Honoré de Balzac's 1834 novel, "Le Père Goriot," is a novel of strange and fascinating power. As the doorway into his interconnected cycle, La Comédie Humaine, it presents as much welcome to interested readers as Dante's fateful "abandon all hope..." entrance to Hell in the Divine Comedy. "Le Père Goriot" gives us a fallen world, driven by self-interest, where all ties of genuine human feeling seem to be relegated to a no longer existent past, or to the rarely-glimpsed pastoral countryside. Balzac presents the stories of Eugène de Rastignac - a young law student from the southern provinces, Jean-Joachim Goriot - a former pasta merchant who gave all he had as dowry for his two daughters, and Vautrin - a man who lives and works in shadows. Balzac's novel illustrates the lengths and depths that these three, and everyone around them, go to in order to secure even the most fleeting happiness in the moral wasteland of Paris about 4 years after the fall of Napoleon.
The novel begins with our introduction to Maison Vauquer, a boarding house with a crumbling plaster statue of Cupid in the yard, which is home and prison to the respectably indigent. Goriot has lived in the Maison Vauquer under the increasingly unsympathetic gaze of Madame Vauquer and her boarders for almost 10 years - wasting away, Goriot has become a figure of fun for the house, coming to be known teasingly as "Old Goriot." His tragic affection for his two well-married daughters, Delphine de Nucingen and Anastasie de Restaud, has driven him out of their homes, and into a state wherein his only joys come from seeing them from afar, and mortgaging what remains of his fortune to assist them in financial difficulties. Into the Maison and Goriot's life comes young Rastignac, whose lack of fortune fuels his desire to enter the fashionable world of Parisian high society. Here, Rastignac meets Vautrin, who offers the youth a possible means to do so - means both underhanded and deadly.
One of the novel's great questions is the great Biblical dilemma - what does it profit a man to gain the world if he must lose his soul in the process? The novel's three main characters, but particularly Rastignac, illustrate the dilemma from different vantage points. For Vautrin and Goriot, their choices were made long ago, and Balzac's work with them concerns the results of lives organized around self and others, respectively. The novel's primary concern is with Rastignac, who is continually in the process of weighing his options - in a world in which there is little grey area, will Rastignac opt for a life of good or evil, of self-interest (as with fellow-boarders Mlle. Michonneau and M. Poiret) or service (as with fellow-student Bianchon)?
Balzac sets relationships, particularly those concerned with family, up for consideration in the novel. We see bonds created by birth, as well as by social class and wealth; of course, family and money are rarely inseparable, and certainly are not mutually exclusive for the novel's characters. Rastignac is in Paris studying the law only because of the financial sacrifices being made by his family in the country. Rastignac's kinship with Madame de Beauséant provides him with a taste of the seeming luxury of Paris. Victorine de Taillefer, a motherless young girl at the Maison Vauquer, makes a fruitless yearly application to her hard-hearted father, who has disowned her completely. As Rastignac interacts with and becomes part of Goriot's life and that of his fellow-boarders, we are encouraged to consider the role of the family as it relates to society. If family is Balzac's basic social unit, then how do we regard the family constituted by Goriot and his daughters? The one made up of the "guests" of the boarding house? That of Vautrin's Ten Thousand Society?
I have barely scratched the surface of Balzac's novel. Its engagements - literary, sociological, and moral, are extensive. Balzac's engagements with literary and philosophical models, from Shakespeare to Rousseau, are worth taking notice of, as are his proposed "three attitudes of men toward the world: obedience, struggle, and revolt." For a novel with seemingly clear moral polarities, it is difficult to say who are the heroes and who the villains in "Le Père Goriot." Though the novel is by no means a simple satire, getting swept up in the novel's overt sentimentality may say as much about the reader as it does about the novel's characters and situations. Balzac's anonymous narrator offers continually biased judgments, which can cloud the reader's ability to remain objective. Any way one reads it, "Le Père Goriot" is a terrific novel - and the invitation to enter Balzac's uninviting world is well worth accepting.