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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1281

“At one o’clock one morning, during the winter of 1829-1830, two persons not members of the Vicomtesse de Grandlieu’s family were still in her salon. A handsome young man left the room as he heard the clock strike.” Thus casually begins a story in which another story will be told—a detailed recounting of social and moral evils.

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Madame de Grandlieu, the viscountess, has noticed in her daughter Camille a romantic inclination toward the young Count Ernest de Restaud, who has just left, and warns the seventeen-year-old girl that he has a mother capable of squandering away millions; as long as the mother lives, no family would approve the marriage of a young daughter with Ernest de Restaud. The other visitor that night, Mr. Derville, a lawyer and friend of the family, overhears Madame de Grandlieu’s words to Camille and announces a story that will modify the viscountess’s opinion about Ernest de Restaud’s fortunes.

More than a decade earlier, relates Derville, he sublet a room from a usurer, then a man in his late seventies. The moneylender occupied another room in the same damp and dark building. The only person with whom the miser had any neighborly communication was the narrator, at the time a law student of very limited means. There follows a description of the gaunt, strong old man, a striking personality notwithstanding his negative traits. Jean-Esther Van Gobseck was born about 1740 in the city of Anvers (Antwerp), of a Dutch father and a Jewish mother. When he was ten years old, his mother sent him away to the Dutch colonies in the East Indies. During the ensuing half-century, he knew the feeling of life imperiled and then saved, of fortune lost and found again; he did business with historic figures in remote lands; he became acquainted with all the particulars of the American Revolution. His religion was uncertain.

The old man spent most of his time either sitting in his dark room by a fireplace with more ashes than embers, or running about Paris hounding his debtors. He expressed his philosophy to Derville: “You believe in everything; I believe in nothing. Keep your illusions if you can”’ and “Gold represents all the human forces.” Gobseck related his encounters with two persons exemplifying extremes of behavior: a young working woman striving against all odds to support herself and a countess living in luxury but unable to satisfy a note signed to pay for the gambling losses of her lover. Gobseck boasted: He was rich enough to purchase the consciences of those who pulled the strings within the government; was that not power? He could have the loveliest women’s caresses; was that not pleasure? Did not power and pleasure sum up the whole social order? In the eyes of Derville, the gaunt, little old man grew into a grotesque figure personifying the power of money; life, especially humankind, horrified the young man. There is a ray of light in this spectacle of vice: The narrator, now the successful lawyer Derville, lets Madame de Grandlieu know that his wife is that same humble working girl long ago mentioned by Gobseck.

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The narration returns to the point where Derville finishes his studies and is able to acquire an independent office owing to a significant sum of money that Gobseck lends him at a high though not usurious rate of interest. A year later, Derville is present at a visit from Count Maxime de Trailies to the already octogenarian Gobseck; this count is the same well-known dandy—a supremely elegant, high-class gambler, and an unprincipled adventurer and exploiter of women—who several years before had played a role in the episode of the spendthrift countess. The beautiful noblewoman, Anastasie, appears at the moneylender’s quarters and shows him her diamonds—really those of her family—the value of which amounts to a fortune. Derville instructs the parties with his unfailing honesty while trying to hold out a hand to the distraught woman: It is not likely that the diamonds could be validly pawned without the consent of the countess’s husband. Gobseck reacts at once: He will only buy the diamonds.

Derville still whispers in the woman’s ear that she ought to appeal to her husband’s mercy rather than sacrifice a fortune belonging to her family. However, the money evidently is needed for her lover, who then uses emotional coercion, and Anastasie accepts the usurer’s low offer of eighty thousand francs. Now Gobseck gives the screw another turn: He delivers fifty thousand francs to the countess and, completing the price, some notes signed by Maxime de Trailies and already due and protested, which Gobseck has discounted far below their face value from his fellow moneylenders. The young Trailles roars an insult; the old man coldly produces a pair of pistols and observes that, being the insulted party, he will fire first. Trailles stammers an apology. Anastasie bows and disappears, undoubtedly terrified, and Trailles follows her. The act unravels with the excited appearance of Anastasie’s husband. Derville intervenes in the resulting dispute, advising Gobseck and the count to compromise, and a document is signed allowing the latter to recover his diamonds at a sacrifice.

Some days later the count walks into Derville’s office. A conversation follows in which new light is thrown on the moneylender’s personality. Derville reveals that he is convinced that aside from Gobseck’s financial doings and cynical observations about human nature, he can be the most scrupulous and upright of men. There are two men in him, a miser and a philosopher; should Derville die leaving children behind, Gobseck would be their guardian. The count has health problems and is afraid of what may happen to his properties in case of his death; therefore, he asks Derville to prepare documents transferring his properties to Gobseck, as well as a defeasance to be signed by Gobseck and kept by Derville, by virtue of which his principal estates are left to his only legitimate child and heir to his title.

At this point in the narration, sleepy Camille goes to bed; consequently the viscountess indicates that Derville can call the count by his name, Restaud—the reader recalls the family name of the young visitor who attracted Camille’s attentions. The story is resumed and climaxes in a series of highly dramatic scenes. The count is taken to his bed gravely ill and, unable to send the defeasance to Derville, hides it from his wife, who, accompanied by her children, keeps a permanent vigil in the adjoining room. Derville tries in vain to convince the countess that it is also in her interest that he should see her husband. When the count finally dies, Derville and Gobseck arrive and force their way into the death chamber only to find the count’s body lying on the floor like another piece of litter, and the Countess Anastasie, disheveled and bewildered, who in her blind distrust of her husband and Derville has just found and burned the defeasance.

Gobseck, faithful to his nature and ideas, keeps Restaud’s estates as long as he lives, taking very good care of everything; the principal heir and very young count will benefit from growing up in adversity, the greatest teacher. Derville ends his narration with the news of Gobseck’s recent death at the age of eighty-nine, in a revolting scene of ruinous hoarding and miserliness. Now Ernest de Restaud, already a young man of good character, will come into possession of his estates and be able to marry Camille. The story concludes with Madame de Grandflieu still voicing some reservations, which can be surmounted.

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