There are many conjectures at Madame Vauquer’s boardinghouse about the mysterious Monsieur Goriot. He had taken the choice rooms on the first floor when he first retired from his vermicelli business, and for a time his landlady had eyed him as a prospective husband. When, at the end of his second year at the Maison Vauquer, he asked to move to a cheap room on the second floor, rumor had it that he was an unsuccessful speculator, a miser, and a moneylender. The mysterious young women who flitted up to his rooms from time to time were said to be his mistresses, although he protested that they were his two daughters. The other boarders called him Père Goriot. At the end of the third year, Goriot moved to a still cheaper room on the third floor. By that time, he was the common butt of jokes at the boardinghouse table, and his daughters visited him only rarely.
One evening, the impoverished law student, Eugène de Rastignac, comes home late from the ball that his wealthy cousin, Madame de Beauséant, has given. Peeking through the keyhole of Goriot’s door, he sees the old man molding silver plate into ingots. The next day, he hears his fellow boarder, Monsieur Vautrin, say that early in the morning he had seen Père Goriot selling a piece of silver to an old moneylender. What Vautrin does not know is that the money thus obtained is intended for Goriot’s daughter, Countess Anastasie de Restaud, whom Eugène had met at the dance the night before.
That afternoon, Eugène pays his respects to the countess. Père Goriot is leaving the drawing room when he arrives. The countess, her lover, and her husband receive Eugène graciously because of his connections with Madame de Beauséant, but when he mentions that they have the acquaintance of Père Goriot in common, he is quickly shown to the door, the count leaving word with his servant that he is not to be at home if Monsieur de Rastignac calls again.
After this rebuff, Eugène calls on Madame de Beauséant to ask her aid in unraveling the mystery. She explains that de Restaud’s house will be barred to him because both of Goriot’s daughters, having been given sizable dowries, are gradually severing all connection with their father and therefore will not tolerate anyone who has knowledge of Goriot’s shabby circumstances. She suggests that Eugène send word through Goriot to his other daughter, Delphine de Nucingen, that Madame de Beauséant will receive her. She knows that Delphine will welcome the invitation and will become Eugène’s sponsor out of gratitude.
Vautrin has another suggestion for the young man. Under Madame Vauquer’s roof lives Victorine Taillefer, who has been disinherited by her wealthy father in favor of her brother. Eugène has already found favor in her eyes, and Vautrin suggests that for 200,000 francs he will have the brother murdered, so that Eugène might marry the heir. Vautrin gives him two weeks to consider the offer.
The next evening, Eugène escorts Madame de Beauséant to the theater, where he is presented to Delphine de Nucingen, who receives him graciously. The next day he receives an invitation to dine with the de Nucingens and to accompany them to the theater. Before dinner, he and Delphine drive to a gambling house where, at her request, he gambles and wins six thousand francs. She explains that her husband will give her no money, and she needs it to pay a debt she owes to an old lover.
Before long, Eugène learns that it costs money to keep the company of...
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his new friends. Unable to press his own family for funds, he will not stoop to impose on Delphine. Finally, as Vautrin had foreseen, he is forced to take his fellow boarder’s offer. The tempter has just finished explaining the duel between Victorine’s brother and his confederate, which is to take place the following morning, when Père Goriot comes in with the news that he and Delphine have taken an apartment for Eugène.
Eugène wavers once more at the thought of the crime that is about to be committed in his name. He attempts to send a warning to the victim through Père Goriot, but Vautrin, suspicious of his accomplice, thwarts the plan and drugs their wine at supper so that both sleep soundly that night.
At breakfast, Eugène’s fears are realized. A messenger bursts in with the news that Victorine’s brother has been fatally wounded in a duel. After the girl hurries off to see him, another singular event occurs. After drinking his coffee, Vautrin falls to the ground as if he has suffered a stroke. When he is carried to his room and undressed, it becomes clear from marks on his back that he must be the famous criminal Trompe-la-Mort. One of the boarders, an old woman, has been acting as an agent for the police; she has drugged Vautrin’s coffee so that his criminal brand could be exposed. Shortly afterward the police appear to claim their victim.
Eugène and Père Goriot prepare to move to their new quarters, for Goriot is to have a room over the young man’s apartment. Delphine arrives to interrupt Goriot’s packing. She is in distress. Père Goriot has arranged with his lawyer to force de Nucingen to make a settlement so that Delphine will have an independent income on which to draw; now she brings the news that her money has been so tied up by investments it will be impossible for her husband to withdraw any of it without bringing about his own ruin.
Delphine just finishes telling her father of her predicament when Anastasie de Restaud drives up. She has sold the de Restaud diamonds to help her lover pay off his debts, and she has been discovered by her husband. De Restaud buys them back, but as punishment, he demands control of her dowry.
Eugène cannot help overhearing the conversation through the thin partition between the rooms; when Anastasie says that she still needs twelve thousand francs for her lover, he forges one of Vautrin’s drafts for that amount and takes it to Père Goriot’s room. Anastasie’s reaction is to berate him for eavesdropping.
The financial difficulties of his daughters and the hatred and jealousy they have shown prove too much for Père Goriot. At the dinner table, he looks as if he is about to have a stroke, and when Eugène returns from an afternoon spent with Delphine, the old man is in bed, too ill to be moved to his new home. He had gone out that morning to sell his last few possessions, so that Anastasie might pay her dressmaker for an evening gown.
In spite of their father’s serious condition, both daughters attend Madame de Beauséant’s ball that evening, and Eugène is too much under his mistress’s influence to refuse to accompany her. The next day, Goriot feels worse. Eugène tries to summon the daughters, but Delphine is still in bed and refuses to be hurried. Anastasie arrives at Père Goriot’s bedside only after he has lapsed into a coma and no longer recognizes her.
Père Goriot is buried in a pauper’s grave the next day. Eugène tries to borrow burial money from the daughters, but each sends word that they are in deep grief over their loss and cannot be seen. He and a poor medical student from the boardinghouse are the only mourners at the funeral. Anastasie and Delphine send their empty carriages to follow the coffin, their final tribute to their indulgent father.