Père Goriot

by Honoré Balzac

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Student Question

What advice do Madame Beauseant and Monsieur Vautrin give Eugene on ascending France's social ladder?

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Madame de Beauseant promises Eugene de Rastignac that she will help him to succeed. In the course of his rise through the ranks of society he will discover, just as she has, how vain and corrupt people are. She advises him to be equally cynical in his approach:

The more cold-blooded your calculations, the further you will go. Strike ruthlessly; you will be feared.

Rastignac, she says, should secure the affections of a young, wealthy woman. He must not love her in return and, if he does ever happen to fall in love, he must make quite sure that no one ever discovers this. He should trust no one. Specifically, she advises him to pursue Madame de Nucingen. If he can persuade her to fall in love with him, others will follow.

Monsieur Vautrin gives Rastignac a great deal of advice interspersed with autobiography and his own aspirations. He ends up advising him to court and marry a lonely young girl who will inherit a large fortune. He tells him that such a girl, Mademoiselle Victorine, is already known to him.

Vautrin, like Madame de Beauseant, advises absolute cynicism and expresses contempt for virtue (it is one of his axioms that "success is virtue"). He tells Rastignac:

A man who prides himself on going in a straight line through life is an idiot who believes in infallibility. There are no such things as principles; there are only events, and there are no laws but those of expediency: a man of talent accepts events and the circumstances in which he finds himself, and turns everything to his own ends.

Although they advise him to pursue different women in different ways (one for an affair, the other for a mercenary marriage), Rastignac's two counsellors both advise the same attitude and both say that he should rely upon women as the easiest and least arduous route to wealth and social acceptance. Rastignac realizes this as he reflects on Vautrin's advice:

“What a head of iron the man has!” said Eugene to himself, as he watched Vautrin walk unconcernedly away with his cane under his arm. “Yet Mme. de Beauseant said as much more gracefully; he has only stated the case in cruder language.”

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