Socially conscious literary critics have made much of Balzac’s realism: his gritty depictions of actual life, in which the sentiments of a social moralist crop up here and there amidst the careful accounts-keeping of a bourgeois citizen (who would rather have been an aristocrat); his troubled portrayal of the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the bourgeoisie; his focus, for all that, on the voices of the underclasses, of the poor and the downtrodden as well as the beautiful and the wealthy. Literary theorist Fredric Jameson offers one particularly compelling version of such criticism in his description of ‘‘the novels of Balzac . . . as reflecting the reactionary ideology of a dying class.’’ Another, conflicting strand of criticism, however, follows Karl Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels in seeing Balzac’s realist approach to literature—which uses the novel as a tool for re-presenting a total social reality—as ‘‘further[ing] the class struggle by bringing out, with fidelity to detail, the essential aspects of society in a particular place and at a particular time.’’ Resolving this tension, between Balzac’s realist fiction as reactionary and as politically radical, requires of us a question: How is one to decide just which aspects of society are truly essential? If society as a whole is always larger than any individual’s imagination, it would seem that this is a matter of and for rhetoric—a question of persuasion, where attitudes are formed through the limited free play of symbols and fantasies. Oddly, given the extraordinary rhetorical fertility of Balzac’s mind and moment both, Le Pere Goriot’s particular focus on rhetoric has received relatively little scholarly attention, though it intersects in important ways with the more frequently discussed matrix of class struggle and literary realism. The critical indifference to Le Pere Goriot’s non-indifference to rhetoric is perhaps a product of the generally held view that realism emerged as a literary movement in opposition to the more ‘rhetorical’ style of early nineteenth-century French fiction.
Indeed, Yuri Lotman expresses the critical consensus when he writes that the realist novel is marked by its ‘‘rejection of rhetoric’’—its exclusion of overtly persuasive or flowery writing in favor of a straightforward representation of reality. Balzac’s curiously unstable attitude toward rhetoric in Le Pere Goriot, however, suggests otherwise. In the figure of Vautrin, rhetoric, radicalism, and realism combine in a way that the novel frequently rejects—but almost as frequently embraces. In Le Pere Goriot, it is Vautrin who calls Rastignac again and again to question assumptions about who and what is truly moral. Though Vautrin is a ‘‘criminal mastermind,’’ sometimes portrayed as unacceptable or even evil, Balzac’s treatment of him is uneven and shifts back and forth between identification and rejection. At one moment, he is a devil, ‘‘displaying his chest, shaggy as a bear’s back, but with hair that was of a reddish hue both repulsive and startling to behold,’’ but he was first introduced as ‘‘not disagreeable . . . cheerful and obliging . . . [and] prompt to offer his services.’’ Granted, even in that initial moment, there is something disquieting about Vautrin; but what is important is that he is a complex figure, neither easily accepted nor easily rejected. It is fitting, then, that Le Pere ` Goriot’s greatest attention to rhetorical power is reserved for this Vautrin, a.k.a. Trompe-la-Mort, a.k.a. Jacques Collin: a man whose words are so powerful he needs three different names to mark which sorts of words he’s using with (or on) whom. Vautrin’s use of language is thus presented at times as usefully questioning social norms and at other times as evil plain and simple, and Balzac’s apparent ambivalence on this score is of a piece with his complex portrayal of Vautrin’s overall role in society. This ambivalence toward rhetoric, though, marks a break from the dismissal of the norms of persuasion generally held to be a key component of literary realism. Indeed, Le Pere Goriot’s back-and-forth on the moral status of Vautrin’s symbol use helps clarify the link between realism and the domain of rhetoric: rather than a simple rejection of the latter by the former, this is a relationship of inclusion-of-the thing-excluded.
But what is this ‘rhetoric’ that is being included while also excluded? As rhetorical scholar and philosopher of language Kenneth Burke puts it, ‘‘the basic function of rhetoric [is] the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or to induce actions in other human agents.’’ It is a bridge between physical coercion and powerlessness, a way of approaching control over others without ever quite getting there. ‘‘Rhetorical power,’’ as exercised by Vautrin and others, refers then to the potential for persuasion in a given use of symbols. Unlike the coercive force of physical power, the persuasive force of rhetoric is always only potential, and it is the relatively conscious negotiation of this particular potential that makes Le Pere Goriot a realist novel. So, to say that literary realism founds itself as a discourse not by rejecting rhetoric, but rather by negotiating its inevitable presence is to say that realist novels— and Le Pere Goriot in particular—try on different attitudes toward powerful symbol use. As we might then expect, throughout the novel, different characters are shown considering how best to harness symbols for their use; and we the readers are encouraged to take various moral attitudes toward the particular choices they make.
Shortly after Rastignac’s mother has sent him the money he requested of her, so that he may make his way in society (though he has not told her that, she has intuited it), Vautrin applauds the decision, but also warns the young man that he must learn to duel. Rastignac must then borrow a franc from Vautrin to tip the messenger, and doing so leads him to reflect on what has become a somewhat hostile relationship between the two. Here, though, Balzac’s often-intrusive narrator barges in, going off on a seemingly unrelated tangent about the power of ideas. With no preamble whatsoever, we as readers are led from Eugene de Rastignac ‘‘idly wondering why it was’’ that he watched Vautrin so closely, to the statement, ‘‘Ideas are, no doubt, projected with a force in direct ratio to that with which they are conceived.’’ Drawing on the metaphor of the cannonball, Balzac’s narrator continues, ‘‘Ideas are very different in the effects they produce . . . there are limp and flimsy minds into which other people’s ideas drop slowly as a spent cannonball sinks into the soft earth’’— while Rastignac’s, in contrast, ‘‘head was filled with explosive material ready to ignite at the least touch.’’ This brief introduction to the power of ‘‘that contagion of thought, whose odd phenomena influence us so often without our knowledge,’’ would seem proof positive of the realist novel’s need to reject rhetoric. The narrator warns of the power other people’s words and ideas have to influence people without them knowing it. Balzac seems so keen, in fact, to warn readers of this threat that he breaks the narrative flow of the story entirely, allowing his narrator to push in without regard for even the reader’s comfort.
Only a few pages later, Vautrin suggests that the young Victorine Taillefer has ‘‘put an idea into [his] head,’’ but that this is an idea that will make both her and Rastignac ‘‘very happy.’’ The idea, of course, is the one behind Rastignac’s later moral dilemma: Vautrin will arrange to have Mlle de Taillefer’s unpleasant brother killed in a duel, so that she may receive monies from her father that are, though this father and her brother refuse to acknowledge it, her birthright. If not rhetoric in itself, it would seem here that an idea—the starting point of all rhetoric being the formation of some idea as a symbol or set of symbols—may after all be a positive thing, or at least potentially positive. The moral status of this particular idea remains fuzzy throughout the course of the novel. Likewise, in the same scene, though Rastignac wants to duel with Vautrin right that moment, the latter persuades him otherwise, no doubt saving his life (since Vautrin is an accomplished marksman and Rastignac is not). Vautrin speaks in a knowing way, calculated to stir Rastignac’s interest; and the young man, as though a puppet, lets go his insistence on dueling and sits ‘‘down at the table, overcome by his curiosity that was now raised to the highest pitch by the sudden change in manners of this man, who had just talked of killing him.’’ Vautrin’s rhetorical power now comes to seem unambiguously positive; he has just saved one or perhaps even two lives merely by changing the way he spoke.
In contrast, Balzac offers for our clear censure Mme de Restaud, who gains power in her marriage by attending closely to such actions as will symbolize her acceptance of her husband’s mastery. Her close study of ‘‘her husband’s character in order that she may behave herself as she pleases’’ makes possible her ‘‘morganatic’’ union or ongoing affair with Comte de Trailles, but that affair proves utterly disastrous for her. Mme de Restaud serves throughout the novel as an example of symbolic power-use at its worst, and comes to no very good end in either her love affair or her marriage. Her rhetoric, Balzac rejects, though he may not reject rhetoric itself.
Far less negative is the narrative treatment of Rastignac’s cousin Mme de Beause´ant, from whom he learns to use a woman’s interest in him as a symbolic tool, a wedge with which to make his way into society. In a dark moment in her own life, Mme de Beause´ant urges the use of rhetorical power as a way of taking an ethical middle ground in an inevitable struggle for power. ‘‘Then [once you have made your way into society with this power],’’ she tells Rastignac, ‘‘you will know that the world is made up of dupes and rogues, but try yourself to be neither one nor the other.’’ Here, it as though one may be inducted into rhetorical knowledge as into a knowledge of good and evil—the suggestion being that one must thereafter be ‘‘fallen,’’ but need not be evil because of that. Thus, Rastignac subsequently ‘‘saw the world as it is; he understood that law and morality have no power over the rich,’’ and ‘‘his imagination, transported to the high levels of Parisian society, filled his heart with evil thoughts.’’ He is presented as having inside him now an evil that was not previously there. And yet, as literary critic Bruce Robbins notes, this moment itself has only been made possible by rhetorical calculation on Rastignac’s part, by a supportiveness of his cousin in her distress that has been both sincere and manipulative. Rastignac, then, has actually brought with him the (rhetorical) knowledge of good and evil that he might be supposed to be learning here for the first time; we might say he is being formally made a citizen of a state that he already inhabits, the state of rhetoric. And thus it is, in the pages to follow, that he is able to wrestle successfully with his conscience, to resist what the novel presents as the greatest temptation—Vautrin’s offer—all the while following his cousin’s advice so well that one might wonder whether he has really been any better than Vautrin, after all.
Indeed, even Vautrin’s offer itself is far from unambiguously evil. To the contrary, it seems to shift shapes. Leading up to the offer, we may read Vautrin as a sort of stand-in for Balzac himself, and at the same time as the consummate rhetorician. Beginning with his tour-de-force presentation of Rastignac to himself, Vautrin is both relentlessly realistic in his detailed descriptions of the young man’s desires and deeply rhetorical in the way he calls Rastignac’s attention again and again to the gap between those desires and his ability to fulfill them. He suggests, all before making his offer, that Rastignac has in fact ‘‘already chosen’’ one of the ‘‘only two courses to take: either blind obedience or open revolt’’—and this emphasis on binary opposition is tailor-made to persuade the young man to do as Vautrin wishes, as are various pieces of flattery throughout. But he also says, sounding now like Balzac himself when talking of his realist novels, ‘‘You may draw your own conclusions; I have shown you life as it is. It is no less ugly than a kitchen and quite as evil smelling.’’
Rather than rejecting rhetoric in all this, Balzac is calling attention to the helpless rhetoricality of his own realism. He is acknowledging that yes, indeed, whatever else might be the case, his depiction of society must pick and choose, must for all his own protests to the contrary select some portion of reality and present that as more real than the rest. Consider here the Roman law scholar and orator Cicero, who writes in the first century BCE—in the service of rhetoric—‘‘The narrative will seem to be plausible if it seems to embody characteristics which are accustomed to appear in real life.’’ So far, then, Vautrin sounds close to Balzac, and both sound closer to Cicero, known for his insistence on rhetoric’s status as a highly moral activity, than either do to the figure of the devilish rhetorician. But this is shortly to change. In explaining his offer to Rastignac, Vautrin claims, like Milton’s Lucifer, the ultimate figure of devilish eloquence, ‘‘I take upon myself to play the part of Providence, and I will direct the will of God,’’ urging his target to ‘‘Care no more for your opinions than you do for your words…. There is no such thing as principle; emergency is everything.’’ This figure of the rhetorician as indifferent to morals is even older than Cicero, tracing its way back at least to Plato, who complained that rhetoric was a mere ‘‘knack . . . for producing a certain gratification and pleasure’’: like pastry-making, indifferent to the question of the good, of principle. And yet, once more, we cannot see Balzac as unambiguously rejecting rhetoric here. Instead, he is negotiating his way through the question of what constitutes the proper bounds for rhetoric—testing it as an approach to morality.
It is in this context that the immediately apparent evilness of Vautrin’s offer to Rastignac becomes disturbingly unclear upon further consideration. As philosopher Iddo Landau argues in an article titled ‘‘To Kill a Mandarin’’—based on Rastignac’s discussion of his dilemma with Bianchon in terms of anonymous complicity in the killing of a Chinese mandarin—‘‘The thought experiment suggests that we pretend that we are more moral and autonomous than we actually are, not only to others, but also to ourselves.’’ That is to say, as Rastignac’s conversation with his friend Bianchon shows, Vautrin’s proposition is far less outrageous in practice, in the context of the decisions we actually do make, than it is in theory. Bianchon’s initial response, when Rastignac puts the question to him, is a joke that is no joke at all: ‘‘Pooh!’’ he says, ‘‘I have already come to my thirty-third mandarin.’’
To recap, at first glance it might seem obvious that Balzac is offering a negative vision of rhetoric in Le Pere Goriot , a classic rejection of rhetoric such as Lotman describes: ‘‘The aesthetics of realism . . . was characterized mostly by a negative feature of anti-romanticism and was perceived against a projection of romantic norms, so creating a ’rhetoric of the rejection of rhetoric’.’’ On this vision, it was only in distancing itself from such romantic, rhetoric-focused ideas about what language was and ought to be that the realist novel carved out a space for itself in readers’ hearts. And that distance is achieved, in Le Pere Goriot, in part through the vilification of Vautrin.
Except that, as we have seen, Vautrin is not simply vilified. Apart from the passages here discussed, it is worth keeping in mind that— though Rastignac ends up rejecting his offer— Vautrin follows through on the plan and in the process does well by poor Victorine Taillefer. Likewise, it becomes increasingly apparent that Vautrin’s illegal plotting is not terribly different from the plotting carried out by the representative of the law, who ‘‘count[s] upon some violence on his part tomorrow morning that will allow us to make an end of him.’’ It is as though Balzac, royalist though he was, simply could not bear not to show as many sides of society as possible. In so doing, however, he could not help but at least partially redeem Vautrin, his devilish rhetorician who wasn’t. And it is this version of realism, a realism that asks us to confront our own potential for hypocrisy, to confront the contradictions in our systems of values, that has radical rhetorical power. If we can be persuaded to re-engage with our own, often easy and thoughtless notions of morality, change in the world may well be possible.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Honore de Balzac, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010
Ira Allen, ‘‘Rhetorical Realism in Balzac’s Le Pere Goriot’’ in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010