Thoughts On Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

Well, it took me 3 attempts, but finally I read and finished Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac. I say 3 attempts, the first 2 really were pathetic. I had tried reading it in-between reading Emile Zola novels last year, but barely got started, because truth be told, I was totally in Zola mode, and didn’t give many other authors an opportunity.

The other reason I didn’t last long with reading the novel last year, is because the translation I was reading (an old one by Marion Ayton Crawford) just didn’t flow for me. There were no sections or chapters either, and that always makes it difficult for me. I know it shouldn’t be a big thing, but I think there is something unconscious about having chapters, that makes it easier for the brain to understand and read.

On this 3rd attempt, I read the Oxford World’s Classics translation by A.J. Krailsheimer. This splits the novel into 4 sections, as apparently Balzac intended, and reads much better.

Père Goriot is probably the best known novel by Balzac and is often referred to as the cornerstone of his famous collection of works known as La Comedie Humaine. I am not very familiar with Balzac’s works to give a great overview of La Comedie Humaine, but suffice to say, there are many recurring characters over several novels and short stories, that Balzac wrote in the last 20 years of his life.

It is often recommended to begin La Comedie Humaine with Père Goriot, as this was the first work in the series to feature recurring characters to a great extent. It was written in 1834-5 roughly 5 years after what Balzac considered the first work in La Comedie Humaine The Chouans.

So what is it all about? Well, the premise is this – It is the year 1819, and there is this boarding house in a dodgy part of Paris called Maison Vauquer. The boarding house has been run for 30 years by Madame Vauquer and she currently has a number of lodgers staying at the Maison. The most notable are Eugéne de Rastignac, a student from the south of France, hoping to make his way into high Parisian society, Monsieur Vautrin, a cheerful but fearful character, and Pére Goriot, an elderly boarder, who had made a fortune in the Vermicelli (a type of pasta – you probably knew that, I didn’t) trade. There is also a young girl named Victorine Taillefer, who is being looked after by Madame Couture, as her Dad wants nothing to do with her. Victorine is a very important cog of the story, but I won’t say why here.

What people see at face value and what people actually are, is very hard to tell at the beginning of the story. Vautrin has a secret (ok, a few). Père Goriot has a secret. Rastignac doesn’t really have a secret, but has connections. His ambitions to make it on the Paris social scene would have made a great reality TV series, but this was set a long time before people became famous for not having anything worth being famous for. His connections are important though. They help him get close to people. People that are close to Père Goriot. And this leads Vautrin to spot an opportunity that could exploit the whole situation.

A major theme of the story is the pursuit of ambition and the lust for money. People try to solve everything with money. But we learn how that ends up turning out for some people. It is also a story of family, and how family can be exploited and sacrificed for personal ambition. The blurb on the back of the novel describes it as a tragic story, but I think that is too simplistic. Whereas some Shakespeare plays were called problem plays, because they were so hard to define, I think this is in a way a problem novel. There are some very emotional moments indeed, but there is also lots of great humour and joyful action.

One of the elements I really admired was the philosophising that occurs throughout the novel. I always enjoy a novel more when there is great wisdom spoken during the events, and Balzac excels at this in this novel. It often comes from the character Vautrin, and although pessimistic on his belief on achieving success in Paris, it’s wonderful to read:

[speaking to Rastignac]

Do you know the way to get on here? Through brilliant intelligence or skilful corruption. Either plough into the mass of mankind like a cannonball, or infiltrate them like a plague. It’s no good being honest. Men yield to the power of intelligence, though they hate it and try to decry it, because it takes but does not share. But they yield if it persistent.

The above passage I think sums up many of the character’s own approach to life, whether they realise it or not.

Rastignac also receives advice from his cousin Madame de Beausésant on advancing his social status in Paris:

In Paris success is everything, it is the key to power. If women believe you to have wit and talent, so will men, unless you disillusion them. Then you can set your heart on anything, every door will be open to you.

It is a very fine novel, and though I was not blown away like I was when I recently read Germinal by Emile Zola, it has made me want to read more of La Comedie Humaine. The characters are very well developed for a relatively short novel, and the scenes are intriguing and very often emotional.

I was not expecting to be taken to the high life of Paris at the beginning of the novel, but there I was reading many great scenes set in the grand houses, in the finest districts in Paris, and then transported back to the struggle of life at the Maison Vauquer. There is a wonderful contrast between the high life and the not so high life within the novel, but it is an enjoyment to be at every scene the reader is placed.

Sometimes I think these ‘Thoughts On’ blog posts are short and don’t really do the books a great service, but these are not designed to be essays on the novels, just my thoughts after reading them. I am offering a taster for the book if you will, and I hope a good one. I never want to spoil what happens in the story, so that perhaps means not being as extensive about the book as one could be.

Nevertheless, I would read Père Goriot again. Perhaps not immediately, but I am sure as I often am after reading a classic (and I don’t read a lot else), that there is much more to it than what you get from the first reading. More than anything else, as I said, it has made me want to read more Balzac, and I look forward to reading more of his great novels.

Père Goriot Quotes

“I want to work with honour, and integrity! I want to work day and night, owing my success solely to my own efforts. Success will come very slowly that way, but every day I will be able to lay my head on my pillow with a clear conscience.”

“To remain faithful to virtue, martyr to a sublime cause! Bah! Everyone believes in virtue, but who is virtuous? Nations set up liberty as an idol, but what nation on earth is free?”

“Young people do not dare look into the mirror of their consciences when they are being tempted to do wrong, while those of riper years have already seen themselves reflected there; therein lies the difference between the two periods of human life.”

“The education on which he had embarked had already borne fruit. He already loved selfishly. An innate sense had enabled him to recognise the nature of her heart. He intuitively that she was quite capable of treading on her father’s body in order to go the ball; he was not forceful enough to make her listen to reason, not brave enough to displease her, not principled enough to leaver her.”

14 thoughts on “Thoughts On Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

  1. Hi Pete! I just wanted to say I prefer reading this sort of post on a classic to a thorough critique: I like hearing about your personal response to a book, your thoughts going in, how you felt going out of it. If I want deeper analysis I can google that. I like knowing what you personally thought. (This is in response to your comment, Sometimes I think these ‘Thoughts On’ blog posts are short and don’t really do the books a great service, but these are not designed to be essays on the novels, just my thoughts after reading them.” I do like a taster and read this with interest.) 🙂

    If you want to see another blog where”tasters” and “personal experience” are shared in response to classics,I suggest a glance at Allie’s (currently inactive) A Literary Odyssey. When I have a blog, it’s how I prefer to discuss the classics as well. It makes them approachable. Which isn’t to say that if you feel like critiquing deeply, you shouldn’t! Only that I see great value in this sort of post.

    Ruth’s blog, too, is excellent. Cheers! 🙂

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    1. Hi Jillian! Thank you so much for your thoughts! I’m glad you like my style, my aim is to make me people want to read the classics, so my writing won’t be changing much on this blog. As you say, deeper insights can be found elsewhere if people want them. I just write about them, because I love them. It’s a good reason though right.

      Thanks as well for sharing those links. Yes, Ruth’s blog is great. Do you currently have a blog? I was looking for it the other day, but struggled. Wasn’t sure if it was my clumsy way of finding websites, or if it isn’t up at the moment. I will have a look at that Literary Odyssey one as well. Cheers! 🙂

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  2. After reading it two different times in the previous century, I don’t claim to remember much about the details in Pere Goriot. But the clear rundown you present, Pete, has refreshed my memory to some extent.

    I recall the cheerful but fearful Vautrin, as a clever criminal, capable of ruthlessness, beneath the surface of his larger-than-life, shrewd yet good-natured exterior. And a hairbreadth escape he made from the police at some point in the narrative where one slip would have meant death attested to his nerve and a quality of cold cunning. Mme. Vauqer, the boarding-house landlady, was disheartening in her ill-treatment of the old father. I don’t really want to refer back to the book for the specifics on this. Most importantly, we eventually learn that Pere Goriot sees clearly at last, and is disabused of any illusion as to the nature of his offspring.

    Like you said, this book is worth re-reading as is your commentary. I enjoyed it and look forward to more.

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    1. Thanks George, as always! I’m glad you like my words, it is greatly appreciated. This was my first Balzac novel, but have you read any others? I was only wondering, because if you have, I would like to know what you think would be a good novel of his to read next?

      The recommended reading list on this blog https://balzacbooks.wordpress.com/suggested-reading-order-of-the-human-comedy/ suggests after reading Pere Goriot, to go back to the start and read The Chouans, which is on my shelf, but I was thinking of reading another of his better known novels instead such as Eugenie Grandet. It is not my target to read the whole of La Comedie Humaine, but I would like to read the best known works of the series.

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  3. Pete, I’m happy to learn of your interest in more novels of Balzac. I can give you bare-bones descriptions of four others that i”ve read and then refer you to better introductions than I can provide.

    Here are the Fab Four that I’m somewhat familiar with. First, Eugenie Grandet, which you mentioned, a study in monomaniacal avarice. The main focus in this book is on the father, not the eponymous character, his daughter. Then Cousin Bette, a poor relative consumed with jealousy who plots with twisted vengeance and hatred to destroy the family of her wealthy relatives. Does she succeed? Cousin Pons is another study in monomania, this time that of antique collecting. Concerned relatives are hovering around the lifetime bachelor as he weakens. Finally, Lost Illusions, which tells the tale of a young man from the provinces trying to make it as a poet in Paris. He racks up some success but has to deal with a lot of sordid reality and disillusionment as the title of the book suggests. Each of these works also offers plenty of sound insight and worldly advice as you noted with the telling quotes from Pere Goriot that you included in your piece. My choice for the one to pick to read next would be Cousin Bette. It is also the longest book of the four, next to Lost Illusions, if that makes a difference to you.

    You can find good capsule commentaries on each of these, Pete, on the Goodreads site. Amazon reviews might be worth looking at. May your enthusiasm for classics remain irresistible!

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    1. Thanks George! Appreciate your detailed recommendations above. I was in the Oxford University Press bookshop yesterday (in Oxford) and Cousin Bette was one book I seriously considered getting. Probably should have done it, but never mind, will get it at some point anyway. Not decided still what Balzac I will read next, but probably will be Cousin Bette, if I have it by the next time I come back to Balzac. I believe it is the only work of Balzac in Adler’s ‘Great Books of the Western World’.

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  4. Pete, thanks for glancing at my recommendations. What a blast! You’re in the Oxford bookshop leaving Cousin Bette behind and I’ve been bringing coals to Newcastle. Did you know that legendary Washington Post book critic, Michael Dirda, has a video titled, “An American Bookman in England”, available on YouTube? It’s 30 minutes long and might be redundant to you, but I thought I’d mention it.

    Maybe Cousin Bette can wait. I know you are set on forging ahead to make progress with the formidable list you’ve put together, but for a change of pace, maybe you’d like to look into some distinguished British supernatural masters? Algernon Blackwood, (my favorite), Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, and M.R. James to name a few and from more recent times, Robert Aickman, among many others. I don’t know if you go in for this genre of writing, but these authors are some of the best in that line, I think.

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    1. Hi George, I must admit, I’m very intrigued by your comment ‘bringing coals to Newcastle’, what does that mean? 🙂 I will have a look for that video by Michael Dirda you mentioned.

      Cousin Bette is firmly on my reading plan and I probably will read it within the next year. I haven’t heard of any of the supernatural masters you mentioned, but I have thought about a change of pace soon. I have been thinking for change (probably in the summer) reading a (shock horror) modern novel, but I wouldn’t know where to start. I am quite intrigued to read a bit of John le Carré but I will see where I get to.

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      1. “Coals to Newcastle” was just an off-the-wall double British reference, Pete, done out of respect to the country who gave us so many great writers. First as to locale, and then in an oblique nod to British Prime Minister William Pitt, who is reputed to have said, “Anyone can talk sense. Send me a man who can talk nonsense.” Meaning to bring sand to the beach, or any other commodity already plentiful in whatever particular region.

        Pete, I checked the Dirda English bookstore video to review it, and it’s pretty dry. Try one of his talks about books on YouTube video instead if you have time.

        The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert is an excellent anthology, as is Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. (An old omnibus volume.) Russell Kirk is a neglected American master who incorporates Christian overtones into his strange tales. Stories that stop short of the gruesome are preferable to me. (I read LeCarre’s “Spy” novel, don’t remember it well.)

        I’m interested in your next book review, looking forward to it with anticipation.

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  5. Well, I confess, I totally forgot what Pere Goriot.was about, other than a sorrowful story. I read it many years ago, but at that time it didn’t resonate with me. I feel now like I must give it another go. I have also in my TBR pile: Eugenie Grandet, and plan to read it soon.

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    1. Pere Goriot is a good story but I understand if it didn’t resonate with you. It’s not in the same style as Zola (of course) and now I’m back reading Zola (The Kill), I think I will always prefer his style, but I do love the characters that Balzac creates, and I might enjoy some of the novels in La Comedie Humaine more.

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