In this novel, Honoré Balzac presents two apparently contrasting characters: the youthful Eugène de Rastignac and the elderly Père Goriot. Falling prey to the machinations of the unscrupulous Vautrin, Eugène decides to pursue wealth and sybaritic self-indulgence and to cast aside the respectable legal career to which he had aspired. Goriot, a fellow lodger in Madame Vauquer’s boardinghouse, has moved from a lovely suite to a tiny garret room. By the novel’s end, however, we see that both characters, in different ways, are swallowed by the hypocrisy of post-Napoleonic French society. Eugène, largely unsuccessful in his efforts, ends up poorer than when he started, and Goriot dies penniless and alienated from his daughters.
Eugène tries to use his elegant cousin Madame de Beauséant to scale the social ladder. After using her name to gain an audience with one of Goriot’s well-connected daughters, Countess Anastasie de Restaud, Eugène is shocked by Anastasie’s rebuff. Another daughter, Delphine, is more receptive, and he soon gains her favor. It turns out, however, that she wants him to help her gamble and win money that she will, in turn, use to help another lover. Goriot commits to helping Delphine support Eugène by renting an apartment for him, where the old man will live upstairs.
To gain a wife and not just a mistress, Eugène is tempted by the villainous Vautrin, who persuades Eugène to pay him to have another man killed so that his fiancée, Victorine, will be free to marry Eugène. At first, he refuses; then, he decides that this is a sensible plan; but then, he changes his mind again and tries unsuccessfully to warn the victim. In the process, however, another boarding house guest drugs Vautrin, thereby exposing him as a master criminal in disguise. Eugène is spared being implicated in the murder plot, but it seems marriage to Victorine will not occur.
Père Goriot is often compared to King Lear. Goriot turns over all his worldly goods to support his daughters’ extravagant lifestyles. They, in turn, lavish the money on unworthy lovers, constantly demanding more of their father and at the same time despising him for not giving them enough and for growing poor. When Goriot is taken fatally ill, Anastasie does come to him, but Delphine refuses. Finally, after his death, the daughters will not even pay for his burial. Although the story focuses on a handful of characters, the larger social universe in which they revolve is the true subject of Balzac’s criticism. As each person acts based on the omnipresent, false social values, no one truly escapes the toxic environment of the French society of Balzac’s day.