Author: Honore de Balzac (1799-1850)
Type of work: Naturalism
Time of plot: c. 1819
First published: Le Pere Goriot, 1835 (English translation, 1899)
A gallery of fascinating characters, each with his own intriguing history, is assembled in Mme. Vauquer's boardinghouse. Among them is Father Goriot. Gradually, he squanders away his ample retirement funds to pay the bills of his two ungrateful and profligate daughters. Finally, he is buried in a pauper's grave, and his children do not even attend the funeral. Other stories and characters interweave within this larger frame. Most effective is the history of Eugene de Rastignac, a poor law student who is subtly transformed from a naive provincial into a Parisian gentleman.
Father Goriot, a lonely old lodger at the pension of Madame Vauquer in Paris. Known to the other boarders as Old Goriot, he is a retired manufacturer of vermicelli who sold his prosperous business in order to provide handsome dowries for his two daughters. During his first year at the Maison Vauquer, he occupied the best rooms in the house; in the second year he asked for less expensive quarters on the floor above, and at the end of the third year he moved into a cheap, dingy room on the third story. Because two fashionably dressed young women have visited him from time to time in the past, the old man has become an object of curiosity and suspicion; the belief is that he has ruined himself by keeping two mistresses. Actually Old Goriot is a man in whom parental love has become an obsession, a love unappreciated and misused by his two selfish, heartless daughters, who make constant demands on his meager resources. After a life of hard work, careful saving, and fond indulgence of his children, he has outlived his usefulness and is now in his dotage. Happy in the friendship of Eugene de Rastignac, the law student who becomes the lover of one of the daughters, he uses the last of his money to provide an apartment for the young man, a place where Old Goriot will also have his own room. But before the change can be made the daughters drive their father to desperation by fresh demands for money to pay their bills. He dies attended only by Eugene and Bianchon, a poor medical student, and in his last moments he speaks lovingly of the daughters who have ruined him and made him the victim of their ingratitude. The daughters send their empty carriages to follow his coffin to the grave.
Countess Anastasie de Restaud, the more fashionable of Old Goriot's daughters, constantly in need of money to indulge her extravagant tastes and to provide for her lover. Meeting her at a ball given by his distant relative, Madame de Beauseant, Eugene de Rastignac immediately falls in love with Anastasie. When he calls on her he finds Old Goriot just leaving. His mention of his fellow lodger causes Anastasie and her husband to treat the young law student with great coldness, and he realizes that he is no longer welcome in their house. Later Madame de Beauseant explains the mystery, saying that Anastasie is ashamed of her humble origins and her tradesman father.
Baroness Delphine de Nucingen, Old Goriot's second daughter, the wife of a German banker. Like her sister Anastasie, she married for position and money, but her place in society is not as exalted as that of the Countess de Restaud, who has been received at court. As a result, the sisters are not on speaking terms. Madame de Beauseant, amused by Eugene de Rastignac's youthful ardor, suggests that he introduce her to the Baroness de Nucingen in order to win Delphine's gratitude and a place for himself in Parisian society. Delphine accepts the young man as her lover. Though selfcentered and snobbish, she is less demanding than her sister; she has asked for less, given more of herself, and brought more happiness to her father. When Old Goriot is dying, she goes to the Maison Vauquer at Eugene's insistence, but she arrives too late to receive her father's blessing.
Eugene de Rastignac, an impoverished law student, the son of a landed provincial family. As ambitious as he is handsome, he is determined to conquer Paris. At first his lack of sophistication makes him almost irresistible to his relative, Madame de Beauseant, and Delphine de Nucingen, whose lover he becomes. He learns cynicism without losing his warm feelings; he never wavers in his regard for Old Goriot, and while he does not attend seriously to the law studies for which his family is making a great sacrifice, he manages to get on in fashionable society, where friendships and influence are important. The revelation of the ways of the world that he gains through the patronage of Madame de Beauseant, his love affair with Delphine, and his regard for Old Goriot, as well as the shabby activities in which he engages in order to maintain himself in the world of fashion, make him all the more ambitious and eager to succeed.
Madame Vauquer, the sly, shabby, penurious owner of the Maison Vauquer, the perfect embodiment of the atmosphere that prevails in the pension. When Old Goriot first moves into her boardinghouse, she considers him as a possible suitor, but after he fails to respond to her coy attentions she makes him an object of gossip and ridicule.
Monsieur Vautrin, a man who claims to be a former tradesman living at the Maison Vauquer. Reserved, sharp-tongued, secretive, he observes everything that goes on about him and is aware of Old Goriot's efforts to provide money for his daughters. Knowing that Eugene de Rastignac desperately needs money in order to maintain himself in society, he suggests that the young man court Victorine Taillefer, another lodger, an appealing young girl whose father has disinherited her in favor of her brother. Vautrin says that he will arrange to have the brother killed in a duel, a death that will make Victorine an heiress. He gives Eugene two weeks to consider his proposition. Eugene considers Vautrin a devil, but in the end, driven to desperation by his mistress, he begins to court Victorine. True to Vautrin's word, Victorine's brother is fatally wounded in a duel. Vautrin's scheme fails when he is arrested and revealed as a notorious criminal, Jacques Collin, nicknamed Trompe-la-Mort. Though his identity has been betrayed within the pension, he swears that he will return and continue his climb to good fortune by the same unscrupulous means used by those who call themselves respectable.
Victorine Taillefer, a young girl cast off by her harsh father, who has decided to make his son his only heir. She lives with Madame Couture at the Maison Vauquer.
Madame Couture, the widow of a public official and a lodger at the Maison Vauquer. A kindhearted woman, she fills the place of a mother in the lonely life of Victorine Taillefer.
Monsieur Poiret, a lodger at the Maison Vauquer. Gondureau, a detective, confides in him that he suspects that Monsieur Vautrin is in reality the famous criminal, Trompe-la-Mort.
Mademoiselle Michonneau, an elderly spinster living at the Maison Vauquer. Disliking Monsieur Vautrin, her fellow boarder, she agrees to put a drug in his coffee. While Vautrin is asleep, she discovers the brand of a criminal on his shoulder. Acting on this information, the police appear and arrest Vautrin.
Gondureau, the detective who is trying to track down Jacques Collin, called Trompe-la-Mort, a criminal who lives at the Maison Vauquer under the name of Vautrin. Gondureau arranges with Monsieur Poiret and Mademoiselle Michonneau to have Vautrin drugged in order to learn whether he bears a criminal brand on his shoulder.
Count Maxime de Trailles, an arrogant but impecunious young nobleman, the lover of Anastasie de Restaud. For his sake she helps to impoverish her father.
Madame de Beauseant, a relative of Eugene de Rastignac. Aristocratic and high-minded, she is the ideal of inherited culture and good manners--kind, reserved, warmhearted, beautiful. Though saddened by the loss of her lover, she treats Eugene with great kindness, receives Delphine de Nucingen for his sake, and introduces the young man into fashionable Parisian society.
Bianchon, a poor medical student living at the Maison Vauquer. Like Eugene de Rastignac, he befriends Old Goriot and attends him when the old man is dying. Bianchon extends friendship easily and allows warm human feelings to influence his relations with other people.
Sylvie, the plump cook at the Maison Vauquer.
Christophe, Madame Vauquer's man of all work.
There were many conjectures at Madame Vauquer's boardinghouse about the mysterious Monsieur Goriot. He had taken the choice rooms on the first floor when he first retired from his vermicelli business, and for a time his landlady had eyed him as a prospective husband. When, at the end of his second year at the Maison Vauquer, he had asked to move to a cheap room on the second floor, he was credited with being an unsuccessful speculator, a miser, and a moneylender. The mysterious young women who flitted up to his rooms from time to time were said to be his mistresses, although he protested that they were only his two daughters. The other boarders called him Father Goriot.
At the end of the third year, Goriot moved to a still cheaper room on the third floor. By that time, he was often the butt of jokes at the boardinghouse table, and his daughters rarely visited him.
One evening the impoverished law student, Eugene de Rastignac, came home late from the ball his wealthy cousin, Madame de Beauseant, had given. Peeking through the mysterious Goriot's keyhole, he saw him molding some silver plate into ingots. The next day he heard his fellow boarder, Monsieur Vautrin, say that early in the morning he had seen Father Goriot selling a piece of silver to an old moneylender. What Vautrin did not know was that the money thus obtained was intended for Goriot's daughter, Countess Anastasie de Restaud, whom Eugene had met at the dance the night before.
That afternoon Eugene paid his respects to the countess. Father Goriot was leaving the drawing room when he arrived. The countess, her lover, and her husband received Eugene graciously because of his connections with Madame de Beauseant, but when he mentioned they had the acquaintance of Father Goriot in common, he was quickly shown to the door, the count leaving word with his servant that he was not to be at home if Monsieur de Rastignac called again.
After his rebuff, Eugene went to call on Madame de Beauseant, to ask her aid in unraveling the mystery. She quickly understood what had happened and explained that de Restaud's house would be barred to him because both of Goriot's daughters, having been given sizable dowries, were gradually severing all connection with their father and therefore would not tolerate anyone who had knowledge of Goriot's shabby circumstances. She suggested that Eugene send word through Goriot to his other daughter, Delphine de Nucingen, that Madame de Beauseant would receive her. She knew that Delphine would welcome the invitation and would be grateful to Eugene and become his sponsor.
Vautrin had another suggestion for the young man. Under Madame Vauquer's roof lived Victorine Taillefer, who had been disinherited by her wealthy father in favor of her brother. Eugene had already found favor in her eyes, and Vautrin suggested that for two hundred thousand francs he would have the brother murdered, so that Eugene might marry the heiress. He was to have two weeks in which to consider the offer.
Eugene escorted Madame de Beauseant to the theater next evening. There he was presented to Delphine de Nucingen, who received him graciously. The next day he received an invitation to dine with the de Nucingens and to go to the theater. Before dinner he and Delphine drove to a gambling house where, at her request, he gambled and won six thousand francs. She explained that her husband would give her no money, and she needed it to pay a debt she owed to an old lover.
Before long Eugene learned that it cost money to keep the company of his new friends. Unable to press his own family for funds, he would not stoop to impose on Delphine. Finally, as Vautrin had foreseen, he was forced to take his fellow boarder's offer. The tempter had just finished explaining the duel between Victorine's brother and his confederate which was to take place the following morning when Father Goriot came in with the news that he and Delphine had taken an apartment for Eugene.
Eugene wavered once more at the thought of the crime which was about to be committed in his name. He attempted to send a warning to the victim through Father Goriot, but Vautrin, suspicious of his accomplice, thwarted the plan. Vautrin managed to drug their wine at supper so that both slept soundly that night.
At breakfast, Eugene's fears were realized. A messenger burst in with the news that Victorine's brother had been fatally wounded in a duel. After the girl hurried off to see him, another singular event occurred. After drinking his coffee, Vautrin fell to the ground as if he had suffered a stroke. When he was carried to his room and undressed, it was ascertained by marks on his back that he was the famous criminal, Trompe-la-Mort. One of the boarders, an old maid, had been acting as an agent for the police; she had drugged Vautrin's coffee so that his criminal brand could be exposed. Shortly afterward the police appeared to claim their victim.
Eugene and Father Goriot were preparing to move to their new quarters, for Goriot was to have a room over the young man's apartment. Delphine arrived to interrupt Goriot's packing. She was in distress. Father Goriot had arranged with his lawyer to force de Nucingen to make a settlement so that Delphine would have an independent income on which to draw, and she brought the news that her money had been so tied up by investments it would be impossible for her husband to withdraw any of it without bringing about his own ruin.
Hardly had Delphine told her father of her predicament when Anastasie de Restaud drove up. She had sold the de Restaud diamonds to help her lover pay off his debts, and she had been discovered by her husband. De Restaud had bought them back, but as punishment he demanded control of her dowry.
Eugene could not help overhearing the conversation through the thin partition between the rooms; when Anastasie said that she still needed twelve thousand francs for her lover, he forged one of Vautrin's drafts for that amount and took it to Father Goriot's room. Anastasie's reaction was to berate him for eavesdropping.
The financial difficulties of his daughters and the hatred and jealousy they had shown proved too much for Father Goriot. At the dinner table, he looked as if he were about to have a stroke of apoplexy, and when Eugene returned from an afternoon spent with his mistress, Delphine, the old man was in bed, too ill to be moved to his new home. He had gone out that morning to sell his last few possessions, so that Anastasie might pay her dressmaker for an evening gown.
In spite of their father's serious condition, both daughters attended Madame de Beauseant's ball that evening, and Eugene was too much under his mistress' influence to refuse to accompany her. The next day, Goriot was worse. Eugene tried to summon his daughters. Delphine was still abed and refused to be hurried over her morning toilet. Anastasie arrived at his bedside only after Father Goriot had lapsed into a coma and no longer recognized her.
Father Goriot was buried in a pauper's grave the next day. Eugene tried to borrow burial money at each daughter's house, but each sent word that they were in deep grief over their loss and could not be seen. He and a poor medical student from the boardinghouse were the only mourners at the funeral. Anastasie and Delphine sent their empty carriages to follow the coffin. It was their final tribute to an indulgent father.
Honore de Balzac's writing career spanned thirty years, from the decisive point in 1819 when he elected to abandon the study of law until his untimely death in 1850. His work up until 1829 consisted of novels, stories, and sketches on a variety of philosophical and social themes. They are, on the whole, undistinguished; Balzac later averred that the decade from 1819 until he began work on The Chouans in 1829 constituted his apprenticeship in the art of fiction. Certainly, the works of the last twenty years of his life show the benefits of that long period of development, both in stylistic and tonal precision and in general weight and narrative direction.
Many critics contend that the generative idea for The Human Comedy came to Balzac as he was writing Father Goriot, because in the manuscript the name of the young student is Massiac until in the scene of the afternoon call at Madame de Beauseant's house "Massiac" is abruptly scratched out and "Rastignac" inserted. The character Eugene de Rastignac had appeared in a minor role in The Wild Ass's Skin (1831), and the assumption is that the decision to reintroduce him at an earlier stage of his life in Father Goriot betokens a flash of creative light that revealed to the author a cycle of interconnected novels depicting every aspect of society and having numerous characters in common--The Human Comedy. That the idea came to him quite so suddenly is doubtful, since, as Henry Reed has pointed out, he had already decided to ring in Madames de Langeais and de Beauseant and the moneylender Gobseck, all of whom appear in previous works. It is certain, however, that Father Goriot is the first work in which the device of repetition occurs and in which the uncertain fates of two main characters, Eugene and Vautrin, point so obviously to other stories.
The novel began as a short story about parental obsession and filial ingratitude. Its title is most often translated into English as Father Goriot, losing the significance of the definite article. Its inclusion is not grammatically necessary in French, but the sense is more truly rendered as Goriot the Father. The point is that the condition of fatherhood absorbs the whole life and personality of old Goriot. At one time both a husband and a businessman, he has lost or given up these roles; he lives only in the paternal relation, existing at other times, in the boarders' neat phrase, as "an anthropomorphous mollusc." He seems, at first, horribly victimized, so betrayed and ill-repaid by his harpy daughters that his situation excites the silent sympathy of even such hard gems of the haute monde as the Duchesse de Langeais and Madame de Beauseant. His gratitude to his offspring for their least notice, slightingly and ungraciously bestowed as it may be, and his joyful self-sacrifice and boundless self-delusion fill the reader with pity. Was there ever, Balzac seems to ask, a parent so ill-used?
He is the author of his own distress. Balzac leaves no doubt that Goriot reared the two girls in such a way as to ensure that they would be stupid, vain, idle, and grasping women. "The upbringing he gave his daughters was of course preposterous." As he lies dying, his outburst of impotent rage reminds one of Lear; their situations are similar in that each in the folly of his heart wreaks his own ruin. Lear's abasement leads to self-recognition and moral rebirth, but Goriot clings to his delusion to the end, clings to it with a mad tenacity, demanding of unfeeling reality that it conform to his dream of the rewards due faithful parenthood. In fact, he is properly rewarded, for he has been a bad father, the worst of fathers. Parenthood being both privilege and trust, Goriot has enjoyed the first and betrayed the last, as he himself recognizes in a brief interval of lucidity: "The finest nature, the best soul on earth would have succumbed to the corruption of such weakness on a father's part." Indulging himself in the warmth of their goodwill, he has failed in his duty to their moral sense; they are, as adults, mirror images of his own monumental selfishness, made, as it were, of the very stuff of it: "It was I who made them, they belong to me."
To this "obscure but dreadful Parisian tragedy" is added the separate tales of Rastignac and Vautrin, each quite self-contained and yet bound to the other two by the most subtle bonds. One of these links is the recurrent reference to parenthood, good and bad. At every turn, some facet of the parent-child relation is held up for the reader's notice: the wretchedness of the cast-off child Victorine Taillefer, for example, so like Goriot's wretchedness; Madame de Langeais' disquisition on sons-in-law, later echoed by Goriot; the parental tone taken with Eugene both by Madame de Beauseant ("Why you poor simple child!" and in a different way by Vautrin ("You're a good little lad . . .") in giving him wicked worldly advice in contrast to the good but dull counsel of his own mother; the filial relationship that develops between Eugene and Goriot; even Vautrin's enormously ironic nicknames for his landlady ("Mamma Vauquer") and the police ("Father Cop").
Another element linking the haute monde, the Maison Vauquer, and the underworld is the fact that they are all partners in crime. Goriot, for example, made his original fortune in criminal collusion with members of the de Langeais family. Vautrin neatly arranges the death of Mademoiselle Taillefer's brother for the benefit of the half-willing Rastignac. The Baron de Nucingen invests Delphine's dowry in an illegal building scheme. Vautrin, Goriot, and Anastasie all resort to "Papa Gobseck" the moneylender. The reader hears a precept uttered by Madame de Beauseant ("in Paris, success is everything, it's the key to power") enunciated a few pages later by Vautrin ("Succeed! . . . succeed at all costs"). The reader is clearly meant to see that whatever differences exist among the various levels of society, they are differences not of kind but of degree. Corruption is universal.
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|Publication:||Masterpieces of World Literature|
|Article Type:||Reference Source|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1989|