Père Goriot Summary
Père Goriot is a novel of beautifully balanced ironies. A young provincial, Eugène de Rastignac, comes to Paris and finds lodging in the same boardinghouse as a decrepit former pasta maker, Père Goriot. While the other lodgers make Goriot the butt of their jokes, Eugène feels an instinctive sympathy for him. Goriot, formerly wealthy, has inexplicably fallen upon hard times; for no visible reason, his fortune has melted away. He bears his humiliation with a seemingly imbecilic meekness. Another mysterious lodger, Vautrin, takes a liking to young Eugène and shocks him with a cynical offer to help him escape poverty. Vautrin eloquently states the philosophy that the ends always justify the means.
The setting is Balzac’s Paris, a semimythic place that foreshadows the Paris of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1931). The evil and the angelic live side by side and wrestle in this setting. Evil, with the unbridled power of money on its side, appears to have the upper hand. Eugène, from motives of wishing to help his family, especially his two sisters, decides to put aside the drudgery of his law studies and apprenticeship and take a shortcut to easy wealth. He persuades his mother, back home in the provinces, to sell her jewels and asks his sisters for their savings in order to outfit him for his great adventure of storming high society. While only a poor relation, he wishes to exploit his family connection with the socially powerful Mme de Beauséant.
Meanwhile, it comes to light that Père Goriot has sacrificed all that he had, down to the last silver memento from his late wife, in order to keep his two spoiled daughters in a blaze of glory. In particular the elder daughter, Mme Anastasie de Restaud, has exploited Goriot in order to pay the bills run up by her young lover, Maxime des Trailles. She haughtily rejects Eugène, who tries to insinuate himself into her good graces, being himself irresistibly drawn to the luxury for which she has sold her father.
Goriot’s only slightly less ruthless younger daughter, Delphine, then becomes the object of Eugène’s relentless pursuit, initially in order to spite Anastasie and Maxime. Eugène, however, falls in love with Delphine. Like her adoring father, Eugène sees Delphine’s total selfishness but is blinded by her goddesslike beauty and the need to feel that he pleases her. Rather than being able to make use of them, Eugène becomes as much the sisters’ victim as their old father.
With no more left to give, Père Goriot, as pitiful as King Lear, is dying. He is barred from both his daughters’ homes. In any event, they have been so profligate that they have not the wherewithal to help him. Yet so long as he is allowed simply to love them, Goriot experiences happiness. Eugène uses the last of the money that he has received from home to pay for Goriot’s burial. Then he heads for the house of Delphine, still dreaming of his future conquest of society.
There are many conjectures at Madame Vauquer’s boardinghouse about the mysterious Monsieur Goriot. He had taken the choice rooms on the first floor when he first retired from his vermicelli business, and for a time his landlady had eyed him as a prospective husband. When, at the end of his second year at the Maison Vauquer, he asked to move to a cheap room on the second floor, rumor had it that he was an unsuccessful speculator, a miser, and a moneylender. The mysterious young women who flitted up to his rooms from time to time were said to be his mistresses, although he protested that they were his two daughters. The other boarders called him Père Goriot. At the end of the third year, Goriot moved to a still cheaper room on the third floor. By that time, he was the common butt of jokes at the boardinghouse table, and his daughters visited him only rarely.
One evening, the impoverished law student, Eugène de Rastignac, comes home late from the ball that his wealthy cousin, Madame de...
(The entire section is 1,845 words.)