Balzac's novel is a critique of the early nineteenth century, following the fall of Napoleon and the Bourbon Restoration. The drama opens in 1819; Balzac writes:
Now and again there are tragedies so awful and so grand by reason of the complication of virtues and vices that bring them about, that egotism and selfishness are forced to pause and are moved to pity; but the impression that they receive is like a luscious fruit, soon consumed.
Balzac sets the stage for his tragedy of selfishness and self-centeredness—traits that he believes characterize France at this time. The three main characters, M. Goriot, Eugene de Rastignac, and M. Vautrin, all of whom live in Mme. Vauquer's boardinghouse, symbolize the forces in France at the time.
M. Goriot is a character deserving of pity, but, as Balzac writes, "Stately Paris ignores the existence of these faces bleached by moral or physical suffering." Beneath the glamorous facade of the city, Goriot lives in poverty, consuming only soup, vegetables, and boiled beef each day. He lives in penury to support his two selfish daughters, who seem to care very little for their father.
Eugene de Rastignac, a law student, symbolizes the way in which newcomers to Paris during this time yearned for the riches around them and became corrupted by the city. As Balzac writes about Rastignac, "If he begins by admiring the procession of carriages on sunny afternoons in the Champs-Elysees, he soon reaches the further stage of envying their owners." Rastignac begins to envy the wealth he sees around him. He begins to be corrupted by his cousin, Mme. de Beauseant, who tells him, "The more cold-blooded your calculations, the further you will go. Strike ruthlessly; you will be feared." She wants him to befriend Mme. Delphine de Nucingen, one of M. Goriot's selfish daughters, to make her fall in love with him in an attempt to get other rich women to fall in love with him.
Later, M. Vautrin tries to convince Rastignac to kill the son of Taillefer so that Rastignac can marry Mme. Victorine, Taillefer's daughter who will be wealthy once her brother is out of the way. M. Vautrin tries to convince Rastignac that he should use women as stepping stones toward social advancement. Rastignac refuses.
In the end, however, Rastignac, having witnessed Father Goriot's death without his daughters by his side, loses all his idealism. He sets off to be with Delphine, M. Goriot's daughter, who has enchanted him with her beauty. Balzac writes of Rastignac at the end of the novel, "His eyes turned almost eagerly to the space between the column of the Place Vendome and the cupola of the Invalides; there lay the shining world that he had wished to reach." In the end, Rastignac has become like all the other competitive Parisians around him. Balzac's novel is an indictment of the corruption and mercenary attitude of France at the time.