This week Anam Sufi discusses a French classic from the 19th century, immersing herself in the social realism Honore de Balzac made his own all those years ago, but still rings true today.
After a tumultuous few weeks, I have grown increasingly inclined to analyse and make sense of the contexts within I find myself. I know; could I get any more vague in terms of an introduction? But seriously, I’ve rediscovered my penchant to study my surroundings, the way people intermingle, and the givers and takers within such settings. Accordingly, these musings informed my choice of literature to discuss for this week’s literary discussion. And what better choice of text than that from the master of social realism himself, Honore de Balzac.
A French classic, Honore de Balzac’s 19th century novel, Pere Goriot, tells the story of three distinct characters; a shady criminal by the name of Vautin, a starry-eyed social climbing law student, Eugene de Rastignac, and the elderly father figure, Goriot. The three narratives are intertwined and come together under the roof of Madame Vauqer’s boarding house, where the three are lodging.
Similar to Naguib Mafouz’s novella, Miramar, the boarding house proves instrumental in facilitating the interconnectedness of characters that each come to represent different facets of a cosmopolitan society. I usually hate to incorporate external content to inform my articles, but in leiu of the complexity that fuels the plot of Pere Goriot, I came across a summation that proves most felicitous in elucidating the story:
“The novel opens with an extended description of the Maison Vauquer, a boarding house in Paris' rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève covered with vines, owned by the widow Madame Vauquer. The residents include the law student Eugène de Rastignac, a mysterious agitator named Vautrin, and an elderly retired vermecelli-makr named Jean-Joachim Goriot. The old man is ridiculed frequently by the other boarders, who soon learn that he has bankrupted himself to support his two well-married daughters.
Rastignac, who moved to Paris from the South of France, becomes attracted to the upper class. He has difficulty fitting in, but is tutored by his cousin, Madame de Beauséant, in the ways of high society. Rastignac endears himself to one of Goriot's daughters, Delphine, after extracting money from his own already-poor family. Vautrin, meanwhile, tries to convince Rastignac to pursue an unmarried woman named Victorine, whose family fortune is blocked only by her brother. He offers to clear the way for Rastignac by having the brother killed in a duel.
Rastignac refuses to go along with the plot, balking at the idea of having someone killed to acquire their wealth, but he takes note of Vautrin's machinations. This is a lesson in the harsh realities of high society. Before long, the boarders learn that police are seeking Vautrin, revealed to be a master criminal nicknamed Trompe-la-Mort ("Cheater of Death"). Vautrin arranges for a friend to kill Victorine's brother, in the meantime, and is captured by the police.
Goriot, supportive of Rastignac's interest in his daughter and furious with her husband's tyrannical control over her, finds himself unable to help. When his other daughter, Anastasie, informs him that she has been selling off her husband's family jewelry to pay her lover's debts, the old man is overcome with grief at his own impotence and suffers a stroke.” (Wikipedia, LOL)
Rastignac then assumes and shares the moral judgment of the readers as he witnesses the callous and uncaring response of Goriot’s daughters. Neither come to his bedside, highlighting the parasitic nature of the relationship that existed between father and daughters. Goriot spends his life and savings, sacrificing his own standard of living in order to ensure a promising life of fortune for his daughters. His adulation of his daughters is on par with acute obsequiousness, an attitude that triggers both sympathy and anger from the reader.
The theme of highlighting the disequilibrium between givers and takers is by no means unexplored within the realm of literature. This subject has been touched upon in other great works such as The Great Gatsby, Death of a Salesman, and The Remains of the Day. But despite the harrowingly rich content that this explores, what heightens Pere Goriot and helps carve an individualized place for the novel as a classic, is the marvelous attention to detail. Balzac demonstrates remarkable stylistic poise in developing a setting and narrative on 19th century French society that makes the reader feel as though he is walking the streets and echoeing the footfalls of each character.
Final verdict: definitely worth the read. If not for the story itself, having this in your literary bank will make you seem a lot more profound than you probably are.