Part Three: The Debut
A letter arrives from Rastignac’s mother, and though he weeps to read that she has sold her jewels, a second letter, from his sister, revives his spirits. His sister’s innocent faith in him leaves him determined that ‘‘every coin must tell to the utmost advantage,’’ and he immediately begins spending the money as planned, though it has not yet arrived, on new clothing, meals out, and the other goods that he feels will help him make his way into society. Forced to borrow a franc from Vautrin a short while later, Rastignac makes haste to return it immediately. As he acknowledges, he does not trust ‘‘the sphinx in a wig.’’ This distrust, though, and his way of communicating it, are insulting to the point that the other boarders believe Vautrin and Rastignac will have a duel. Later Vautrin tells Rastignac his idea: he will kill Victorine’s brother in a duel, in exchange for Rastignac’s giving him two hundred thousand francs of Victorine’s once she inherits. He does this on the presumption that Rastignac will court and win the young girl’s heart.
However, Rastignac is already courting Goriot’s second daughter, Delphine de Nucingen. And Goriot, for his part, is only too obliging, falling over himself to help Rastignac. Likewise, Rastignac’s cousin Mme de Beause´ant, despite an initial reluctance brought on by her heartache at the prospect of losing her lover (the Marquis d’Ajuda-Pinto), takes pains to help Rastignac. Bringing him with her to the opera, she points out Mme de Nucingen, whom Rastignac meets by the Marquis d’Ajuda-Pinto’s good graces. When left alone together, Rastignac quickly makes a move, giving ‘‘sweet speeches’’ that ‘‘a woman likes nothing better than to hear.’’ All, however, has not gone quite so swimmingly as he thinks. At the end of the opera, ‘‘The poor fellow [is] quite unaware that the Baroness [Nucingen] had paid no attention to him and was expecting a delusive and agonizing letter from De Marsay,’’ the lover who has deserted her.
No one in all this is happier than old Goriot, whose hideous little room at the Maison Vauquer makes quite a contrast to the grandeur of even his daughter’s carriage at the opera. The extent of Goriot’s delusions becomes apparent as Rastignac tells the old man about his evening with Delphine. At one point, he cries, ‘‘Mme de Restaud is fond of me too, I know, for a father sees into his children’s hearts and judges their intentions just as God does ours.’’ To Rastignac’s objection that it is odd that daughters who love him so much should allow him to live in poverty while they enjoy immense luxury, Goriot explains that he cannot explain—but that he ‘‘live[s] three lives,’’ his own and his daughters’.
All this has stirred Rastignac’s own ambition still further, and he begins to give serious thought to Vautrin’s offer. Rastignac’s need for funds becomes all the more apparent in a subsequent encounter with Mme de Nucingen. She invites him to her house, and then goes with him to a gambling den, where she asks him to bet with her money. Fortunately, Rastignac does well, though he is completely ignorant of the rules of the game he is playing. He returns to Delphine with seven thousand francs—enough to pay off her ex-lover’s debts, with a thousand francs to spare. This transaction solidifies their affair. But the high living to which he is now committed takes its toll, and Rastignac finds himself heavily in debt. Vautrin’s offer looms ever-present in the background, promising Rastignac a way out of his financial difficulties.
Part Four: Shadows of Intrigue
Rastignac toys more and more with the idea of courting Victorine Taillefer. Meanwhile, M Poiret and Mlle Michonneau are approached by a policeman, M Gondureau, who seeks their help in capturing the man they know as Vautrin. Vautrin, he explains, is actually ‘‘Jacques Collin, surnamed Trompe-la-Mort [Cheat-death or Beat-death],’’ a criminal of the highest order. Moreover, he tells the mindless Poiret and the canny Michonneau, they will need to drug Vautrin into sleep, because he is a homosexual and cannot be distracted by Michonneau. Gondureau promises to pay Michonneau three thousand francs to drug Vautrin.
However, Vautrin’s actions soon sour Rastignac on the idea of dueling with Victorine’s brother. Vautrin enters a room where Rastignac and Victorine are sitting together to ‘‘suddenly disturb their happiness by singing in a loud jeering voice.’’ Later he discusses with Rastignac the murder-to-be of Victorine’s brother in an extremely callous manner. Indeed, so disturbed is Rastignac that he ‘‘resolve[s] to go that evening to warn M Taillefer and his son.’’ It is at just this moment that Goriot enters, brimming with good cheer. He draws Rastignac aside to inform him that he has secured a nice apartment for the young man and Delphine—as long as they consent to his living just above them. Vautrin subsequently overhears Rastignac telling Goriot about the plan to kill Victorine’s brother in a duel, and Rastignac’s good intentions go for naught. Vautrin slips a sleeping potion into the other men’s drinks to keep them from warning M Taillefer of the impending duel.
Only a short while later Mlle Michonneau, on instructions from the police, slips a drug into Vautrin’s own drink. News arrives that Victorine’s brother is near death from wounds sustained in a duel, and Victorine and Mme Couture leave to attend to this surprising turn of events. A short while later, Vautrin falls down as though dead. Rastignac goes out to fetch his friend Bianchon, and is struck during his solitary wanderings—for the first time in the novel—by pangs of conscience regarding the sanctity of marriage. He works to convince himself that an affair with Delphine will not be wronging her husband, and has more or less succeeded by the time he returns to the boardinghouse. The police arrive moments later; Vautrin offers no resistance to arrest. Instead, he makes a grand speech. In speaking to the assembled company (only Goriot is absent), he becomes ‘‘no longer a single man, but the epitome of a degenerate nation, of a people at once savage, logical, brutal, and facile.’’ His courage and powerful personality, his intensity and authenticity, leave the rest of the boarders awed. As Sylvie puts it, ‘‘Well, he was a man all the same!’’ Accordingly, the rest of the company insists that Michonneau and Poiret, now branded as police spies, leave the Maison Vauquer immediately. Goriot returns to whisk Rastignac away to his new apartment, and only ten of the usual eighteen are left to dine at Mme Vauquer’s establishment.