The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 22 September 2017

Pére Goriot

by Honoré de Balzac

In Balzac's sprawling Human Comedy he gazed at life in rural and urban France with a jaundiced eye. Many of his characters are difficult personalities to spend one's reading time with. There are corrupt and grasping social climbers, misers, criminals, political cyphers. But there are their victims, as well, the occasionally pure young women (mostly) who fall prey to the brutal truths of French society in the first half of the 19th century. After a revolution, the Terror, Republic, Empire, restoration, second Empire, another restoration (it's hard to keep track), social expectations are tossed to the winds. In Paris, there is extreme economic and social inequality. Public morals at all levels of society are tilted toward social climbing and political scheming. Unfortunately, it isn't a very unfamiliar world these two centuries past, and Balzac's social commentary remains sharply relevant today. Indeed, it often feels that Balzac is speaking directly to us, deep into his own future.

So, it is 1819, and Balzac (writing in 1835) exquisitely describes a down-at-heels Parisian boarding house occupied by men and women of limited means who have largely been disinherited by their parents or by their grasping children. There is a dusting of students who come for their meals, and there is one young law student more intent on making a fortune. Eugéne de Rastignac is twenty-one and aspiring to wealth and social position. He will do this by pressing a distant cousin, a woman of social standing who can guide him, to teach him the amoral path he must take if he wants to get where he's going. By manipulating the financial struggles and social aspirations of other climbers, Rastignac can assure his own rise in society. One of these women is the daughter of his fellow boarder, Goriot, who has broken himself and his own fortune trying to keep both of his two daughters solvent despite the manipulations and profligate ways of their respective husbands. The portrait Balzac paints of women's positions in Parisian society is bleak. These women are at the mercy of their husbands. Even when they come to a marriage with generous dowries, they end up without any control over their own riches and often just plain destitute after their husbands squander the money on women, gambling and luxury. They have little legal recourse, and are victimized by a sexist society that values male privelege over all. The women take wealthy lovers, and this is often expected of them, but that isn't a stable path either. Their only remaining recourse is to bleed their own father dry, yet brutally turn away from him in the end. Rastignac can exploit this. Indeed it is presented to him as the one true path of the social climber; use protestations of love and well timed financial support to gain access to a woman's wealth and climb into Parisian society. With Goriot's help, because the old man wants to protect a daughter who has lost control of her dowry, Rastignac begins his long climb. He learns the lowest form of acquisition when a murderous criminal, also living in the boarding house, manipulates the disposition of a fortune with a cooked-up duel. He learns that, in Paris, one succeeds more by following the money than by following the connections of family and love. His coming-of-age complete, we will see Rastignac again.

As in most of Balzac's works, this novel is a dramatic tangle involving a dizzying array of distinct characters with distinct quirks and particular crimes and misdemeanors. The losers are the lovers and the idealists. The winners are those who played the twisted game the best. But even the best players lose, repeatedly. One gets the image of a circus of children in dress-up, making up rules for a game nobody can really win. It is a sharp but depressing vision of humanity. Balzac is critical, but seems also to relish the mess. This novel is often cited as one of his best, and it is intricately constructed, complex, satirical and multi-layered. Recommended.

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Also by Balzac: [Cousin Pons] [Cousin Bette] [Ursule Mirouët] [Eugénie Grandet] [Gobseck]