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?”


The perils of passion.

Although Emma Bovary is hardly a sympathetic protagonist, Madame Bovary is still one of my favourite novels. A little melodramatic in spots perhaps, but I assume that is the effect Flaubert was looking for in his condemnation of the new bourgeois and their destructive capacity for romantic narcissism. For it is a combination of self-aggrandisement and ridiculous romanticism which ultimately undoes the lovely young Emma, wife of a boring country doctor.

In brief, the plot: Emma Bovary marries (of her own choice) Charles Bovary, a country doctor and goes to live with him in a rural area that is barely even a town. Emma’s education has mostly been in the form of romantic novels, and she yearns for an exciting and romantic life such as have been depicted therein – but in the life of a country doctor’s wife she is bored and unable to find love in her marriage. A chance invitation to a ball in the nearest large town exposes Emma even further to a world she wishes to access and she is heartbroken by her life to the degree that Charles finds a new position in a larger village so she might be happier. It is here that despite now having a small child, Emma embarks on two affairs which each last for a few years, and in the process of trying to keep her lovers and the money flowing for their dalliances gets her household into deep debt, destroying her husband’s reputation and finances. Instead of facing what she has done in the end, Emma Bovary swallows arsenic and dies a horrible (unromantic) death, leaving her husband and child behind – a shell of a household.

As you can see, not very sympathetic – but for all that, Flaubert is not merciless to Emma and we are exposed to her motivations throughout the novel – chief being that she believes that life of women to be unfairly constrained. Throughout the novel she makes commentary on how men are free to do as they please, whereas she has never been free to choose her fate. Increasingly, this lack of freedom and choice choke Emma (literally, she comes close to dying from seizures and depression more than once), and she attempts to counterbalance it by acting as a man in her love affairs. In her first affair, she is very much controlled by Alphonse who has both money and an aloofness which puts her in his power, and yet still she at times seizes what she can by boldly coming into his house and disrobing before him. While she seeks to use her sex as the ultimate lure for Alphonse, she ultimately fails when she goes too far in pushing her agenda with him (to run away together), but in her second affair she takes a different tack all together. Because Leon is younger and has been enrapt by Emma for many years, she is able to take the lead in their relations and play the stronger character. In this role Emma is wild and mannish – she smokes cigarettes and drinks, eats heedlessly, borrows money recklessly and pursues sexual dalliances with Leon she ascribes to the masculine freedom she does have.

What Emma seems to really want from the world is the freedom to *be* her first lover Alphonse – a somewhat wild playboy who has enough money to live an exciting life. This is where she locates the passions – in fine food and drink, sex, smoking, beautiful clothing and accessories, and travel to large cities. In her home life of husband and child she sees nothing but tedium (not unlike Alphonse who recoils at the idea of becoming a stepfather) and chains. Interestingly, Emma doesn’t fixate on becoming one of the women in the high-flying community she seeks just above her – but is endlessly fascinated by the men and the access they could grant her to freedom.

Not unlike Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, it is hard to sympathize with Emma – who is actually much more wicked than Edna in the devastation she leaves behind with her suicide…. but at the same time, we can recognize the madness created in a world of such social constraint. Emma’s recklessness comes from a place of surfacing – as though she is drowning and the moments in which she breaks surface it is all she can do to gulp the passions she desperately craves. Rather than thinking about the loans and papers being signed at the local moneylenders, she sees only the possibility for more passions being met rather than the decimation of her family and ultimately her own life. And in this she appears powerless, swept into the current of her beating heart crying out for a different kind of life. An unrealistic life. An unsustainable life. But Emma doesn’t have the self-awareness to see that every piece of silver eventually tarnishes – and she is as caged in delusion as anything else.

At the end of Madame Bovary Emma is frantic in her delusion – that she can raise the money to forestall the bailiffs coming to auction off their household possessions – and she tears from one lover to the next demanding that they find a way to give her what she wants. Here Flaubert draws precisely the lack of substance in Emma’s relationships, the ephemerality of passion which is loyal to no one once it wafts away. Emma’s own personality becomes as insubstantial as she vacillates between being horrified at the notion of prostituting herself (to the country lawyer), and being willing to give herself back to Alphonse if he can come up with the money (despising him when he claims to be short of cash) – desperate for Leon, at least to show his love by stealing from his employer to aid her. Realizing at last that no one will come to her rescue, Emma crams a fistful of arsenic into her mouth in the hope of a peaceful death. Even this is denied of course, as poisoning is anything but peaceful and it takes her more than 24 hours of vomiting blood before she does die. Horrible!

And so we are left with the struggle of women in bourgeois society to find meaning, a moral tale about where meaning is not to be found, a commentary on social hypocrisy, and a condemnation of the stolidity of rational life (for while we don’t blame Charles for what happens, we aren’t particularly enamoured with his lack of fire either). Flaubert’s novel is certainly no “romance” (as often classified) but it is an examination of romantic ideals popular in his time – and a critique of a social order in which the denial of passions (while simultaneously elevating them in popular culture) could turn out to be as damaging as the passions themselves.

I haven’t read this yet – but here is an article by AS Byatt in the Guardian (from 2002) about Madame Bovary which promises to be interesting.