Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac

Published in 1835 and set in the Paris of 1819, Pere Goriot is a masterpiece of world literature and its author the French novelist and playwright Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) is one of the world's great writers.  Balzac has influenced Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, Gustav Flaubert, Henry James, Jack Kerouac to name just a few and reading Pere Goriot I could see the influence he must have had on Dickens.

As with Great Expectations, Pere Goriot tells the story of a young man, Eugene Rastignac, who comes to the big city (in this case Paris) to make his fortune.  But then the novels (Great Expectations and Pere Goriot) diverge in that Pere Goriot is also the story of Vautrin a shady character who the police are after and Pere Goriot an elderly man who has two grown married daughters and Goriot stands as a cautionary tale to parents who bankrupt themselves so their children can have everything.  All three along with several other down on their luck characters reside in a run down boarding house in Paris.

As I read Pere Goriot I kept making notes of passages that stood out for me.

Here is Eugene de Rastignac for example, after writing to his mother and sisters for money which they cannot afford.  He feels guilt and Balzac writes

"He was ready to renounce his attempts.  He could not bear to take the money.  The fires of remorse burned in his heart, and gave him intolerable pain, the generous secret remorse which men seldom take into account when they sit in judgement upon their fellow-men; but perhaps the angels in heaven, beholding it, pardon the criminal whom our justice condemns".

In a later passage, the criminal, Vautrin, explains to Eugene why he should court a fellow resident at the boarding house the sweet shy Mlle Victorine whose wealthy father has disowned her in favor of her older brother. Vautrin hints that if the brother were suddenly out of the way the fortune would go to Victorine and he tells Eugene:

If you pay court to a young girl whose existence is a compound of loneliness, despair and poverty and who has no suspicion she will come into a fortune, good Lord! it is quint and quatorze at piquet; it is knowing the numbers of the lottery before-hand; it is speculating in the funds when you have news from a sure source ... the girl may come in for millions and she will fling them as if they were pebbles at your feet".

And lastly there is Father Goriot who over the years increasingly gave away his fortune to his daughters who have married well and have no time or money for their father but Goriot is not angry.  As he explains to Eugene:

"Dear me why should I want anything better?... My real life is in my two girls you see and as long as they are happy and smartly dressed and have soft carpets under their feet what does it matter what clothes I wear or where I lie down of a night?  I shall never feel cold as long as they are warm.  I shall never feel dull if they are laughing.  I have no troubles but theirs".  

Pere Goriot is a book in which Balzac is quite critical of Parisian high society although the author himself from what I have read was a monarchist.  Balzac is insightful and sarcastic about human nature and he can be funny as I hope some of the above passages show. Its hard to know if Balzac is mocking Pere Goriot for his deluded views about his selfish daughters or feels empathy and respect for how deep a parent's love can go even when the parent gets nothing in return.  As the critic Leslie Stephen wrote there is a King Lear aspect about Pere Goriot without the Cordelia to come to his defense.

I recommend Pere Goriot.  It's a classic and though I did not have the experience I had with Crime and Punishment where upon closing the book I wanted to read everything else Dostoyevsky wrote.  Ditto with Pride and Prejudice.  I still preferred Pere Goriot to Great Expectations.  Balzac can be quite humorous in his novels which gave Pere Goriot for me a lighter experience than Great Expectations.

No comments:

Post a Comment