Honoré de Balzac is renowned for his series of interconnected books written under the title of La Comédie Humaine or The Human Comedy. In the ‘roman fleuve’ or novel stream format, each novel is complete in itself and the whole of the sprawling magnum opus consisting of over 90 published books along with many unfinished ones, portrays common themes, recurring characters and a panoramic view of early 19th century French society. The work represents a break with romanticism and launches the realist movement in literature, the purpose being to depict life as it is – in a word striving for the quality of verisimilitude. I have read some of the novels during college and graduate school days – Eugénie Grandet and La Cousine Bette to name a few but recently read Le Père Goriot, which would be a good introduction to La Comédie Humaine in general to anyone interested in getting a taste of Balzac but daunted by the colossal collection.
Le Père Goriot is set in a shabby Parisian boarding house run by a certain Mme.Vauquer. The lodging, is in effect, a small scale model of Parisian society with its social hierarchies. One of its inhabitants and the main protagonist, Eugène Rastignac, is a country boy recently planted into the city to attend law school. After visiting his aristocratic cousin, Mme de Beauséant, he gets a taste for Parisian life and tries to get an entrance into haute society through liaisons with upper class women. Also a resident of the boarding house, is the titular character, Père or Father Goriot who is the butt of ridicule among the pensionnaires. After being rebuffed by Father Goriot’s elder daughter, Rastignac eventually falls in love with the younger one and that is how their stories intersect.
To add to the colorful mix is the unscrupulous fellow boarder, Vautrin, an escaped convict who tries to lure Rastignac into a diabolical scheme involving a duel and death, ostensibly to help the latter advance in his ambitions, but in reality, to promote his own mercenary interests. For money is the driving force behind the action of each and every character. The novel highlights the deleterious impacts of social mobility and capitalism with the restoration of the Bourbons in the post Napoleonic era. Rastignac neglects his studies and falls into a lifestyle of debauchery. His transformation from a naïve idealistic person to a cynic is the main plot of the novel which one can classify as a bildungsroman.
As fascinating as Rastignac’s story is, I was more intrigued by the story of Father Goriot. The role of the father or the father figure is central to many of the books of La Comédie Humaine. This story of paternal love immediately brings to mind the story of King Lear and his daughters but here we have no devoted Cordelia.
Father Goriot is a retired vermicelli maker who has squandered his fortune on his selfish daughters, the Comtesse Anastasie de Restaud and the Baronne Delphine de Nucingen, both married into the upper echelons of Parisian society. He paid for their excellent education, their massive dowries and elevated their social status by marrying them into rich families. He lives in penury so he can continue to support his daughters who would not even deign to visit him or to welcome him into their homes. He is not acknowledged by them in public either as they are ashamed to be seen with him.
He is rejected by the two and their husbands but is still involved in their lives as an observer, on the outside. He admires them in their carriages from afar. He funds their extravagant lifestyles and lives vicariously through them as he deprives himself of food, coffee and firewood. In his little room, there are no curtains, the walls are damp, the wall paper is peeling and even his blanket is made of Mme Vauquer’s old dresses. The contrast between his room and the luxury his daughters enjoy is staggering. His physical transition from a better area of the boarding house to an inferior one is symbolic of the old man moving from one level of self-sacrifice to another. He bankrupts himself in order to support his girls going as far as pawning his gold and silver to pay off their debts and their lovers’ debts too. The only link he has to them is to support their lavish lifestyles. Otherwise he would be disowned completely.
He is a paragon of fatherly virtue and I was heartbroken by his plight. When I read this passage where he explains his love for his daughters to Rastignac, I was moved to tears:
My very life resides in my two girls. As long as they are enjoying themselves and are happy, as long as they are well dressed and walk on carpets, what does it matter what clothes I wear or where I lie down to sleep? I am not cold as long as they are warm, I am not bored if they are laughing. I have no sorrows but theirs. When you become a father, and when on hearing the babble of your children’s voices, you say to yourself, ‘That has come from me!’,you will feel that those little ones are every drop of blood in your veins, that they are the delicate flower that issues forth, for that’s what they are; you will feel you are attached to them so closely that it will seem you feel every movement that they make. I hear their voices everywhere. A sad look from them congeals my blood. Some day you will find out that there is far more happiness in their happiness than in your own. I cannot explain it to you, it is something within that sends a feeling of warmth all through you. In short, I live my life three times over. Shall I tell you something funny? Well, since I have been a father, I have come to understand God. He is everywhere and all around us, because the whole world comes from Him. And, Sir, it is just the same with my daughters. Only, I love my daughters better than God loves the world, for the world is not as beautiful as God Himself is, but my children are more beautiful than I am.
( The translation is mine)
Halfway through the book, I realized that he becomes more and more of a martyr in order to support his daughters which made me wonder if in fulfilling his duties as a father, he considers himself morally superior. Is he duplicitous too like the other characters in the novel? After all, he stands to gain from Rastignac’s relationship with Delphine and encourages their illicit liasion.
He is neglected in death as he was in life. The indifference of the two girls when he is in the throes of agony is appalling and one could even accuse them of parricide as their quarrel with each other brings on his stroke. Delphine would rather go to a ball to elevate her social status than visit her dying father. Reluctant at first, Anastasie arrives eventually but a little too late. Rastignac takes on the role of a son by taking care of the ailing man. He attends to the bureaucratic formalities and pays for the funeral expenses and shows more filial piety towards the old man than the two girls ever did.
Father Goriot could never find fault with his daughters. But all his suppressed feelings come to the surface on his deathbed in the form of a melodramatic monologue full of gibberish and exaggerations where he shifts rapidly between extremes of hate and love. He calls his daughters criminals and accuses them of murdering him. He imagines himself to be a ghost cursing them at night but quickly withdraws his curse. In his delirium, he asks for the police, the government and the public prosecutor to force them to come.
The scene is heartrending but it slowly dawned on me that he was not a model of saintly love like I believed him to be initially but an overly protective parent. After his wife’s early death, he became both father and mother to his daughters. He transferred the love he felt for his wife towards them and became obsessed with them. Even after their weddings, he took on their husbands’ role of provider. There is something disturbing about his conduct bordering on the emotionally incestuous. There is a scene where he lies on the floor, kisses Delphine’s feet and rubs his head against her dress. He even says his girls live like mistresses of an old rich man. It is possible that his inappropriate impulses and overindulgence pushed his daughters away from him.
In current times, Father Goriot would be considered a classic example of an helicopter parent who swoops in to rescue his offspring at the first sign of trouble, creating a world for them where they never have to face struggle, conflict or disappointment and leaving them with a sense of entitlement.
In more ways than one, Le Père Goriot is as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century. The French economist Thomas Piketty who studies economic inequality was fascinated with this work and believes that we are returning to the patrimonial capitalism delineated in the novel. Even the name Rastignac has made its way into the French dictionary referring to a ruthless social climber and an arrivist. Le Père Goriot is also a cautionary tale for cosseting parents about the excesses of overparenting. No wonder then that the author declares on the first page itself: “This 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.”