The focus of this novel is less on the titular hero than on the young law student Rastignac, who lives in the same boardinghouse and befriends the aging Goriot, whom the other boarders mock and generally shun.
Rastignac’s initiation into the world of wealthy aristocratic society is accomplished in part through the young man falls in love with Goriot’s younger daughter. Torn by conflicting desires to act nobly or to serve his own interests, Rastignac finally stakes his own future on the fickle affection of this woman, who has abandoned her own father in order to rise in the social world of Paris in 1819.
Goriot, who wastes the final portion of his fortune to buy ball gowns for his daughters, succumbs to a mysterious ailment that has resulted from the ill treatment he has suffered at the hands of his ungrateful offspring. Rastignac spends the remainder of his own money to pay for Goriot’s funeral expenses, then resolves to do battle with Parisian society as he overlooks the city from the hill in Pere Lachaise cemetery.
Among the greatest of the tales in Balzac’s sequence on 19th century France, THE HUMAN COMEDY, this novel initiates the reader into the Parisian world of which Balzac was the unparalleled chronicler. In addition, it introduces several of the principal characters whose further adventures will occupy the action of subsequent texts in the sequence: Rastignac, the criminal Vautrin, and Goriot’s daughter Mme de Nucingen.
Modeled loosely on Shakespeare’s KING LEAR, the novel blends pathos and irony in a manner characteristic of all Balzac’s major fiction.
Bellos, David. Honoré de Balzac: “Old Goriot.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Provides a brief general overview of the relevant cultural contexts and major interpretive traditions of the work. Specifically intended as an introductory text for high school and college students.
McCarthy, Mary Susan. Balzac and His Reader: A Study of the Creation of Meaning in “La Comédie humaine.” Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982. Includes a long chapter on Père Goriot, in which McCarthy relies on reader-response theory to examine the ways in which Balzac uses his recurring characters to focus the reader’s interpretation of the novel.
Maurois, André. Prometheus: The Life of Balzac. Translated by Norman Denny. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1971. A thorough, generally objective, and highly readable account of Balzac’s life. Provides detailed context for and some commentary on all of the major works, including Père Goriot.
Prendergast, Christopher. Balzac: Fiction and Melodrama. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1978. Argues for the importance of the stock conventions and devices of melodrama for the interpretation of Balzac’s analyses of French society. Contains a detailed analysis of Père Goriot as well as an overview of previous critical work on the book.
Stowe, William W. Balzac, James, and the Realistic Novel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Discusses the solutions Balzac and Henry James adopted in solving various problems of realistic fictional representation. Includes a comparative study of issues of interpretation in Père Goriot and James’s The American.