Père Goriot is a strong indictment of the hollowness and falsity of materialism and desire for wealth and status. In Honoré de Balzac’s morality tale, those who strive for personal gain may achieve it, but most of them are subsequently ruined and all pay the price of their integrity. Balzac is especially harsh on those who violate the bonds of familial devotion: Goriot’s daughters who badly mistreat their father. He is not entirely sympathetic to the father, however. The author holds him up as an example of inadequate, misguided parenting: Goriot not only failed to instill proper values in his children but also indulged them until it was too late to turn back. Indeed, Balzac has few kinds words for any member of corrupt Parisian society.
The protagonist of the story exemplifies Balzac’s attitude toward social climbing. Eugène de Rastignac’s goal is to make his name among the French elites and has no qualms about using anyone to help him. His encounters with both of Goriot’s daughters, Anastasie and Delphine, are disillusioning: one turns him away after learning of his connection to her father, of whom she is ashamed, and the other tries to use him to cover her gambling debts. Eugène becomes so detached from his moral center that he agrees to commit murder just for the possibility of marrying a wealthy woman, but is spared at the last minute by outside intervention.
In the end, Goriot dies estranged from his selfish, greedy daughters who will not even pay for his funeral. The reversal of proper roles and the excesses of unbridled greed harm not only those who indulge in them, Balzac suggests, but weaken the entire social fabric.