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Honoré de Balzac's 1834 novel, "Le Père Goriot," is a novel of strange and fascinating power. As the doorway into his interconnected cycle, La Comédie Humaine, it presents as much welcome to interested readers as Dante's fateful "abandon all hope..." entrance to Hell in the Divine Comedy. "Le Père Goriot" gives us a fallen world, driven by self-interest, where all ties of genuine human feeling seem to be relegated to a no longer existent past, or to the rarely-glimpsed pastoral countryside. Balzac presents the stories of Eugène de Rastignac - a young law student from the southern provinces, Jean-Joachim Goriot - a former pasta merchant who gave all he had as dowry for his two daughters, and Vautrin - a man who lives and works in shadows. Balzac's novel illustrates the lengths and depths that these three, and everyone around them, go to in order to secure even the most fleeting happiness in the moral wasteland of Paris about 4 years after the fall of Napoleon.
The novel begins with our introduction to Maison Vauquer, a boarding house with a crumbling plaster statue of Cupid in the yard, which is home and prison to the respectably indigent. Goriot has lived in the Maison Vauquer under the increasingly unsympathetic gaze of Madame Vauquer and her boarders for almost 10 years - wasting away, Goriot has become a figure of fun for the house, coming to be known teasingly as "Old Goriot." His tragic affection for his two well-married daughters, Delphine de Nucingen and Anastasie de Restaud, has driven him out of their homes, and into a state wherein his only joys come from seeing them from afar, and mortgaging what remains of his fortune to assist them in financial difficulties. Into the Maison and Goriot's life comes young Rastignac, whose lack of fortune fuels his desire to enter the fashionable world of Parisian high society. Here, Rastignac meets Vautrin, who offers the youth a possible means to do so - means both underhanded and deadly.
One of the novel's great questions is the great Biblical dilemma - what does it profit a man to gain the world if he must lose his soul in the process? The novel's three main characters, but particularly Rastignac, illustrate the dilemma from different vantage points. For Vautrin and Goriot, their choices were made long ago, and Balzac's work with them concerns the results of lives organized around self and others, respectively. The novel's primary concern is with Rastignac, who is continually in the process of weighing his options - in a world in which there is little grey area, will Rastignac opt for a life of good or evil, of self-interest (as with fellow-boarders Mlle. Michonneau and M. Poiret) or service (as with fellow-student Bianchon)?
Balzac sets relationships, particularly those concerned with family, up for consideration in the novel. We see bonds created by birth, as well as by social class and wealth; of course, family and money are rarely inseparable, and certainly are not mutually exclusive for the novel's characters. Rastignac is in Paris studying the law only because of the financial sacrifices being made by his family in the country. Rastignac's kinship with Madame de Beauséant provides him with a taste of the seeming luxury of Paris. Victorine de Taillefer, a motherless young girl at the Maison Vauquer, makes a fruitless yearly application to her hard-hearted father, who has disowned her completely. As Rastignac interacts with and becomes part of Goriot's life and that of his fellow-boarders, we are encouraged to consider the role of the family as it relates to society. If family is Balzac's basic social unit, then how do we regard the family constituted by Goriot and his daughters? The one made up of the "guests" of the boarding house? That of Vautrin's Ten Thousand Society?
I have barely scratched the surface of Balzac's novel. Its engagements - literary, sociological, and moral, are extensive. Balzac's engagements with literary and philosophical models, from Shakespeare to Rousseau, are worth taking notice of, as are his proposed "three attitudes of men toward the world: obedience, struggle, and revolt." For a novel with seemingly clear moral polarities, it is difficult to say who are the heroes and who the villains in "Le Père Goriot." Though the novel is by no means a simple satire, getting swept up in the novel's overt sentimentality may say as much about the reader as it does about the novel's characters and situations. Balzac's anonymous narrator offers continually biased judgments, which can cloud the reader's ability to remain objective. Any way one reads it, "Le Père Goriot" is a terrific novel - and the invitation to enter Balzac's uninviting world is well worth accepting.
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I'm going to go ahead and ruin something for you, the potential reader, about Honoré de Balzac. It's nothing to do with plot or character, so you can rest assured that you're safe to get a fresh read from Père Goriot; instead it centers on the author himself. It's something you're going to pick up on as you read through this book.
You see, Honoré de Balzac is your best friend.
This sounds funny, I realize that, but it's the simple truth. You can feel it in the way that the man writes- He doesn't tell the story to you, so much as he explains it. It's like listening to one of those old men you find in a bar; you're so certain that you're going to laugh at him as he recounts his tale, you're so certain that when he tells you that it's a sad one, that you've heard that statement enough before to know it's a falsity...but then as things progress you begin to realize that you can trust him. You can feel the hand of Balzac on your back, guiding you forward. You begin to trust him...and it's all because he's talking to you as though you were an old friend.
Indeed, Père Goriot is a sad tale. Without giving away any more than the back of the book already does, I can say that it encompasses the tale of a man who has sacrificed of himself for his children's sake, as laid out in contrast to the story of a man who asks of his own family that they sacrifice for him. It is the study of both sides of that equation, all tied together through a boardinghouse where every boarder has a story to tell, where every turn and twist is an obstacle for some, an opportunity for others, and an escape for none. All are tied into this Paris that lives and breathes on the page.
Balzac was a character writer. He tells you about the person, all the intimate little details that seem so trivial but that build up the image of the person in your mind. You can see Vautrin, the mysterious all-knowing boarder as he watches young Rastignac, the young law student, struggle inside of himself as he wrestles his way into an unforgiving society. In the process of doing so, you watch sometimes in horror, sometimes in fascination, listening to the man deliver speech upon speech, some of which seem to bear an eerie early foreboding to Dostoevsky's `The Grand Inquisitor' for it's sheer, unflinching look at some point of society. Like that writer, Balzac builds the man, then lets him be himself on the page, summoning only those talents that are necessary in a writer to get out of the way and allow the story to tell itself.
Is this book worth reading? Absolutely. Who should read it? Anyone who enjoys a tale with action, honor, and ethical, internal struggles. There are criminal men, unscrupulous women, love affairs, dedication, a betrayal...there are all the elements of the modern novel, told in an engaging and playful style that you come to trust and respect and that, in the end, leaves you with a mighty hunger for more...
Henry Reed does a great translation as well. His afterword helps to place the novel in the series that it belongs, putting into proper perspective in Balzac's La Comedie humaine, a series of novels and stories built around Paris during a certain time period. Balzac was a very dedicated writer, putting himself to the task sometimes for hours on end (up to 18 by some accounts). His works contain in them many characters that repeat into other works, as in the two that I mentioned above (Rastignac in particular).
Bottom line: I cannot highly enough recommend this book to anyone. It is fantastic and easily enjoyable.