Rating: 4 out of 5
I’m almost done with Madame Bovary, I promise, but the novel has made me realize how little French literature I have read. So I thought I’d make this week’s “Masterpiece Monday” a tribute to one of those select few, one which just so happens to be among the most influential French novels to date: Le Pere Goriot (a.k.a. Father Goriot) by Honore de Balzac.
I read this book my first year of college in my “Global Narratives” class, which was a great opportunity to read fiction from other countries, including Germany, Spain, and Saudi Arabia. Le Pere Goriot was published in 1835, but takes place in 1819 during the Bourbon Restoration. This story is one of almost 100 which became part of La Comedie Humaine, Balzac’s collection dedicated to French society.
The book follows law student Eugene de Rastignac, who lives in a Parisian boarding house with a criminal named Vautrin and Goriot, an old man left broke after supporting his two daughters. Rastignac is the ultimate social climber, willing to do almost anything to become a member of high society. His threshold is reached, however, after Vautrin offers to kill the brother of a wealthy unmarried woman for him. Rastignac refuses this plan (which gets Vautrin arrested later), and instead pursues one of Goriot’s daughters. The novel narrates these characters’ interactions and tracks Rastignac’s social progress: Will he succeed? And if he does, will he still be happy in the end?
Balzac is lauded as the champion of French realist literature, given his extensive descriptions of the boarding house and of Parisian life during this time. Both the beautiful and ugly aspects of the characters intermix wonderfully, so it’s not a surprise that many of them were so popular they were recurring in his other works.
Money, of course, is an essential part of the plot and character development. Rastignac became the French equivalent of Machiavelli, his name a synonym for any end-justifies-the-means personality. As for Goriot, Balzac was even accused of plagiarizing Shakespeare’s King Lear, since they both portrayed a old father destroyed by his ungrateful, greedy daughters. I would answer that parent-child betrayals are very common in literature, and although Balzac was inspired by many authors and historical figures, Goriot is just one piece of the puzzle (despite the book being named after him).
Le Pere Goriot was very well-received after publication, and it has since been adapted into many films and theater productions. While I haven’t seen these adaptations, I have seen “The Godfather.” You might be thinking, well, that’s not relevant at all! But the famous line, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” was borrowed from Vautrin speaking to Rastignac about his fiendish plan. Who would’ve guessed that one masterpiece would help the success of another!
Favorite Quote: “Who is to decide which is the grimmer sight: withered hearts, or empty skulls?”