Honore de Balzac’s classic novel Le Pere Goriot has been divided in several different ways by its various translators in the nearly two centuries since its original publication in French; the sections here follow the helpful divisions in the Franklin Library’s 1980 edition of an anonymous 1897 translation generally attributed to Jane Minot Sedgwick.
Part One: The Vauquer House
The novel begins with an extended description of the Maison Vauquer, a shabby boardinghouse run by the even shabbier Mme Vauquer, and of its inhabitants. The year is 1819, and the novel’s three protagonists, Eugene de Rastignac, Vautrin, and Jean-Joachim ‘‘Pere’’ Goriot, are lodgers at this boardinghouse in one of the grimier corners of Paris’s Latin Quarter, as are the young Victorine Taillefer and her guardian, Mme Couture. Also residing at the Maison Vauquer, which Balzac introduces directly after asking whether it is ‘‘more horrible to look upon a withered heart or an empty skull,’’ are an ‘‘old maid,’’ Mlle Michonneau, and ‘‘an old man,’’ M Poiret. Balzac informs the reader how much each boarder is paying for lodging, and takes pains to contrast Taillefer and Rastignac with the rest of the occupants. While ‘‘the boarders were all oppressed by poverty more or less apparent,’’ and most ‘‘suggested dramas that had already been completed or were still in action,’’ Taillefer and Rastignac are different: they at least are still young, their dramas yet scarcely begun. Telling the reader that ‘‘the happiest of these afflicted souls was Mme Vauquer, who ruled in this free prison,’’ Balzac traces out Vauquer’s particular history with Goriot, whom she had initially hoped to marry because of his wealth. In the process, we learn also that Goriot has been getting progressively poorer since his arrival at the Maison Vauquer in 1813. His two daughters have spent much of his retirement money. Worse still for him, the other boarders do not believe ‘‘the women whom he called his daughters’’ really are his daughters, because they are so obviously rich and he is increasingly only ‘‘a ruined man to whom poverty has taught submission.’’
Part Two: First Glimpses of Society
In contrast to the much-ridiculed Pere Goriot, ` young Rastignac is presented as a dashing, clever student. Balzac follows him through his ambitious entrance into Parisian society, supported by his aunt, Mme de Marcillac, at a ball given by his rather distant cousin Mme de Beause´ant, and his return to the boardinghouse. Once home from the ball, Rastignac sees two odd things: evidence of Goriot’s wealth in the form of a silver breakfast set, which Rastignac assumes has been stolen, and Vautrin counting coins with a nighttime visitor.
Goriot, it transpires, is selling silver to pay the bills of a woman he claims is his daughter and whom the others believe must be his mistress. This woman, however, is indeed Goriot’s daughter, Mme Anastasie de Restaud, with whom Rastignac felt he had fallen in love at the ball the previous night. Vautrin, meanwhile, declares his intention of helping young Victorine Taillefer secure her inheritance, which her father is wrongfully withholding.
The next afternoon, Rastignac calls upon the Restaud household, where he is received with some coolness by the Mme de Restaud and her lover Comte Maxime de Trailles. Still, he meets with success in making himself welcome with her husband, the Comte de Restaud. The success is short-lived, however, as Rastignac accidentally offends the count. Later, his cousin, Mme de Beause´ant, advises him to be ruthless in his social interactions.
Rastignac resolves to pursue not Anastasie de Restaud, but her sister—Goriot’s other daughter—Delphine de Nucingen, the wife of a German capitalist and an outcast from true Parisian aristocracy. To this end, he promptly writes to his mother and younger sisters for money, threatening to ‘‘blow out my brains in despair’’ if his mother will not aid. This fresh-faced young law student from the country, son of an impoverished branch of the rural aristocracy, appears here as a changed person: a determined social climber.
Rastignac turns his attention to learning the history of Goriot, Delphine’s father and the man he hopes to use to make his fortune. Here, Goriot appears as a doting father, an opportunist who has profited by the 1789 Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic empire, and also as a casualty of the return of the old aristocracy to Paris in 1815. His debased condition and his daughters’ scorn of him is due in large part to the aristocracy’s disdain for business (they believed working for a living, even if one earned a lot of money, was vulgar) and to the deep unpopularity of the friends of the Revolution after the Restoration of the Bourbon monarchy.