Book Notes: Le Père Goriot

“Holding this book in your hand, sinking back in your soft armchair, you will say to yourself: perhaps it will amuse me. And after you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well, blaming the author for your own insensitivity, accusing him of wild exaggeration and flights of fancy. But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction. All is true.”

Le Père Goriot, Honoré de Balzac

  • Part of La Comédie humaine – the scientific novel work in which Balzac completed 90 novels which set out to examine in detail the human condition. The scientific approach being one of keen observation, and an attempt to set down the stories without authorial judgement on his characters. Written in 1819, set in Paris during the Bourbon Restoration.
  • Somewhat of a King Lear – Old Goriot is an elderly man with two daughters who he has set up financially, yet who shun him emotionally right up to his death. I would not try to draw this analogy too closely, except to note that both touch on themes of  inter-generational tension, inheritance, responsibility, filial love, insanity and the justice/injustice of death.
  • We see the tale mainly through the eyes of Eugène de Rastignac, a man from a bourgeois, yet impoverished family. In the course of the novel he abandons his law studies in order to climb the French social  ladder – and is almost willing to anything to put himself in comfortable circumstances. I say almost willing because in the end he chooses subjection to love over financial position by becoming the lover to a wealthy woman (who is prepared to keep him) rather than the husband to another woman who has come into wealth.
  • Critique of middle-class morality (and lack of). It seems as though everyone has a lover and this is quite open. Gambling, debt, falsity feature strongly in the lives of the upper class.
  • Vautrin (Cheat-death) the third central character after Goriot and Rastignac. Seen as scheming and Machiavellian in his dealings with Rastignac especially – still it is interesting to see how the boarding house members band together against his accuser. The sense that among any social group there is cohesion against the state or outsiders.
  • This book lacks redemption for any of its characters. A gripping portrait of Parisian society – in the wake of broken/stirred-up social traditions, the individual takes on a selfish identity. This is particularly true among the rich, whereas the poor still rely on each other and thus act in a more unified way even in the most basic social interaction.

“However gross a man may be, the minute he expresses a strong and genuine affection, some inner secretion alters his features, animates his gestures, and colors his voice. The stupidest man will often, under the stress of passion, achieve heights of eloquence, in thought if not in language, and seem to move in some luminous sphere. Goriot’s voice and gesture had at this moment the power of communication that characterizes the great actor. Are not our finer feelings the poems of the human will?”


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