Father Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac

This is a work perhaps of a very specific historical context, and coming from outside of that context I may perhaps misjudge key points. The setting is very firmly early nineteenth century Paris, with attendant social structures and conventions. On the outside looking in, it appears to be a culture of vastly misplaced priorities; that’s not the barrier to understanding which it might seem to be, though, since Balzac seems to basically concur with that assessment. Nonetheless, it is difficult to know what to make of the major characters: while Goriot’s blind devotion to his daughters can still be read as fundamentally teetering between farce and tragedy, I found it difficult to know what to make of Rastignac’s character. It’s still quite early in the story when he applies to his family for the means to ascend the aristocracy, a loan which he cannot realistically hope to repay; social status, it is apparent to the reader (and should be apparent to Rastignac) is not remunerative. It seems like there ought to be a parallel between Rastignac’s financial dependency and Goriot’s daughters’, but this theme is not actually explored, and indeed after the initial application for funding, this seeming stain on Rastignac’s character is never mentioned again.

That presumption that Rastignac had incurred a financial obligation to his family colored my entire impression of the book. The engineered match with Victorine, although arguably unethical on entirely different grounds, seems to be all-to-easily discarded: Rastignac’s ostensible purpose in his social climbing is a financially favorable alliance, which would be indeed fulfilled by marriage to Victorine; by my reading he has a familial obligation to make a greater effort in this direction (yes, I may be unromantic). It is entirely possible I am misreading the extent and manner of family expectations in the nineteenth century, but in a way this crucial character issue undercuts a primary theme of the book. Although the book draws a picture of naiveté slowly turned by the corruption of Paris to cynicism, I’d contend that Rastignac is in fact already corrupt, and in almost the exact same way as the world around him which he has ceased to respect, living high and comfortable on the suffering of those closest to him. Perhaps that hypocrisy was intentional, but I didn’t get an indication of it from the story.

To move on from the themes which I found troubling, the work is stylistically well-crafted, with a delightful mastery of rhetoric, even in translation, and a strong sense of mood and minute eye for detail. Our characters and locations, particularly Vauquer’s boarding house and its residents, are drawn with a deft hand towards their appearance and manners. The aristocrats are paradoxically less well-drawn (which is perhaps another reason why I find Rastignac’s unvirtuous obsession with Delphine troublesome; there’s just not a lot to her character), which may be an intentional means towards exhibiting the shallow vapidity of their characters.

Definitely there is a delicious viciousness to this book, but as the previous paragraphs suggest, I’m unclear on how effectively it’s directed. If we’re meant to identify with the social climber, why is he so unsympathetic? If we’re meant to condemn him, doesn’t that somewhat mitigate the extent to which we can give merit to his own disgust?

See also: Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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