Light to the Heart: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Theory on Happiness
in Honore de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet
In his 1833 portrait of provincial life Eugé nie Grandet, novelist Honore de Balzac observes the ideologies of Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, reflecting t he impossibility of happiness in the context of the times’ stifling lifestyle. In depicting a young girl who simultaneously falls in love and in sorrow, Balzac suggests that the two conditions must occur at once, applying Rousseau’s assertion that the realization of a state of joy is a precursor to immediate sorrow.
In his book Reveries of a Solitary Walker, Rousseau details the paradox of happiness, setting a framework for the complicated interior state of Balzac’s main character, Eugénie. Rousseau asks, “How can we call happiness a fleeting state which leaves our heart still worried and empty, which makes us long for something beforehand or desire something else afterward?” (68). Rousseau here suggests that experiencing happiness is inherently accompanied by an anxiety of losing it, which replaces the happiness, and is followed by a longing to gain it back. In posing the attainability of happiness as a question, Rousseau speculates that it may be possible, but its reality is merely theoretical.
Balzac applies this philosophy in “Provincial Love,” the second chapter of Eugénie Grandet. T his chapter is the first glimpse Eugénie’s interior state, in which the reader is taken alongside her on a journey of self-realization, stemming from her newfound love for her cousin, Charles. The first sentence of “Provincial Love” states: “In the innocent monotonous life of a young girl there comes a day of delight when the sun’s rays flood into her heart, when a flower seems to express her thoughts, and when her heartbeats convey their fertile warmth to her brain, so that all her ideas dissolve into a vague longing; it is a day of innocent melancholy and tranquil happiness” (54). Balzac describes Eugénie’s life prior to provincial love as “innocent,” implying that the infiltration of love into her life is also the infiltration of knowledge.
Happiness is here described through comparison of Eugénie’s interiority to natural phenomenons typically conveyed culturally to symbolize joy: the “sun’s rays [have] flood into her heart,” her thoughts are expressed by “a flower.” However, Balzac notes that there is something inherently “melancholy” about her happiness, and the ability for an outside force to penetrate her heart suggests a transparency and lack of depth. In addition, that “a flower seems to express her thoughts” is worded ambiguously enough that it is able to suggest she is having airy and aesthetic thoughts, and, that she is having the thoughts that a flower has, seems to suggest emptiness, alongside the innocent melancholy and tranquil happiness. Balzac injects into the sentence terms contradictory to Eugénie’s supposed joy in ways the reader is meant to accept as fact. The placement of such claims does not seem to disrupt his assertions.
An example of this discrepancy further occurs when Balzac describes Eugénie’s thoughts as comprising of a “vague longing,” longing which would, according to Rousseau, immediately disrupt her happiness. The tranquil happiness seems to be evinced from the emptiness of her considerations, and so the happiness and melancholy here exist together because they are not well considered. This fits into the construction of Rousseau's thought, which poses the insight that longing disrupts happiness, through a revelatory question. By asking “how can we call happiness,” it is suggested that the sensations may inherently be at odds.
Balzac continues to describe Eugénie’s newfound state of awareness, explaining that “the moment of seeing the things of this world clearly had arrived for Eugénie” (54). This statement is purposefully vague, foreshadowing that a clear sight encompasses things both good and bad: like Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge, they become subject to all pleasure and all evil at once.
Following Balzac’s comparison of Eugénie’s thoughts to a flower and description of her heart as filled with sun rays, she is directed toward her bedroom window and looks out onto similar images in the garden, which is tied immediately to her happiness. Balzac describes that her “thoughts chimed in with the details of the curious scene before her, and the harmonies in her heart joined forces with the harmonies of nature” (55-56). Images that have always been accessible to her suddenly adopt a new meaning. That the scene is “curious,” and thus somehow unfamiliar, suggests that she has been awakened in such a way that she is cognizant of the intricacies of the world, a product of her being for the first time awake, in a state of joy. Despite the surface level joy, Eugénie’s openness gives way to ill considered emotions which prop themselves up through their interposed force: happiness supports sadness which supports happiness. If this is her coming to greater awareness of the fact, the strange paradox does not seem to disappear, but rather unifies the scene before her.
Eugénie’s joy is almost immediately interrupted when she reflects inward: “she experienced a tumultuous stirring of the heart. She got up again and again, stood before her mirror, and looked at herself like a conscientious author examining his own work critically and telling himself what is wrong with it. ‘I am not beautiful enough for him.’ This was Eugénie’s humble thought, a thought giving rise to much suffering” (56). Eugénie’s appearance is the first vocalized consideration in her enlightened state. She wakes up earlier than usual with the intention of adding self-adorning to her morning routine and is thus inspired to look in the mirror. Had she not felt this joy, she would have carried out the morning like any other and not thought critically of herself when passing by her reflection in the mirror. However, she does, and is immediately dissatisfied with herself in her newfound self-reflection.
Rousseau’s theories commiserate with Eugénie’s disappointment, suggesting that, in order to actually be happy, one must not be aware of the happy state. He outlines the criteria for genuine happiness as a state in which the soul finds a solid enough base to rest itself on entirely and to gather its whole being into, without needing to recall the past or encroach upon the future; in which time is nothing for it; in which the present last forever without, however, making its duration noticed and without any trace of time’s passage; without any other sentiment of deprivation or of enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear, except that of our existence, and having this sentiment alone fill it completely; as long as this state lasts, he who finds himself in it can call himself happy (68-69).
Rousseau here outlines the only form of real happiness, stating that it must not be imposed upon by any outside thought. Eugénie’s happiness is immediately brought to an end when she experiences, simultaneously, “desire and fear,” two emotions Rousseau has pointedly expressed are destructive to absolute happiness: desire for Charles being the basis of her happiness, and concern that he does not share her affections acting as her fear. Eugénie looking in the mirror is symbolic of the end of her state of happiness: it ushers in at once her fear and her desire.
Eugénie’s father declares he will never permit her to marry Charles, and, with that dreaded comment, her world comes to a halt. Balzac describes how “[e]verything seemed to swim before Eugénie’s eyes when she heard this reply. The faint hopes which were beginning to arise in her heart suddenly blossomed and opened out to form a nosegay of flowers which she saw rent apart and strewn on the ground” (63). She runs back to the garden, and a setting once associated with joy becomes a symbol of loss: the flowers which formerly represented her happy thoughts are now “rent apart and strewn on the ground.” In a state of simplicity, the garden, like the Garden of Eden, is a symbol of joy, yet, with self-awareness, the Garden of Eden is an emblem of utter loss.
Rousseau draws on the harm in self-awareness in the context of themes involved in the Garden of Eden, stating that, as he observes a similar garden: “even cockscomb and clover that had most likely been sown there some time ago and were very suitable for housing rabbits which could multiply in peace there without fearing anything and without doing harm” (66). That the rabbits are multiplying “in peace... without fearing anything and without doing harm” is indicative of a total lack of self-awareness. That they are not self-aware means they are not ashamed, unlike Adam and Eve when punished for eating from the tree of knowledge.
In Eugénie Grandet, E ugénie’s happiness is born from love, and, as a result of her love, she is drawn to look at herself in the mirror, prompting unmitigated self-awareness. Her self-awareness, born from happiness, is the cause of her unhappiness. Balzac predicts Eugénie’s fall to unhappiness by reminding the reader that a self-aware happiness is accompanied by a fear of loss or a longing for preservation, both sensations racked in anxiety, transforming joy into despair.