Père Goriot (a.k.a. Father Goriot or Old Goriot) is widely considered to be Balzac’s greatest work, an assessment which is difficult to refute. Though this incredibly prolific author habitually churned out novels and stories of four-star quality or better, with this masterpiece he truly hit one out of the park.
The novel opens with a detailed description of the Maison Vauquer, a squalid boarding house in a shabby neighborhood, populated by poor students on their way up and poor retirees on their way down. Here dwells Joachim Goriot, a retired pasta manufacturer, whom his housemates refer to, more derisively than affectionately, as “Father Goriot”. Once incredibly wealthy, Goriot is slowly reducing himself to a state of destitution by gratifying the expensive whims of his two daughters, who court his adoration for their financial gain while simultaneously shunning him out of shame for the very poverty which they have caused. Goriot strikes up a friendship with fellow boarder Eugène de Rastignac, a law student from the provinces who sets himself upon the arduous task of landing a rich and influential mistress to aid him in climbing the ladder of Parisian society. As he fumbles his way through the labyrinthine conventions of the higher class, Eugène soon discovers that an increase in social status is not necessarily accompanied by an increase in wealth, and he struggles for a means of supporting his new lifestyle. Another inhabitant of the Maison Vauquer, Monsieur Vautrin, a shady character of unknown origin, tempts Eugène with a quick, expeditious means of attaining great wealth, causing the young man to question his deepest held values and reassess his personal ethics.
Père Goriot is the keystone of the Comédie Humaine, a series of at least 90 interconnected works, linked by recurring characters, in which Balzac encapsulates the multiple facets of French society in the early 19th century. Nevertheless, the novel can be thoroughly enjoyed as a stand-alone piece, and it is not necessary to have read any of Balzac’s other work. Nor is much prior historical knowledge required. Although it provides insightful commentary on the society of its time, the themes it presents are universal. Goriot’s selfless love for his daughters, Eugène’s blind ambition, and Vautrin’s Machiavellian philosophy of life are just as relevant to today’s audience as they were to the readers of almost two centuries ago.
Though its frank and often ugly depictions of people and places may qualify this book as a precursor to naturalism, the characters and events take on the larger-than-life dimensions of a grand opera or a Shakespearean tragedy. Père Goriot exemplifies the way in which Balzac combined the best elements of Romanticism and Realism to form his own unique literary style. If you’ve never read Balzac before, this is the best place to start. If you’re already familiar with this great author but you haven’t yet experienced this masterwork, buy it, borrow it, or download it now.
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