Classic Book Review: Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

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Money and Melodrama

Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

Old Goriot (Le Pere Goriot, in the French original) is considered one of the most important books by one of the most important and prolific of French 19th century realist authors, one which changed literature and the depiction of reality forever. It tells the story of Goriot and the other inhabitants of Madame Vauquer’s Parisian boarding house in 1819. Goriot has bankrupted himself to shore up the finances of his two extravagantly married daughters, selling off everything he owns until he is penniless. The stress of not being able to provide any more for them makes him ill and he eventually dies. Also boarding in the same house are Eugene de Rastignac and the villain Vautrin, who develop a plot to advance Rastignac in society by swindling women for their money.

Rastignac is an important character because his back-story resembles that of Balzac: travelling up from the rural south of France to Paris in 1819 and then trying to advance himself out of the poverty and squalor which Paris consisted of. Balzac was also a law student, working for several years in a law firm of Victor Passez, and many of his books are concerned with criminal cases and legal affairs. Balzac quit this, detesting the regularity of the legal lifestyle, preferring the nocturnal musings of literature. All through his life, however, he would dabble in other business ventures, none of which were very successful. In 1832 he came up with the idea of ‘The Human Comedy’: a series of books on contemporary French life which Balzac would spend the rest of his life working on and would span 95 finished works and 48 unfinished. It was only after his death in 1850 that the term ‘realism’ was applied to Balzac’s work. In the 1850’s there was a vogue for realism and Balzac was hailed as the great innovator, the revolutionary, who had started it.

There are three elements which make Old Goriot especially important to the understanding of what realism is and how Balzac changed the face of literature. The first is the break with romanticism, stated most clearly here in the opening chapter, but implicit in the design and intention of The Human Comedy. When Old Goriot was published in 1835 French literary society was in the tail-end of a period of romanticism, a movement which is very much against the idea of a realistically portrayed world. Romanticism is the depiction of a world dominated by fate, drama and spirit. It is heady with emotion and features stirring scenes of daring deeds, weeping damsels and castles lost in forests. Romanticism is not exactly intended to be an everyday story about everyday folk. Romanticism is designed to engage the emotions of the reader, to lose them in a fantasy world which has only marginal contact with contemporary society: it is the real world but with all the boring bits taken out, and replaced with outlandish adventures involving lost kings, dungeons and all sorts of other pap. Balzac was a romantic in that he was a royalist: a state which demands a certain sense of romance and separation from reality. However, he was also very interested in depiction of the world around him, the sights and sounds therein. A more cynical person might suggest that Balzac had discovered a niche in the market: the innovation coming from financial necessity. Either way, Old Goriot contains, on the second page of the first chapter,  this statement:

[T]his drama is neither a fiction nor a romance!  All is true,–so true, that each one of you may recognise its elements in his own family, perhaps in his own heart. (1895 Caxton Ed.)

This is the first, embryonic statement of intent for The Human Comedy project, the desire to depict life in a way which the common reader will be able to recognise as being similar to their own life: verisimilitude. In1842 he wrote the Preface which explained in more depth what he aimed to achieve and the methods by which he’d go about it. But it was here, in Old Goriot, that the first printed indication of that intent was realised.

The second element is that money – the lack of it, the desire for it, the necessity of it – is absolutely integral to the world depicted. It would be ridiculous to suggest that money had never been mentioned in previous literary works, but it was regarded in much the same way as going to the toilet: a part of everyday life that it was impolite to discuss in any great detail. Besides, romantic novels were never concerned with being able to have enough money to buy a loaf of bread. This kind of concern is not only dealt with in Old Goriot but becomes the driving force and moral dilemma for the principle characters. The selfishness and greed of the daughters of Goriot are held up for examination along with, by implication, the rest of the Parisian Bourgeoisie. It is interesting to note that one of the earliest notes by Balzac attributable to his planning of Old Goriot concerns the disparity in wealth between the daughters and the father – listing their income as 50,000fr per annum and his at 500fr. The plot of Rastignac is also bound up with the acquisition of wealth, showing quite simply how advancement in society is only possible with money. This kind of financial depiction is the equivalent of the lengthy scene of Leopold Bloom going for a shit in Ulysses: it makes the reader uncomfortable, but also draws them into a greater identification with the characters and the represented world of the novel.

The third important element is the use of recurring characters. The Human Comedy is set in a contemporary French society and so, in the nature of depicting a realistic world, it is likely that several of the characters will cross paths with others among the various works. Rastignac is the first character to be repeated, having been an old man in the 1831 novel The Magic Skin (La Peau de chagrin). He goes on to be in 17 other works by Balzac. The criminal Vautrin also goes on to be the dark star of the Splendours and Miseries series of works. Other boarders from the Maison Vauquer go on to have minor roles in other major works. This interconnectivity of the social world creates a wider fictional universe of The Human Comedy in which each individual novel can sit. Readers can find themselves immersed in a world which, like their own, contains many recognisable faces, flitting in and out of view.

If Balzac did set out to create a realistic and recognisable fictional universe, one which is ‘neither a fiction nor a romance’, then he should, unfortunately, have left his romantic sensibilities behind. Balzac was a great admirer of Walter Scott, the arch romantic novelist of Ivanhoe and Rob Roy. Scott does influence Balzac by his depiction of the lower classes: writing out the poverty and hardship of the Scottish clansmen with some force and style. However, he also dresses it up with the unrealistic plot lines and frantic melodrama. Balzac takes this on board as well, ruining his work with wild coincidences and extended scenes of overly dramatic pathos. Hence when Goriot eventually falls sick and dies the scenes are drawn out into a laughably prolonged series of agonies, culminating in one of the penitent daughters arriving minutes after her father has died and comically fainting like a sack of spuds. Although Balzac could describe a realistic and recognisable world, he seems to have struggled to fill it with realistic plots, destroying the verisimilitude which he had set out to achieve.


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