Maison Vauquer (MAY-sohn voh-KAY). Run-down boardinghouse (pension) in the Latin Quarter area of Paris. The house’s parlor with its ugly decor, the dining room with its sticky furniture, and the kitchen with its nauseating smells, as well as wretched bedrooms, constitute a perfect example of bad taste and squalor. In fact, the entire house, which long ago saw better days, reflects the current low socioeconomic status of both its owner, Madame Vauquer, and its tenants. It is no wonder, therefore, that most of its boarders hope to escape to better lodgings, starting with the poor law student Eugène de Rastignac, who resolutely sets out on his climb up the ladder. Only the archcriminal Monsieur Vautrin prefers to live in such an environment, so he can better hide from the police.
The maison is the novel’s main focal point, since all the principal characters live there and have links to the highest reaches of financial and aristocratic society, through family or love connections. Their paths thus crisscross each other in a complex, but plausible, pattern.
Hôtel de Beauséant
Hôtel de Beauséant (oh-TEL deh BOH-say-ant). Elegant mansion in Paris’s upper-class Faubourg Saint-Germain des Prés district. As the home of one of the noblest families in France, this fashionable residence is the setting of brilliant balls. This explains why the nouveau riche Delphine de Nucingen, who was born a commoner, would go to any lengths to receive an invitation to at least one exclusive and sumptuous reception, including becoming the mistress of Eugène, a distant cousin of Madame de Beauséant.
Restaud home (ray-STOHD). House in the solidly bourgeois Chaussée d’Antin neighborhood. Although it does not have the cachet of the Beauséants’, it is still fancy enough to embolden its staff to snicker at an ill-dressed Eugène, who comes calling on Countess de Restaud, for arriving on foot instead of in a carriage.
Eugène’s apartment. Bachelor home of Eugène de Rastignac, the young law student, in another part of the Chaussée d’Antin. Paid for by Delphine’s father, the financially strapped Père Goriot, this exquisitely decorated place is to serve as the lovers’ nest and also as Goriot’s refuge in a quasi-incestuous relationship. Furthermore, in so willingly accepting such a generous gift, Eugène shows that he is in the process of implementing lessons he has learned from Vautrin and his cousin.
*Père-Lachaise (la-SHAYZ). Famous cemetery in eastern Paris. Completely abandoned by his two daughters and their rich husbands, the destitute Goriot is buried here by an equally penniless Eugène. From the heights where the cemetery is located, the young hero sees in the distance the column in the center of Place Vendôme and the golden dome of the Invalides. These two famous landmarks symbolize for him the topographic limits of a world of wealth and privilege, which he defiantly and grandiosely challenges.
*Théâtre-Italien. Paris opera house, also called Italiens and Bouffons, located on the rue de Louvois. In their desire to see and be seen, members of high society feel the need to attend the opera; this is true as well for other select theaters. Indeed, it is at the Italiens that Eugène, escorting Madame de Beauséant, first sets eyes on Delphine and is encouraged by his cousin actively to pursue her, rather than the prettier—but unwinnable—Madame de Restaud. Vautrin, in contrast, takes Madame Vauquer to the Gaîté, a theater specializing in lowbrow entertainments.
*Paris. France’s capital city is often compared to the American wilderness, to a jungle, to a battlefield, and to a mudhole. Through cunning, strength, and moral accommodation, however, ambitious men...
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and women may not only survive but actually emerge victorious.
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.