History: Originally published in serial form during the winter of 1834–35, Le Père Goriot is widely considered Balzac's most important novel. It marks the first serious use by the author of characters who had appeared in other books, a technique that distinguishes Balzac's fiction. The novel is also noted as an example of his realist style, using minute details to create character and subtext.
The novel was released to mixed reviews. Some critics praised the author for his complex characters and attention to detail; others condemned him for his many depictions of corruption and greed. A favorite of Balzac's, the book quickly won widespread popularity and has often been adapted for film and the stage. It gave rise to the French expression "Rastignac", a social climber willing to use any means to better his situation.
Le Père Goriot begins in June 1819, following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, after the House of Bourbon had been restored to the throne of France. A tension was mounting between the aristocracy – which had returned with King Louis XVIII – and the bourgeoisie produced by the Industrial Revolution. During this era, France saw a tightening of social structures, with a lower class steeped in overwhelming poverty. By one estimate, almost three-quarters of Parisians did not make the 500–600francs a year required for a minimal standard of living. At the same time, this upheaval made possible a social mobility unthinkable during the Ancien Régime of previous centuries. Individuals willing to adapt themselves to the rules of this new society could sometimes ascend into its upper echelons from modest backgrounds, much to the distaste of the established wealthy class.
Although the novel is often referred to as "a mystery", it is not an example of whodunit or detective fiction. Instead, the central puzzles are the origins of suffering and the motivations of unusual behavior. Characters appear in fragments, with brief scenes providing small clues about their identity.
Balzac included characters in the first edition of Le Père Goriot that would recur in later works. Although Balzac had used this technique before, the characters had always reappeared in minor roles, as nearly identical versions of the same people. Rastignac's appearance shows, for the first time in Balzac's fiction, a novel-length back-story that illuminates and develops a returning character.
Plot: The novel opens with an extended description of the Maison Vauquer, a boarding house in Paris' rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève covered with vines, owned by the widow Madame Vauquer. The residents include the law student Eugène de Rastignac, a mysterious agitator named Vautrin, and an elderly retired vermicelli-maker named Jean-Joachim Goriot. The old man is ridiculed frequently by the other boarders, who soon learn that he has bankrupted himself to support his two well-married daughters.
Rastignac, who moved to Paris from the south of France, becomes attracted to the upper class. He has difficulty fitting in, but is tutored by his cousin, Madame de Beauséant, in the ways of high society. Rastignac endears himself to one of Goriot's daughters, Delphine, after extracting money from his own already-poor family. Vautrin, meanwhile, tries to convince Rastignac to pursue an unmarried woman named Victorine, whose family fortune is blocked only by her brother. He offers to clear the way for Rastignac by having the brother killed in a duel.
Rastignac refuses to go along with the plot, balking at the idea of having someone killed to acquire their wealth, but he takes note of Vautrin's machinations. This is a lesson in the harsh realities of high society. Before long, the boarders learn that police are seeking Vautrin, revealed to be a master criminal nicknamed Trompe-la-Mort ("Cheater of Death"). Vautrin arranges for a friend to kill Victorine's brother, in the meantime, and is captured by the police.
Goriot, supportive of Rastignac's interest in his daughter and furious with her husband's tyrannical control over her, finds himself unable to help. When his other daughter, Anastasie, informs him that she has been selling off family jewelry to pay her lover's debts, the old man is overcome with grief at his own impotence and suffers a stroke.
Neither Delphine nor Anastasie will visit Goriot as he lies on his deathbed, and before dying he rages about their disrespect toward him. His funeral is attended only by Rastignac, a servant named Christophe, and two paid mourners. After the short ceremony, Rastignac turns to face Paris as the lights of evening begin to appear. He sets out to dine with Delphine de Nucingen and declares to the city: "À nous deux, maintenant!" ("It's between you and me now!")
Review: The novel takes place during the Bourbon Restoration, which brought about profound changes in French society; the struggle of individuals to secure upper-class status is ubiquitous in the book. The city of Paris also impresses itself on the characters – especially young Rastignac, who grew up in the provinces of southern France. Balzac analyzes, through Goriot and others, the nature of family and marriage, providing a pessimistic view of these institutions. Rastignac, the naive provincial who yearns to enter high Parisian society while learning its realities and costs; Vautrin, the convict, who has a greater practical understanding of the world than anyone else - a character both lovable and detestable; and Old Goriot himself, the archtypal father figure, who enslaves his happiness to his uncaring daughters but is too blinded by affection to see how they really treat him.
Goriot is both annoying and endearing, and in that way, I think he is most realistic of them all. He reminded me of the way parents can often see no wrong in their children - even when they are horribly obnoxious. This attitude can be taken so far as to see their children as perfect, even to the point of always putting a rosy spin on their faults.
But Goriot is an extreme case, and in that sense must be constrained as a literary character. Where any real person would eventually become exasperated by their daughter's exploitations, Goriot never swerves from his illusions. His unswerving devotion, even at his death, was disappointing to me. I think what makes me, as a reader, engaged by characters is watching them change and develop over the course of a story. Goriot never changed, never altered his thinking, always remained static, and in a way that made his seem a cardboard archtype.
Rastignac's character was, in contrast, very engaging. We saw him go through stages of self-delusion, discovery, ambition, self-doubt and loathing, realization, and finally acceptance of his lot. I particularly liked his attempts to remain naive; to ignore the banality around him and force himself to still see the world as he wanted to see it. I think we all do that when faced with trouble
Opening Line: “Madame Vauquer, nee de Conflans, is an old woman who for the past forty years has run a fmily boarding house in the rue Neuve-Sainte-Genevieve, between the latin Quarter and the Faubourg Saint-Marceau.”
Closing Line: “And as the first shot in the war he had thus declared on society, Rastignac went to dine with madame de Nucingen.”
Quotes: “"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."