Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1385
Father Goriot (goh-RYOH), a lonely old lodger at the pension of Madame Vauquer in Paris. Known to the other boarders as Old Goriot, he is a retired manufacturer of vermicelli who sold his prosperous business in order to provide handsome dowries for his two daughters. During his first year at the Maison Vauquer, he occupied the best rooms in the house; in the second year, he asked for less expensive quarters on the floor above; and at the end of the third year he moved into a cheap, dingy room on the third story. Because two fashionably dressed young women have visited him from time to time in the past, the old man has become an object of curiosity and suspicion; the belief is that he has ruined himself by keeping two mistresses. Actually, Old Goriot is a man in whom parental love has become an obsession, a love unappreciated and misused by his two selfish, heartless daughters, who make constant demands on his meager resources. After a life of hard work, careful saving, and fond indulgence of his children, he has outlived his usefulness and is now in his dotage. Happy in the friendship of Eugène de Rastignac, the law student who becomes the lover of one of the daughters, he uses the last of his money to provide an apartment for the young man, a place where Old Goriot will also have his own room. Before the change can be made, however, the daughters drive their father to desperation by fresh demands for money to pay their bills. He dies attended only by Eugène and Bianchon, a poor medical student; in his last moments he speaks lovingly of the daughters who have ruined him and made him the victim of their ingratitude. The daughters send their empty carriages to follow his coffin to the grave.
Countess Anastasie de Restaud
Countess Anastasie de Restaud (ah-nah-stah-ZEE deh rehs-TOH), the more fashionable of Old Goriot’s daughters, constantly in need of money to indulge her extravagant tastes and to provide for her lover. Meeting her at a ball given by his distant relative, Madame de Beauséant, Eugène de Rastignac immediately falls in love with Anastasie. When he calls on her, he finds Old Goriot just leaving. His mention of his fellow lodger causes Anastasie and her husband to treat the young law student with great coldness, and he realizes that he is no longer welcome in their house. Later, Madame de Beauséant explains the mystery, saying that Anastasie is ashamed of her humble origins and her tradesman father.
Baroness Delphine de Nucingen
Baroness Delphine de Nucingen (dehl-FEEN deh new-sahn-ZHAHN), Old Goriot’s second daughter, the wife of a German banker. Like her sister Anastasie, she married for position and money, but her place in society is not as exalted as that of the Countess de Restaud, who has been received at court. As a result, the sisters are not on speaking terms. Madame de Beauséant, amused by Eugène de Rastignac’s youthful ardor, suggests that he introduce her to the Baroness de Nucingen in order to win Delphine’s gratitude and a place for himself in Parisian society. Delphine accepts the young man as her lover. Though self-centered and snobbish, she is less demanding than her sister; she has asked for less, given more of herself, and brought more happiness to her father. When Old Goriot is dying, she goes to the Maison Vauquer at Eugène’s insistence, but she arrives too late to receive her father’s blessing.
Eugène de Rastignac
Eugène de Rastignac (yew-ZHEHN deh rahs-tee-NYAHK), an impoverished law student, the son of a landed provincial family. As ambitious as he is handsome, he is determined to conquer Paris. At first, his lack of sophistication makes him almost irresistible to his relative, Madame de Beauséant, and Delphine de Nucingen, whose lover he becomes. He learns cynicism without losing his warm feelings; he never wavers in his regard for Old Goriot, and while he does not attend seriously to the law studies for which his family is making a great sacrifice, he manages to get on in fashionable society, where friendships and influence are important. The revelation of the ways of the world that he gains through the patronage of Madame de Beauséant, his love affair with Delphine, and his regard for Old Goriot, as well as the shabby activities in which he engages in order to maintain himself in the world of fashion, make him all the more ambitious and eager to succeed.
Madame Vauquer (voh-KAY), the sly, shabby, penurious owner of the Maison Vauquer. When Old Goriot first moves into her establishment, she sees him as a possible suitor; after he fails to respond to her coy attentions, she makes him an object of gossip and ridicule.
Monsieur Vautrin (voh-TRAHN), a man living at the Maison Vauquer who claims to be a former tradesman. Reserved, sharp-tongued, secretive, he observes everything that goes on about him and is aware of Old Goriot’s efforts to provide money for his daughters. Knowing that Eugène de Rastignac desperately needs money in order to maintain himself in society, he suggests that the young man court Victorine Taillefer, another lodger, an appealing young girl whose father has disinherited her in favor of her brother. Vautrin says that he will arrange to have the brother killed in a duel, a death that will make Victorine an heiress. He gives Eugène two weeks to consider his proposition. Eugène considers Vautrin a devil, but in the end, driven to desperation by his mistress, he begins to court Victorine. True to Vautrin’s word, Victorine’s brother is fatally wounded in a duel. Vautrin’s scheme fails when he is arrested and revealed as a notorious criminal, Jacques Collin, nicknamed Trompe-la-Mort . Although his identity has been betrayed within the pension, he swears that he will return and continue his climb to good fortune by the same unscrupulous means used by those who call themselves respectable.
Victorine Taillefer (veek-toh-REEN tah-yeh-FEHR), a young girl cast off by her harsh father, who has decided to make his son his only heir. She lives with Madame Couture at the Maison Vauquer.
Madame Couture (kew-TEWR), the widow of a public official and a lodger at the Maison Vauquer. A kind-hearted woman, she fills the place of a mother in the lonely life of Victorine Taillefer.
Monsieur Poiret (pwah-RAY), a lodger at the Maison Vauquer. To him Gondureau, a detective, confides his suspicion that Monsieur Vautrin is in reality the famous criminal, Trompe-la-Mort.
Mademoiselle Michonneau (mee-shoh-NOH), an elderly woman living at the Maison Vauquer. Disliking Monsieur Vautrin, her fellow boarder, she agrees to put a drug in his coffee. While Vautrin is asleep, she discovers the brand of a criminal on his shoulder. Acting on this information, the police appear and arrest Vautrin.
Gondureau (gohn-dew-ROH), the detective who is trying to track down Jacques Collin, called Trompe-la-Mort, a criminal who lives at the Maison Vauquer under the name of Vautrin. Gondureau arranges with Monsieur Poiret and Mademoiselle Michonneau to have Vautrin drugged in order to learn whether he bears a criminal brand on his shoulder.
Count Maxime de Trailles
Count Maxime de Trailles (mahk-SEEM deh TRAH-yeh), an arrogant but impecunious young nobleman, the lover of Anastasie de Restaud. For his sake, she helps to impoverish her father.
Madame de Beauséant
Madame de Beauséant (deh boy-say-YAHN), a relative of Eugène de Rastignac. Aristocratic and high-minded, she is the ideal of inherited culture and good manners—kind, reserved, warm-hearted, beautiful. Though saddened by the loss of her lover, she treats Eugène with great kindness, receives Delphine de Nucingen for his sake, and introduces the young man into fashionable Parisian society.
Bianchon (byahn-SHOHN), a poor medical student living at the Maison Vauquer. Like Eugène de Rastignac, he befriends Old Goriot and attends him when the old man is dying. Bianchon extends friendship easily and allows warm human feelings to influence his relations with other people.
Sylvie (seel-VEE), the plump cook at the Maison Vauquer.
Christophe (krees-TOHF), Madame Vauquer’s man of all work.