Amateur Reader over at Wuthering Expectations recently celebrated a Big Balzac Blowout. This got me interested in checking the Frenchman out, so when I finished "Vanity Fair" I immediately dove into the one Balzac novel on my list, "Pere Goriot". And after reading "Vanity Fair" and "Pere Goriot" back-to-back, I immediately asked the question "Who has the more cynical and bleak view of human nature, Thackeray or Balzac?" Answer: yes.
"Pere Goriot" takes place in Paris, during the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, following the fall of Napoleon (coincidentally the same time period in which "Vanity Fair" takes place). The novel opens up at a rundown boarding house in Paris. Among the boarders is an impoverished old man named Goriot. As the novel opens, the other boarders single him out to be picked on for no real reason except he's old and quiet and shabby. They call him Pere Goriot, "Pere", of course, meaning "father" in French (Yes! I FINALLY can make use of that two years of high school French I took three decades ago! I knew it would eventually pay off!). It is rumored Pere Goriot was once a wealthy macaroni manufacturer, but no one really knows. That is, until he is befriended by another boarder, Eugene de Rastignac. Rastignac is a law student who is, shall we say, not the most motivated of law students. He pays a call on a rich but distant cousin of his who lives in Paris, Madame de Beauséant, and that's that. After seeing how the rich live, that's all he wants...to be filthy, stinking rich, and to pal around with other rich aristocrats. Oh, and without studying this boring law stuff. He soon learns that Goriot has two daughters who are rich Parisians, having married wealthy men. He visits them to try to make inroads into Parisian society. Balzac's descriptions of Rastignac's initial visits to his wealthy cousin and to one of Goriot's daughters, the countess Anastasie de Restaud, are both very comical and quite painful to read. Rastignac is from the south of France, and seems to be what we might call today a "country bumpkin", or a "hick". He doesn't know the rules of society and totally puts his foot in his mouth, among other things. But he's determined to learn the rules of aristocratic society, and slowly becomes more adept at the game. Eventually he becomes the lover of Goriot's other daughter, Delphine de Nuncigen.
Meanwhile, we learn more about Pere Goriot. He was indeed once a wealthy macaroni manufacturer, but he has given all his money to his daughters, first as a dowry, and later to help pay debts incurred by their lovers. In fact, Goriot is obsessed by his daughters...all he can talk about is how much he loves them, and how he'd do anything to help them, including, as it turns out, selling all he has and going broke for them. And how do the daughters feel about him? They take his money and never visit. Kids today, I tell you.
In a twist, which never really goes as far as the reader thinks it will, there's another boarder at the house, Vautrin, who befriends Rastignac. It's pretty clear there's something going on with Vautrin, because his character seems quite sinister, although for awhile it's unclear why. Vautrin tries to convince Rastignac that if it's riches he wants, he should court another woman that lives at the boarding house, Victorine Taillefer. Victorine is a daughter of a rich man who has disinherited Victorine and her mother. Vautrin tells Rastignac to court Victorine, and meanwhile he will arrange for her father's son and only heir to meet with an unfortunate accident, which will cause the father to make amends with Victorine since he has no other heirs. Rastignac actually toys with this idea, briefly, and flirts with Victorine, but then goes back to Goriot's daughter. To make a long story short, Vautrin has the son killed anyway (oops) but Rastignac doesn't go along and the Vautrin is exposed as some kind of master criminal who the cops have been after for years. He's arrested and hauled off by the police. Melodramatic? Yeah, you think? Balzac is great with descriptions, sometimes going off on the smallest details, but he pulls it off because it's always interesting. But his plot twists can be pretty melodramatic, and sometimes a bit over the top.
Anyway, I won't go into all the details, but Rastignac works it so that Delphine gets him his own furnished apartment so she can have access to him whenever she wants. But soon Goriot, who it turns out is paying for the apartment (of course) because that's what his daughter wants, becomes ill, and appears to have a stroke or something, brought on because his other daughter, Anastasie, is in trouble since she had to pawn her husband's family diamonds to pay off the gambling debts of her lover. Goriot, finally tapped out, has a stroke because he is powerless help his daughter. On his deathbed, his daughters are called, but neither of them can come, due to, well, some lame excuses. Goriot finally realizes that maybe he's loved his daughters too much and that actually they are scumbags. Anastasie finally comes to his deathbed, but it's too late as he's already in a coma and fading fast. And so he dies. Only Rastignac and a medical student friend come to his burial. This whole experience has made Rastignac realize how shallow both the daughters and Parisian high society are. For a brief instant the reader thinks that maybe Rastignac will reform his goldigger gigilo ways...but no. After Goriot is buried, Rastignac faces the Parisian skyline from a hilltop in the cemetary and says something like "It's between you and me now!", or "Henceforth there is war between us", depending on the translation. Then he goes and dines with Delphine, who's just blown off her father's burial. The end. So although he's given in to temptation, it's an adversarial relationship between him and the society on which he is looking to build his ambitions.
Cynical? You bet! It's fun to compare this book to "Vanity Fair" in that way. Both have dark views of human motivations and behavior. It's also interesting to compare this story to "The Red and the Black". The writing styles of Balzac and Stendhal couldn't be more different, but the stories are both about ambitious, poor young men who use their charms with the ladies to (1) get laid and (2) move up in society to gain status and riches. Sigh...if only I had thought of that plan myself 25 or 30 years ago. But no, instead I had to go to grad school.
Anyway, this was a fun, quick read, and Balzac is a great writer with, as I said, a flair for description. I'd like to read more of him eventually. Apparently most of the characters in "Pere Goriot" recur in other parts of Balzac's works. It would be fun to revisit them. And who knows...maybe they get nicer, more generous, and more unselfish in their old age. Nah, just kidding.