The Influence of Environment on Character
Honore de Balzac’s portrayal of various social climbing characters in Le Pere Goriot examines how one’s environment shapes one’s character. As A. J. Krailsheimer puts it in the preface to his 1991 translation of the novel, ‘‘What interests Balzac is cause and effect, environment more than heredity, and behavioral rather than ethical categories,’’ Many readers see in Balzac’s realism the precursor to the naturalism of Emile Zola and Thomas Hardy. These later writers saw individual character as a product of social and physical environment, drawing heavily on biologist Charles Darwin’s theories of evolutionary adaptation in their examinations of human nature. Balzac himself, though, seems to believe that environment influences, but does not determine, behavior. Hence, the novel’s extended descriptions of a wide variety of scenes, and the narrator’s frequent suggestions about various tendencies associated with different environments, cannot dispel the essential tensions: Will Rastignac succeed or fail in society? Which would be better for him morally? Will Vautrin escape or will he be caught? Again, which would be better? Will Goriot’s daughters at last return his love, or are there good reasons for their rejection of him? Environment will in any case influence a given character’s actions, but it can neither predict them surely nor tell us the outcome of those actions.
Rastignac, Vautrin, and Goriot represent three classes whose struggles with one another were changing the balance of power in France as Balzac wrote Le Pere Goriot ` . Rastignac is a member of the rural aristocracy that in large part is excluded from Parisian high society, the urban aristocratic class that had returned to prominence with the ouster of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. His own struggles to enter the urban elite occur against the backdrop of the monied bourgeoisie’s same struggles. Having failed to supplant the aristocracy permanently, as evidenced by the fall of first the Republic and then Napoleon, many members of the bourgeoisie—that class made up of people, like Goriot, who own factories and businesses— were eager to enter that aristocracy. Pere Goriot’s daughters and husbands reject him in part because he is so clearly bourgeois. To a large extent, the question of social change is a question of what one ought to value. Balzac seems to ask if the beauty and nobility of spirit of the aristocratic classes should be most highly valued more than the loyalty and work ethic of the bourgeoisie. Or perhaps instead he suggests with the ambiguous figure of Vautrin that radical disruption of the status quo should in fact be most highly valued. Balzac himself claimed to be a staunch royalist, determinedly in favor of rule by the aristocracy and the conservation of a grand social tradition, but Le Pere Goriot ` appears to be far less clear in its political philosophy.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Honore de Balzac, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010