Pere Goriot by Honore De Balzac
Honore de Balzac became famous for his series of books published under the name La Comedie Humaine– or more commonly referred to as- The Human Comedy. Many of the characters reappear throughout the series, but Pere Goriot is a complete novel in itself and can be read individually. Showcasing people from all walks of life, Balzac wrote about France during the 1820’s and 30’s. The Bourbon Restoration was in progress; a revived monarchy in the Kingdom of France. The aristocracy was trying to hold onto power, but “the handwriting was on the wall”. The general citizenry had already had a taste of freedom, capitalism, and social mobility and they weren’t about to give it up.
Pere Goriot is a story of French society… money, power, ambition, and love. The protagonist- Eugene Rastignac- is a poor young country boy who has recently arrived in Paris to attend law school. He moves into a rundown, filthy, dilapidated boarding house across the hall from Pere Goriot. During France’s brief period of revolution, Pere Goriot made his fortune manufacturing pasta. He has two beautiful daughters,- Anastasie de Restaud (who married up in society) and Delphine de Nucingen (who married a wealthy German banker). Pere squandered all his wealth on luxury items for the girls and now lives on a modest pension. While Pere Goriot pines for the attention of his daughters, (who ignore him now that he is poor and are embarrassed by his bourgeois background), Eugene Rastignac gets a taste of society by visiting his aristocratic cousin Madame de Beauseant. One look inside the Beauseant mansion and Rastignac decides “the hell with law school.” His primary ambition becomes money, power, love and entrance into society. And the quickest way to get there is by marrying for money. Honore de Balzac creates an intricate plot full of colorful descriptions and exaggerated drama.
Balzac modernized creative writing by bringing realism to French Literature. Many people have credited him with bringing Paris to life the way Dickens made London come alive. But in overall style and substance, I would compare Pere Goriot to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Loaded with symbolism, (left bank/right bank, high society/lower classes), and the eclectic assortment of characters; a dowdy landlord who’s got her nose in everyone’s business, a smooth talking unscrupulous fellow boarder who tries to lure Rastignac to a life of crime, unfaithful lovers, and ungrateful spoiled rotten daughters.
The Norton Critical Edition has an excellent translation by Burton Raffel, with an introduction by the editor, Peter Brooks. Peter Brooks sums it up nicely by saying of French society, “what appears on the surface is rarely the whole story. You need to look behind closed doors, through keyholes. You need to interrogate faces for their true meaning, read clothes and gesture for what they are trying to hide.” So be a bit of a voyeur and view French society through this literary keyhole. Enjoy this captivating story.
Rated 4.5 Stars.
All contents © 2010 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.