Père Goriot

by Honoré Balzac

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What message does Balzac convey in his novel Père Goriot?

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Père Goriot is a strong indictment of the hollowness and falsity of materialism and desire for wealth and status. In Honoré de Balzac’s morality tale, those who strive for personal gain may achieve it, but most of them are subsequently ruined and all pay the price of their integrity. Balzac...

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is especially harsh on those who violate the bonds of familial devotion: Goriot’s daughters who badly mistreat their father. He is not entirely sympathetic to the father, however. The author holds him up as an example of inadequate, misguided parenting: Goriot not only failed to instill proper values in his children but also indulged them until it was too late to turn back. Indeed, Balzac has few kinds words for any member of corrupt Parisian society.

The protagonist of the story exemplifies Balzac’s attitude toward social climbing. Eugène de Rastignac’s goal is to make his name among the French elites and has no qualms about using anyone to help him. His encounters with both of Goriot’s daughters, Anastasie and Delphine, are disillusioning: one turns him away after learning of his connection to her father, of whom she is ashamed, and the other tries to use him to cover her gambling debts. Eugène becomes so detached from his moral center that he agrees to commit murder just for the possibility of marrying a wealthy woman, but is spared at the last minute by outside intervention.

In the end, Goriot dies estranged from his selfish, greedy daughters who will not even pay for his funeral. The reversal of proper roles and the excesses of unbridled greed harm not only those who indulge in them, Balzac suggests, but weaken the entire social fabric.

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Balzac means to convey two central ideas in Père Goriot, which means Father Goriot. First, he examines over-indulgent parenthood through relationships between Goriot and his daughters, which is rather similar to the relationship between Shakespeare's King Lear and his daughters. Other relationships in Balzac's story also reflect the parental theme. Goriot expresses the theme himself as he says about his daughters, "It was I who made them, they belong to me." Rastignac reflects this theme of over-indulgent parenting in his relationships with Madame de Beauséant: she calls him "Why you poor simple child!"

Second, Balzac conveys the second theme when he examines corruption in Paris society by writing about characters in such detail that they ironically become universal characters, so the corruption evidenced, whether in high society or low, represents universal corruption. Balzac is illustrating that corruption lies in all levels of society from Countess Anastasie de Restaud to Vautrin. Goriot sums it up, while combining both themes, by saying,

"The finest nature, the best soul on earth would have succumbed to the corruption of such weakness ...."

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Pere Goriot is an examination of a mise-en-scene—the totality of a living moment; Balzac is interested in the physical description of 19th century Paris, but also in the social layers that comprise the Parisian life experience.  He spends as much time describing the world of his landlady on the stoop as he does the two daughters’ lifestyles and Goriot’s own.  Balzac’s greatest contribution to literature is in the details of every layer of Parisian life, not just the social life of the protagonist’s immediate family.  His insights into personality are not so much still portraits as they are moving pictures of the characters in action.  He is attempting to show a world in motion, a living entity known as Paris.

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