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Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac [classic French realism]

La Pere GoriotWhat a joy it’s been to discover Honoré de Balzac. I’ve had Le Père Goriot on my shelf for years but now I’m wondering why I waited so long to read this unsparing indictment of Parisian society.

This is the work of a skilled wordsmith turning a shrewd eye on a city of increasing tension between the newly restored aristocratic class and the bourgeoisie class resulting from the Industrial Revolution. What Balzac sees is a corrupt, ruthless society that feeds on ambition, money and status.

Into its net steps a young, poor law student from the provinces. Eugène de Rastignac is determined to climb the ladder to wealth and status. He is undeterred by his lack of money (he simply exploits his poor mother and sisters by persuading them to sell their jewels) but he has a valuable connection through his cousin Madame de Beauséant.  She tutors him in the ways of high society, advising him bluntly that to succeed he must put aside his previous character.

The more cold-blooded your calculations, the further you will go. Strike ruthlessly; you will be feared. Men and women for you must be nothing more than post-horses; take a fresh relay, and leave the last to drop by the roadside; in this way you will reach the goal of your ambition.

The further Eugène progresses towards remaking himself, the more he sees that beneath the glitter lies a world of deceit, greed and manipulation and an obsessive love of money.

In the decrepit boarding house where he takes a lodging he experiences another kind of obsession in the shape of a fellow inhabitant, the retired pasta maker, Père Goriot. Once wealthy, the fortune of this old man appears to have melted away and he’s fallen on hard times. He’s a target for snide comments by other lodgers who soon learn that the two young and astonishingly beautiful girls seen entering his room are his daughters.  So obsessed with fatherly love, Père Goriot has sacrificed everything he ever owned to indulge these women and help them maintain their status in the salons of the city. He has just one shirt to his name while they run up bills with dressmakers and drive around the city in gilded coaches.

On his deathbed, one of the most pitiful scenes in the novel, Goriot cries out to see his daughters one more time, alternatively berating them for their ingratitude and forgiving them for going to a ball instead of visiting him. Eugène is so touched by the old man’s plight he chases around the city in search of the daughters to persuade them to visit their dying father. In the event, rather than attend Goriot’s funeral, his daughters simply send their empty coaches.

Goriot does at first appear to be a man to be pitied. But ultimately, Balzac makes it evident that Goriot is entirely responsible for this situation, having raised the girls in a way that ensured they would be vain, idle, and grasping women. “The upbringing he gave his daughters was of course preposterous,” we’re told at one point.  Far from being the epitomy of fatherhood he has spectacularly failed in his duty to install in them qualities of moral integrity and selflessness. In one of his few moments of lucidity Goriot is forced to acknowledge his culpability:  “It was I who made them, they belong to me.”

Goriot’s experience and the reaction of his daughters open Eugène’s eyes still further to the true nature of the society he has aspired to join. But it doesn’t deter him from his path. It means only that he goes forth, no longer an innocent youth, but a man more cynical and calculating, ready to take on the city.  Standing on a hill surveying the city laid out beneath him, he shouts a warning “Beware Paris, here I come — ”

There is plenty of drama and fast moving action to be found in this novel with some exciting set pieces. But it’s the meticulous detail in which Balzac describes Père Goriot’s boarding house lodging at Maison Vauquer and the penury of its inhabitants, that most held my attention. The book opens with a lengthy description of this establishment in the old Latin Quartier of Paris. It is not a place where you would relish having to spend even one night. The high garden walls surrounding the house give the impression of entering a prison , its shabby sitting room is full of furniture that is “old, rotten, shaky, cranky, worm-eaten, halt, maimed, one-eyed, rickety, and ramshackle”;  the bedrooms are wretched and the nauseating smells from the kitchen permeate the whole place. Sounds wonderful doesn’t it?

For page after page Balzac gives shape and form to this residence and breathes life into its tenants, detailing what brought them through the door of Maison Vauguer, what hopes they have for the future and how they relate to each other. The point isn’t simply to show the individuals involved in the drama but to depict a society patterned after the Parisian one. Here is the city in microcosm where the guests are lodged and treated according to their financial means and social position. Their room within the house changes as their fortunes fluctuate. Goriot himself had started in prime position on the lower ground but as a bankrupt he is despatched to the topmost and most decrepit room.  It’s a visible, uncomfortable reminder to Eugène of the fate that awaits him if his quest for higher social status should fail.

Having gobbled up Le Père Goriot, I’m now wondering what next by Balzac I should tackle…This is meant to be one of the best novels in La Comedie Humane series

End Notes

Le Père Goriot first appeared in 1834 in series form. My copy of this novel is a Penguin Classics edition translated by Marion Ayton Crawford. For a reason not explained in the foreword, the title is translated as Old Goriot, not Father Goriot which seems to eradicate the centrality of Goriot’s role as a father.  The point of the novel isn’t that Goriot is old, but that he is a father. Annoyingly I can’t find any explanation for this decision.

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