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...
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