Thursday, July 10, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac

I’m trying to catch up on my Back-to-the-Classics Challenge. Last year, for my translated classic, I read Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac. I absolutely loved it. Balzac is one of those writers who reminds you why truly great literature endures. Still, I had another of his novels sitting on my shelf and it took me another challenge to start turning the pages. This time, I read Pere Goriot, choosing it for my 19th century classic. (And checking off another TBR pile selection as well.)

Like Lost Illusions, Pere Goriot is a story of the corruption of Parisian society, as well as an illustration of the various evils of human nature. The main protagonist is Eugene de Rastignac, but equally important are the title character, old Goriot, and a mysterious man named Vautrin.

Rastignac has come to Paris from the south of France to study law in the hopes of improving his family’s situation. He takes a room at a cheap boarding house where he meets, among others, Goriot and Vautrin. Rastignac soon discovers that studying law is not the path to success in Paris, at least not the kind of success he desires. Fortunately, he has a distant cousin, Madame la Vicomtesse de Beauseant, who moves in the highest circles, who is willing to introduce him to society. Unfortunately, moving in those circles himself will require money and popularity with the ladies. Convinced that social status is the only thing that matters, he bleeds his mother and sisters of their savings in order to buy himself more fashionable clothes and to have a little spending money in his pocket. He also sets out to find himself a mistress.

His eye first lights on a baroness who happens to be Goriot’s daughter. Inadvertently, he offends her by mentioning that he knows Goriot. He learns later that Goriot was once a fabulously successful grain merchant. Upon the death of his wife, he poured all his attention, affection, and wealth upon his two daughters. He saw them married well (or so he thought). He continued to shower them with gifts. But very quickly, they shoved him aside, seeing him only when they wanted money. Goriot is now one of the most impoverished of the boarders living with Rastignac. Still, his daughters are his world, and he continues to sell his possessions to help them.

Rastignac next meets the second daughter and falls in love with her. She is in the process of being abandoned by her lover, so it’s a good time for him to swoop in and pick up the pieces. Before long, the gossips of Paris have acknowledged them as a couple. The daughter pries more money from her father to set up a little garret for Rastignac so that he won’t have to live at the boarding house any longer. Goriot is thrilled, believing that he will be allowed a little room in the garret’s attic so he can be near his daughter.

Rastignac hesitates to take advantage of Goriot, but he does. He is appalled by the way the daughters treat their father, but he plays along, only softening the blow by occasionally lying and pretending the girls have been saying kind words about their father.

In the meantime, Vautrin, another boarder, has been insisting that Rastignac will never have enough money to succeed at the rate he is going. When he coldly plots it out for him, it’s pretty clear that Rastignac is in over his head. Vautrin has a plan to help, but it involves something Rastignac wants no part of. And yet, as his mistress slips deeper into debt, his own debts mount, and Goriot’s last reserves shrink to nothing, Rastignac begins to take steps toward giving in to Vautrin.

Pere Goriot is considered one of Balzac’s greatest novels. Rastignac’s transformation, his internal wrestling as his ambition erodes his morals, makes for some interesting but painful reading. Goriot’s devotion to his daughters, his selflessness, his willingness—even eagerness—to reduce his own circumstances to abject poverty so that they can live the lifestyles that are only digging themselves deeper into trouble is some sort of lesson, but I’m not sure what. (Women do not come off very well in this novel. But the men are not much better.) There are some extraordinarily insightful commentaries on society and some wonderful descriptions of people and settings that show just what a brilliant writer Balzac was. Overall I preferred Lost Illusions, which tackled some of the same themes but covered more ground. The plot was more complex so it seemed grander. But both books are well worth the read.

1 comment:

  1. I've just finished Eugenie Grandet - I thoroughly enjoyed it...but like you it will probably take another classics challenge next year to get me to read it!
    Balzac obviously uses all his novels to discuss the same themes just from a different angle.
    Thanks for the intriguing review.