Le Père Goriot
Also translated as Old Goriot
This masterpiece is another example of Balzac’s skill at depicting the complexity of human behaviour. He uses a boarding house as a setting to show the deleterious impact of social mobility in post-revolutionary Paris…the irony is, of course, that all this inequity takes place after the Revolution which was meant to end it.
Père Goriot is a retired pasta manufacturer whose daughters marry into Parisian society and then reject their father while happily taking what remains of his money. Eugene de Rastignac, a young man of limited means from the provinces, similarly exploits the nest egg of his mother and sisters to pay for the fripperies he wants so that he can fit into the upper echelons of society.
Balzac seems to think that the desire to be better than others is ingrained. Madame Vauquer is the landlady of what must be the seediest boarding house in Paris. It’s respectable, but that’s because young women won’t board there and her lodgers are men too poor to live a dissipated lifestyle. Mme Vauquer is a miserable old skinflint: the place is notable for its ‘odeur de pension’ and its ‘dire, parsimonious, concentrated threadbare poverty’. (Kindle locations 68-73 and 82-87). Initially this miserly woman sets her cap at Père Goriot because (impressed by his extensive silver plate and a wardrobe full of cambric shirts) she thinks he is well off when first he comes to stay. However as his daughters milk him of his wealth, Mme Vauquer and the other guests mock him mercilessly.
‘Even the lowliest like to show their superiority over someone else. Perhaps it is only human nature to inflict suffering on anything that will endure suffering; whether by reason of its genuine humility, or indifference, or sheer helplessness. Do we not, one and all, like to feel our strength even at the expense of someone or of something?’ (Kindle location 237-242).
Perhaps Mme Vauquer wants to deflect attention from her own folly too? In her quest to seduce Père Goriot she had enlisted the help of one of her lodgers: the ‘Countess’, Mme de l’Ambermesnil. Inherently suspicious of all her other lodgers, she trusted a ‘Countess’ she barely knew to speak kindly of her to Père Goriot…
‘Perhaps there are people who know that they have nothing more to look for from those with whom they live; they have shown the emptiness of their hearts to their housemates, and in their secret selves they are conscious that they are severely judged, and that they deserve to be judged severely, but still they feel an unconquerable craving for praises that they do not hear, or they are consumed by a desire to possess, in the eyes of a new audience, the qualities which they have not, hoping to win the admiration or affection of strangers at the risk of forfeiting it again some day. Or once more, there are other mercenary natures who never do a kindness to a friend or relation simply because these have a claim upon them, while a service done to a stranger brings its reward to self-love. Such natures feel but little affection for those who are nearest to them; they keep their kindness for remoter circles of acquaintance, and show most to those who dwell on its utmost limits. Mme. Vauquer belonged to both these essentially mean, false, and execrable classes. (Kindle location 212-16)
Alas for Mme Vauquer her ‘friend’ also has designs on Père Goriot, and when he sends her away with a flea in her ear, her pride is wounded and she abandons the boarding house, leaving six months’ rent unpaid. With vengeance against Mme de l’Ambermesnil thus thwarted, Mme de Vauquer vents her fury on Père Goriot, and her aversion was ‘naturally more energetic than her friendship, for her hatred was not in proportion to her love, but to her disappointed expectations. The human heart may find here and there a resting place short of the highest height of affection, but we seldom stop in the steep, downward slope of hatred’. (Kindle location 321-331). What a sharp observer of human frailty is Balzac!
Poor Goriot is bankrupt. His daughters’ marriages to society men have turned out badly, and they come to him for money again and again. Delphine’s husband is a bully, and Anastasie has to sell off heirloom jewellery to pay her lover’s debts. He pawns everything he has until he has nothing left and then lives in abject poverty – without even the solace of seeing his beloved girls once they realise he can’t help them any more. Frustrated and powerless, he suffers a stroke.
These monsters of selfishness do not come when he is on his death-bed and they don’t help defray any of his expenses either: it’s his friend Eugene Rastignac who sends for medical help, pays the bills and arranges the funeral. Before he dies Père Goriot finally sees his daughters for what they are: utterly compromised by Paris and the lifestyle he thought he wanted them to have.
Rastignac has tried to live by his principles but is compromised too. His family has struggled to raise the money for him to come from the provinces to study law, but his cousin Madame de Beauséant soon tells him that he must socialise in order to be a successful lawyer – and he doesn’t have the money for that. The need for money is fuelled further by his friendship with Goriot’s daughter Delphine and so he bleeds his mother and sisters of further funds until they are no longer able to help him.
A weak and naive young man, Rastignac is repelled when Vautrin, a fellow-lodger of dubious antecedents hatches a plot for him to marry Victorine, also a lodger at Mme Vauquer’s. Victorine’s would stand to inherit the family fortune if her brother died, and Vautrin offers to have this brother killed in a duel. Marriage is a currency, you see, people like Vautrin and Mme de Beaseant are traders in it. But before long the police are after Vautrin, who turns out to be a master criminal known as Trompe-la-Mort (‘Cheater of Death’). He’s betrayed by the vindictive old spinster (Mme Michonneau) at the boarding house and captured, but not before he has arranged for a friend to kill Victorine’s brother. Rastignac feels guilty about this, because he was asleep when he should have been trying to prevent the duel.
The story concludes as Rastignac sets out dine with Delphine, knowing that Paris has him in its grip and he cannot escape it.
Summary by Lisa Hill, May 2010