Père Goriot is a novel of beautifully balanced ironies. A young provincial, Eugène de Rastignac, comes to Paris and finds lodging in the same boardinghouse as a decrepit former pasta maker, Père Goriot. While the other lodgers make Goriot the butt of their jokes, Eugène feels an instinctive sympathy for him. Goriot, formerly wealthy, has inexplicably fallen upon hard times; for no visible reason, his fortune has melted away. He bears his humiliation with a seemingly imbecilic meekness. Another mysterious lodger, Vautrin, takes a liking to young Eugène and shocks him with a cynical offer to help him escape poverty. Vautrin eloquently states the philosophy that the ends always justify the means.
The setting is Balzac’s Paris, a semimythic place that foreshadows the Paris of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1931). The evil and the angelic live side by side and wrestle in this setting. Evil, with the unbridled power of money on its side, appears to have the upper hand. Eugène, from motives of wishing to help his family, especially his two sisters, decides to put aside the drudgery of his law studies and apprenticeship and take a shortcut to easy wealth. He persuades his mother, back home in the provinces, to sell her jewels and asks his sisters for their savings in order to outfit him for his great adventure of storming high society. While only a poor relation, he wishes to exploit...
There are many conjectures at Madame Vauquer’s boardinghouse about the mysterious Monsieur Goriot. He had taken the choice rooms on the first floor when he first retired from his vermicelli business, and for a time his landlady had eyed him as a prospective husband. When, at the end of his second year at the Maison Vauquer, he asked to move to a cheap room on the second floor, rumor had it that he was an unsuccessful speculator, a miser, and a moneylender. The mysterious young women who flitted up to his rooms from time to time were said to be his mistresses, although he protested that they were his two daughters. The other boarders called him Père Goriot. At the end of the third year, Goriot moved to a still cheaper room on the third floor. By that time, he was the common butt of jokes at the boardinghouse table, and his daughters visited him only rarely.
One evening, the impoverished law student, Eugène de Rastignac, comes home late from the ball that his wealthy cousin, Madame de Beauséant, has given. Peeking through the keyhole of Goriot’s door, he sees the old man molding silver plate into ingots. The next day, he hears his fellow boarder, Monsieur Vautrin, say that early in the morning he had seen Père Goriot selling a piece of silver to an old moneylender. What Vautrin does not know is that the money thus obtained is intended for Goriot’s daughter, Countess Anastasie de Restaud, whom Eugène had met at the dance the night before.
That afternoon, Eugène pays his respects to the countess. Père Goriot is leaving the drawing room when he arrives. The countess, her lover, and her husband receive Eugène graciously because of his connections with Madame de Beauséant, but when he mentions that they have the acquaintance of Père Goriot in common, he is quickly shown to the door, the count leaving word with his servant that he is not to be at home if Monsieur de Rastignac calls again.
After this rebuff, Eugène calls on Madame de Beauséant to ask her aid in unraveling the mystery. She explains that de Restaud’s house will be barred to him because both of Goriot’s daughters, having been given sizable dowries, are gradually severing all connection with their father and therefore will not tolerate anyone who has knowledge of Goriot’s shabby circumstances. She suggests that Eugène send word through Goriot to his other daughter, Delphine de Nucingen, that Madame de Beauséant will receive her. She knows that Delphine will welcome the invitation and will become Eugène’s sponsor out of gratitude.
Vautrin has another suggestion for the young man. Under Madame Vauquer’s roof lives Victorine Taillefer, who has been disinherited by her wealthy father in favor of her brother. Eugène has already found favor in her eyes, and Vautrin suggests that for 200,000 francs he will have the brother murdered, so that Eugène might marry the heir. Vautrin gives him two weeks to consider the offer.
The next evening, Eugène escorts Madame de Beauséant to the theater, where he is presented to Delphine de Nucingen, who receives him graciously. The next day he receives an invitation to dine with the de Nucingens and to accompany them to the theater. Before dinner, he and Delphine...