Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1042
Honoré de Balzac’s writing career spanned thirty years, from the decisive point in 1819 when he elected to abandon the study of law until his untimely death in 1850. His work until 1829 consisted of novels, stories, and sketches on a variety of philosophical and social themes. They are, on the whole, undistinguished; Balzac later averred that the decade from 1819 until he began work on Les Chouans in 1829 constituted his apprenticeship in the art of fiction. Certainly, the works of the last twenty years of his life show the benefits of that long period of development, in both stylistic and tonal precision and in general weight and narrative direction.
Many critics contend that the generative idea for the seventeen-volume La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Human Comedy, 1895-1896, 1911) came to Balzac as he was writing Père Goriot, in part because in the manuscript the name of the young student is Massiac, until, in the scene of the afternoon call at Madame de Beauséant’s house, “Massiac” is abruptly scratched out and “Rastignac” inserted. The character Eugène de Rastignac had appeared in a minor role in La Peau de chagrin (1831; The Wild Ass’s Skin, 1896), and the assumption is that the decision to reintroduce him at an earlier stage of his life in Père Goriot betokens a flash of inspiration that gave the author the idea of creating a cycle of interconnected novels depicting every aspect of society and having many characters in common. That the idea came to him quite so suddenly is doubtful since, as Henry Reed has pointed out, he had already decided to bring in Madame de Langeais and Madame de Beauséant and the moneylender Gobseck, all of whom had appeared in previous works. It is certain, however, that Père Goriot is the first work in which the device of repetition occurs and in which the uncertain fates of two main characters, Eugène and Vautrin, point so obviously to other stories.
The novel began as a short story about parental obsession and filial ingratitude. The title is most often translated into English as Père Goriot or Father Goriot, whereby the significance of the definite article is lost, which, because it is not grammatically necessary in French, is all the more pointed; the sense is more truly rendered as Goriot the Father. The point is that the condition of fatherhood absorbs the whole life and personality of old Goriot. At one time a husband and a businessman, he has lost or given up these roles and now lives only in the paternal relation; at other times, he exists, in the boarders’ neat phrase, as “an anthropomorphous mollusc.” He seems at first glance horribly victimized, so betrayed and ill-repaid by his harpy daughters that his situation excites the silent sympathy of even such hard gems of the haute monde as the duchess of Langeais and Madame de Beauséant. His gratitude to his offspring for their least notice, ungraciously bestowed as it may be, and his joyful self-sacrifice and boundless self-delusion fill the reader with pity. Was there ever, Balzac seems to ask, a parent so ill-used?
Ultimately, Balzac leaves no doubt that Goriot reared the two girls in such a way as to ensure that they would be stupid, vain, idle, and grasping women. “The upbringing he gave his daughters was of course preposterous.” As he lies dying, his outburst of impotent rage reminds one of Lear; their situations are similar in that each in the folly of his heart causes his own ruin. Lear’s abasement leads to self-recognition and moral rebirth, but Goriot clings to his delusion with a mad tenacity to the end, demanding that reality conform to his dream of the rewards that are due to a devoted father. In fact, he is properly rewarded, for he has been the worst of fathers. Parenthood is both a privilege and a trust. Goriot has enjoyed the first and betrayed the latter, as he himself recognizes in a brief interval of lucidity: “The finest nature, the best soul on earth would have succumbed to the corruption of such weakness on a father’s part.” Indulging himself in the warmth of their goodwill, he has failed in his duty to their moral sense; as adults, they are mirror images of his own monumental selfishness, made, as it were, of the very stuff of it: “It was I who made them, they belong to me.”
To this “obscure but dreadful Parisian tragedy” are added the separate tales of Rastignac and Vautrin, each quite self-contained and yet bound to the other tales by the most subtle bonds. One of these links is the recurrent reference to parenthood. At every turn, some facet of the parent-child relation is held up to the reader’s notice: the wretchedness of the cast-off child Victorine Taillefer, for example, which so resembles Goriot’s wretchedness; Madame de Langeais’s disquisition on sons-in-law, later echoed by Goriot; the parental tone taken with Eugène both by Madame de Beauséant (“Why you poor simple child!”) and, in a different way, by Vautrin (“You’re a good little lad”), who give him wicked worldly advice in contrast to the good but dull counsel of his own mother; the filial relationship that develops between Eugène and Goriot; even Vautrin’s enormously ironic nicknames for his landlady (Mamma Vauquer) and the police (Father Cop).
Another element linking the haute monde, the Maison Vauquer, and the underworld is that they are all partners in crime. Goriot made his original fortune in criminal collusion with members of the de Langeais family. Vautrin neatly arranges the death of Mademoiselle Taillefer’s brother for the benefit of the half-willing Rastignac. The Baron de Nucingen invests Delphine’s dowry in an illegal building scheme. Vautrin, Goriot, and Anastasie all resort to Papa Gobseck the moneylender. The reader hears a precept uttered by Madame de Beauséant (“In Paris, success is everything, it’s the key to power”) enunciated a few pages later by Vautrin (“Succeed! . . . succeed at all costs”). The reader is clearly meant to see that whatever differences exist among the various levels of society, they are differences not of kind but of degree. Corruption is universal.