“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.
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.
The narration returns to the point where...
(The entire section is 1281 words.)