Le Père Goriot

by John Holbo on July 16, 2014

My recent caricature researchs got me in the mood for more of Daumier’s Paris. I listened to an audiobook version of Honoré de Balzac’s most famous novel. Good, but I’m not exactly rushing out to read the rest of the series. I understand that “la comédie humaine” is not a promise of lots of laughs, but I was expecting more laughs. I had been expecting a prose Daumier. Instead Balzac is a mix of cynical realism and gothic or sentimental melodrama. (I am sure I am not the first to notice this!)

My ‘meh’ reaction is my own fault, probably. I am corrupted by the extremity of genre fiction in our time. My palate is jaded. Call it the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies problem. Since everything today has zombies in it – or vampires – it’s hard not to expect something on that order when you are reading what is obviously supposed to be an exciting piece of popular entertainment. It’s easy to see how Goriot should be converted into a proper modern work. Vautrin needs to be upgraded into a proper super-villain. So we have our poor medical student, Rastignac, living in a cheap boarding house with dear Goriot and … The Death Deceiver! Vautrin (trompe le mort!) can monologue with the best of villains, and he’s a central node of a vast criminal conspiracy. But his scheme is so petty. (Arrange for Rastignac to marry an heiress, then take a cut? Please! It is unworthy of his monologues.) Vautrin is not trying to construct a Cosmic Cube, find the Infinity Gauntlet, release a Shoggoth, become a vampire, destroy Paris, or anything. So obviously we need to update that. Here is the Faustian bargain he offers young Rastignac. With but two Infinity Gems – the Soul Gem and the Mind Gem – you can ascend the filthy-slippery social ladder of Paris with ease! Meanwhile, Vautrin will take just the Power gem and set himself up as a slave-owner in the American South.

Anyone want to undertake rewriting Balzac’s 90-volume series as Le comédie superhumaine?

I do have one semi-serious questions about the book – about social conventions in Paris. I’m not surprised that all the decadent male aristocrats have opera singer lovers. The wife knows her husband visits his mistress every Thursday, or whatever. Fine. But there seems to be a social norm that the likes of Goriot’s daughters may have young lovers as well, whose existence their husbands politely overlook. I take it the idea is supposed to be that these are only pretty admirers, not sex partners. When Delphine’s husband offers to free her to take Rastignac as a lover, if she will not interfere with his scheme, he is offering her the chance to have sex with him. That is presented as an unusual concession on his part. So it’s not like the males and females are equally free to engage in extramarital sex. Even so, the whole arrangement seems surprisingly egalitarian. Would there really have been socially prominent adult males in Paris in the 1820’s – especially socially prominent titled aristocratic males – who allowed their wives to take young lovers, even on the tacit understanding that there would be no sex? Wouldn’t that have been an intolerable threat to patrimony? I am obviously just an innocent Oregon boy at heart, who does not understand the subtle ways of Paris.



JakeB 07.16.14 at 5:16 pm

I’ve never read _Pere Goriot_, although I’m familiar with it because an ex-girlfriend talked about it while working on her Lit. MA. I’m only commenting because I want to share that ever since then, I occasionally sing the phrase ‘Pere Goriot’ to the tune of the chorus of Der Kommissar.


Lcindc 07.16.14 at 5:36 pm

There are ghost stories in La Comedie Humaine, a story about a man unknowingly falling in love with a transvestite (actually a castrato in female attire; it doesn’t end well), and a story about a man possibly having sex with a panther. So, it’s not all “cynical realism,” though I guess it would fall under the “gothic” category.

I don’t know about how common the marital arrangements in Goriot and other novels really were, but speaking of changed sexual mores, re-reading these books over the last few years, the most striking (and shocking) thing to me is how young the young mistresses of the rich men are supposed to be, often no more than 15 or 16 y.o, not uncommonly “bought” directly from their mothers, and, even so, depicted as not entirely blameless, seductive free agents rather than victims. Also interesting are depictions of lesbian and gay relationships (with minimal varnish, if any). If you’re willing to give Balzac a second chance, I recommend Cousin Bette, a genuinely dark and engrossing take on sexual pathology among the 19th century French bourgeoisie.


john c. halasz 07.16.14 at 5:52 pm

IIRC the one in the Vautrin series that’s closest to a laugh fest is “Splendeurs et Miseres des Courtesans”, (translated badly as a title “Harlot High and Low” in the version I read). Vautrin was based on a real historical character, a master criminal turned Paris police chief, who published his memoires.


Baptiste 07.16.14 at 6:02 pm

Paula Cossart’s book “Vingt cinq ans d’amours adultères” is based on the letters exchanged between Adèle Schunck (married, close to the Royal Court) and Aimé Guyet de Fernex (her younger lover. Aimé is a forename, and it also means “Loved”) between 1824 and 1849. It is in French.



Sasha Clarkson 07.16.14 at 6:24 pm

Thank-you John: until today I wasn’t even aware that there was a novel called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Then I thought you were joking hyperbolically to make a point, but then I googled it, and to my surprise found there was a trilogy.

One part of me is inclined to be snobbishly dismissive; the other part is sorely tempted … :/


David 07.16.14 at 6:43 pm

Well, you could try Theodore Zeldin’s two-volume “History of French Passions”, which has a lot to say about issues of this kind (no, not vampires and superheroes). Incidentally, is significant that one of France’s great novelists thought his own century was interesting enough (even without vampires and superheroes) to spend his life writing about it. That’s clearly not the case today.
In answer to your question, much of French popular culture, from before Balzac to after Feydeau, takes infidelity by both sides for granted. It’s especially the case with bourgeois marriages, which were understood to be primarily business arrangements, with other facets of life dealt with in other ways, provided the surface decencies were observed. This is also an example of the dangers of trying to read back modern theories such as “patrimony” onto life as lived by real people at the time. Whilst men were formally in positions of greater economic and social power, most of the literature (and the popular culture) of the day only makes sense if you assume that, in reality, the situation was much more complex than that.


Harold 07.16.14 at 6:49 pm

John Holbo, look up Cicisbeo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cicisbeo

I don’t know if this was practiced in France as well as Italy, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I think the husband had to turn a blind eye to the affair because the code of honor dictated that if he acknowledged that he knew about it he would have to shoot both the wife and the lover, or at least the lover. Most aristocratic marriages were arranged for economic reasons anyway and often involved a girl just out of the convent and a tired older man who had plenty of mistresses of his own that he had no intention of giving up.

I don’t know why Père Goriot is the one always chosen as required reading for students — not that I think it is a bad book. I remember really liking Balzac’s Lost Illusions, which is, among other things, about the impact the invention of a cheaper way of making paper had on literature and society (sort of like the internet, now that one thinks about it). I also really enjoyed Cousine Bette. Balzac really revels in details: Les Lys dans la vallée is a rewarding one if you are a wild flower enthusiast.


yabonn 07.16.14 at 6:59 pm

I think I never really got Balzac (and I didn’t have zombic expectations, he is indeed a realist) no way I’m back to Goriot to check the whobangswho. But while you are there, maybe schlep over to Stendhal, which you might find an overall more fun read (still no zombies, though).

Also, I you like the exaggerating-Daumier, try Dubout.


John Holbo 07.16.14 at 7:06 pm

Thanks for the link. That is most helpful. Although still mysterious.

“Most aristocratic marriages were arranged for economic reasons anyway and often involved a girl just out of the convent and a tired older man who had plenty of mistresses of his own that he had no intention of giving up.”

All that makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is why the old man would let the young wife have any sort of life appropriate to her age and natural inclinations not to be a thing on a shelf. Obviously it is more ethical to let her have a life. But none of these old men are motivated by ethics – of all things! I would expect the husbands, especially the titled aristos, just to insist on a complete double-standard. The men may cheat, and the women must overlook all cheating. The women must be pure.


John Holbo 07.16.14 at 7:13 pm

“I think I never really got Balzac (and I didn’t have zombic expectations, he is indeed a realist)”

I should clarify that what triggers my zombie itch is that I can tell I’m reading a semi-gothic work – but also a realist work. Vautrin is a gothic villain. And so much contemporary American genre fiction of the most popular sort of really gothic realism – in a sense. Vampires – but in a contemporary American setting. Vampires at the shopping mall, and the charm of it is the juxtaposition. Balzac gives us just a touch of that. All the seamy layers of Paris life, realistically rendered. Up to a point. And Vautrin monologuing through it, and over it, with a mephistophelian Muh-ha-HA! So he should be a super-villain. He should do something tremendous. But it’s quite low-key, by our standards.

I really quite enjoyed the novel. But I did have a ‘where’s the ka-BOOM?’ feeling, due to the corrupting effects of contemporary pop culture. I quite admit that the fault is mine, not Balzac’s.


ben w 07.16.14 at 7:19 pm

Ok, this is Italian rather than French, but isn’t a cicisbeo basically what your question is about?


ben w 07.16.14 at 7:20 pm

D’oh, pwned.


Page Starr 07.16.14 at 7:30 pm

Perhaps you should review the life and writings of George Sand? Also, from my readings of Balzac so far, patrimony hasn’t come up (closest subject is heraldry), and “mail order bride” marriages don’t occur (closest subject is marriages arranged by the father to a suitable family with income for the daughter- not for the delectation of the groom).


Walt 07.16.14 at 7:44 pm

I found that scene in Goriot confusing, just because I thought it was clearly the case that Delphine and Rastignac were having sex, so I didn’t know how to interpret the husband’s offer. Did you read it in French, or a recent English translation? Apparently the older English translations leave out salacious details.

I think aristocratic wives having affairs with the knowledge of their husbands was just an element of 19th century French culture, or at least in literature. The same plot point occurs The Count of Monte Cristo, for example.


Nick 07.16.14 at 8:51 pm

This sounds almost like an evolution of the Medieval courtly love tradition–didn’t that feature knights competing for the favor of an already-married woman, usually above their station?


Martin 07.16.14 at 9:09 pm

You get some superpowers in La Peau de Chagrin (the Penguin translation is called The Wild Ass’s Skin I believe).


Anderson 07.16.14 at 9:09 pm

My mental prejudice against Balzac is a chapter where the protagonist waits in a sitting room to meet his beloved/colleague/antagonist/whoever, in which each piece of furniture is described, priced, and genealogized, along with a description of the factory or workshop where each was made.

There may be no such chapter in Balzac, but that’s what Lost Illusions felt like to me when I read it.


The Temporary Name 07.16.14 at 9:14 pm



roger gathman 07.16.14 at 10:24 pm

Balzac was a big fan of Hoffmann, and wrote a number of novels with gothic elements. Not simply peau de chagrin, but also L’Élixir de longue Vie and recherche de l’absolu. The latter is a sort of gothic novel set in a normal bourgeois setting where plot follows the money – imagine Doctor Frankenstein ruining the family fortune by spending everything to make the monster.
Also, in Goriot, Balzac gives form to a sort of parable that has a long history in literature: the death of the chinese mandarin. Would you accept a fortune that came to you only by your willing the death of a chinese mandarin on the other side of the world, who you do not know? Rastignac, I think, attributes the “thought experiment” – terrible phrase – to Rousseau. Carlo Ginzberg wrote a wonderful essay about it: Killing a chinese mandarin: the moral implications of distance. It is in the Wooden Eyes collection. It is, in its way, the ur-question of colonialism.


John Holbo 07.16.14 at 11:01 pm

Actually, the dead Chinese mandarin parable is part of Vautrin’s longest monologue, if memory serves. It’s a great bit, no doubt. I enjoyed those bits. Rastignac’s temptation and curious fall is very interestingly handled. When I say I want more jokes that’s sort of like saying I want Balzac to be Dickens. But obviously Dickens would never have written anything half so cynical, hence psychologically interesting in various ways. It’s a good novel. The Chinese mandarin parable – which is attributed to Rousseau by Vautrin – really is every bit as good as anything the Grand Inquisitor has to say. You could assign that bit, by itself, to philosophy students. (Not that ‘could be assigned to beginning philosophy students as a potted thought-experiment’ is the highest literary praise. More like a back-handed compliment, really. I don’t mean to be back-handed about it.)


roger gathman 07.16.14 at 11:16 pm

I don’t really know if Balzac has a parallel in English – it certainly isn’t Dickens. For one thing, Balzac likes dirty humor. He likes obsessives, like Dickens – Cousin Pons, for instance, the collector, could conceivably come out of Dickens – but he likes as well clearly defined obsessions with sex – with beautiful rear ends, as in Cousin Bette, or with comely guys, as in the famous Seraphita. B. prided himself on his bi-sexual leanings. For Balzac’s overt comedy I’d try the novella, the illustrious gaudissart.


ponfed 07.17.14 at 12:44 am

Having read it in my native french, I never really identified gothic elements in it. But now that you mention it, I see it really has that quality.

It’s weird. I don’t know if it’s because I associate gothic fiction as a more English/German style that it didn’t register in french..

But I second #6 in saying that you should check out Stendhal. Le rouge et le noir in particular. No explosions, but it’s more contemporary and there is plenty of social class concerns, backstabing, honest to god affairs, vengeance.

It’s a bit like a serious Dumas, but better written.


Harold 07.17.14 at 12:55 am

Le Rouge et le noir. Everyone should read it!


mdc 07.17.14 at 1:03 am

And Charterhouse!


Richard R 07.17.14 at 2:37 am

Oscar Wilde said that ‘The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac’. An coffee-addicted reactionary Monarchist (sometime journalist and would-be press baron, in love with a Polish countess but sleeping with his housekeeper) that Marx and Engels couldn’t get enough of. What’s not to like?

I wonder if Le père Goriot is promoted as the go-to Balzac novel for Anglophones because it contains all the Balzacian elements in a short enough format for undergraduates? Illusions perdues gives a clearer impression of the novelist as sociologist (what Realism’s all about?) before the wacky melo-Gothic of its sequel Splendeurs et misères kicks in (by the by, Terry Pratchett’s pastiche of the former, The Truth, has lots of jokes). It’s known, among other things, for long passages that interlard narrative commentary with meticulous descriptions of how paper is manufactured and who’s getting rich from the nineteenth century’s addiction to debt and how. Oh, and Vautrin’s speech at the end is an absolute showstopper.

It seems that an obstacle for readers now is that Balzac’s melo-Gothic elements are moves in a match of shadow boxing with a largely-forgotten popular culture, which includes the most widely-read novel of the century (probably), Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris (Goriot actually predates it, but Balzac was already friends with Sue and immersed in the same world of high life and low journalism). The Mystères were read by almost everyone, critiqued by Marx, plagiarised by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (see Umberto Eco, Prague Cemetery), spun off into the mysteries of London, Madrid, Rome, Lisbon etc. (the last one was made into a great film by Raul Ruiz). It’s the godfather of pulp fiction: gore, sentiment, caped crusaders, master criminals, ‘whores with hearts of gold’. Incredibly though, with a few notable exceptions, even French studies (much less world lit) has paid little attention to Sue and other contemporary popular writers and entertainments, so it’s little surprise if the general reader needs this stuff heavily footnoted (as it is in the Gallimard and Pléiade editions) in order to see what Balzac’s doing. Even if successful, it spoils the immediacy. Perhaps this is why Marx and Wilde, much closer to the source, find Balzac anything but underwhelming.

To answer the question: you might be interested in Balzac’s Petites misères de la vie conjugale, which ends with the line ‘the only happy ménages (household, and thereby marriage, in French) are ménages à quatre, though earlier it implies that married women can only take lovers once they are past childbearing age (forty is the ‘age of indiscretions’). Countless other anecdotes, but off the top of my head, there’s an interesting passage in William Reddy’s The Navigation of Feeling (its sources are from C18 and 19 France) describing a husband being made a pariah for reacting ‘excessively’ to his wife’s infidelity, thereby endangering his legitimate child with her (IIRC). Given that breeding was the highest stakes game in town, C19 patresfamilias had good reason to be preoccupied with their succession rather than hurt feelings.


yabonn 07.17.14 at 8:11 am

ponfed @ 22
Interesting : also french speaking and never paid attention to the gothic in Balzac. Maybe we are biased by school, where he is teached as (at least in my case, and iirc) that “etat-civil as litterature” guy.

First time I hear about the Vautrin/Vidocq link too, thanks john c. halasz.


Peter T 07.17.14 at 10:13 am

Can’t speak to Balzac, but “wife has acknowledged lover” (and husband mistress) is not only a commonplace in Dumas’ novels, whenever set, but also noted without comment in various memoirs I’ve read. EG, Cardinal de Retz finds an amorous connection behind many of the political manoeuvrings of the Fronde.


gami 07.17.14 at 12:04 pm

The thing is Balzac is no Dickens, no Victor Hugo, or no Dumas. He is not a popular writer, in that sense. He is much more intellectual, and his plots don’t have that spectacular and over the top elements you’d find in Dumas or Hugo. So do not except any zombie: they will be none! The closest from that you’d find in his novels is Histoire des treize, especially the first of the series: Ferragus.

Anyway, as it happens, I’m just reading again Le père Goriot, that I first read as a teenager. Reading it after 20 years is quite an experience. And I enjoy it immensely. It has none of the shorfallings of most Balzac’s novels (long and useless descriptions, long and useless pseudo philosophical “thoughts” that interrupt the plot). It is just a brilliant piece of strory telling and, at the very same time, a brilliant description of 19th century French society, on which Picketty draws upon so much in his Capital.


James Wimberley 07.17.14 at 2:25 pm

John: check out Daumier’s 3-D terracotta caricatures in the Musée d’Orsay. Fine and very unusual. Sample.


clew 07.17.14 at 8:57 pm

I think an accepted lover was socially constrained in moving against the husband, so it was a subtle way for an older man to hedge against the ambitions of a younger one. (And sometimes the wife quite openly angles for the advantage of the lover, and sometimes the lover therefore gets sent somewhere distant or dangerous.) This impression must mostly come from Balzac and Dumas; though it’s also woven through, say, Voltaire and the du Chatelets.

Sasha, I thought most of the Austen-plus-monsters pastiches were crippled by their authors disliking Austen in the first place. Mansfield Park and Mummies was an exception, and the monsters are much more cleverly slotted into the underspecified parts of the original plot.


PJW 07.18.14 at 2:15 am

Maybe some of the old aristocrats enjoy the frisson of cuckoldery.

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