benton and the story of Susanna and the Elders – young women wronged by crude, dirty old men. When Eugénie tries to evade his requests to see her gold in order to forestall revealing what she did with it, Old Grandet wheedles: “Listen, Eugénie, you must give me your gold. You won’t refuse your old daddy, will you girlie, eh?” sounding like a increasingly frustrated pedophile with a recalcitrant intended victim.
Eugénie, disappointed in love, agrees to marry only to procure a service from her notary-suitor that will rescue the honor of that cad, Charles, and with the stipulation that she remain a virgin. Her fate reminds me of Zeus impregnating Danae with a rain of golden coins – another woman done wrong by gold.