Père Goriot

by Honoré Balzac

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What themes in Père Goriot reflect the French society of its time?

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One of the themes of the story is the overriding importance of fundamental values. Père Goriot, once a successful, wealthy man, is now completely down on his luck, forced to sell everything he owns to keep his spoiled, greedy daughters in a style to which they've become accustomed.

In this rapidly changing society, Goriot's experience is by no means unusual. In the France of Napoleon III, there were vast fortunes to be won and lost as France experienced a dizzying economic transformation. In the process, however, many of the old values were lost, and it's the loss of those values that Balzac represents through Goriot's sad predicament. In an ever-changing industrialized economy, where money and status are everything, Goriot's quiet dignity has no place. Nonetheless, he still remains true to himself despite everything. The power of the unrequited love he has for his daughters remains as strong as ever, right up until his dying day.

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One of the most significant themes of the novel is the sacrifice that Pere Goriot embraces for his daughters and how it is not reciprocated.  While the legend of the old man emerges out of conjecture and presupposition, it is evident that Goriot does just about anything for his daughters.  He is of the belief that “Some day you will find out that there is far more happiness in another's happiness than in your own.”   This theme of unconditional love and support is repudiated in the Paris that surrounds him.  In this world, individuals stake their own territory and embrace the reality of upward social mobility.  Goriot's daughters are far more concerned with their own potential advancement and name more than they are with their father's devotion.  After he has outlasted his usefulness to them, the girls simply move on from it.  Balzac develops this theme of love and rejection in Goriot's characterization:

My real life is in my two girls, you see; and so long as they are happy and smartly dressed, and have soft carpets under their feet, what does it matter what clothes I wear or where I lie down of a night?  I shall never feel cold so long as they are warm...

Goriot's love for his daughters and the fact that it is never really reciprocated is a reflection of the Parisian world of the time period.  It is a realm where social advancement was shown priority over emotional loyalty and connective bonds. This theme of both love and its rejection is of central importance in the novel and relevant to the time period of post- Revolutionary Paris.

Another theme that is evident in the narrative is the collision between urban and rural notions of the good.  Rastignac comes form the rural setting and is awed by what he sees in Paris.  He is socially awkward, and viewed as an outsider. Through the tutelage of Madame de Beauséant and Vautrin's insight, Rastignac learns how to manipulate people and settings to his advantage.  He recognizes that the world his past is no longer the world of the present and his declaration at the end of the novel, a battle between he and the illuminated world of metropolitan Paris, is a reflection of how he has moved from outsider to insider.  Rastignac has rejected his own provincial past and has become the embodiment of the urban social climber.  His transformation is the embodiment of a condition of life in Paris and French society of the time.

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