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The Book Club

Honoré De Balzac’s Old Goriot

1. A French social commentary, but a bildungsroman with familiar elements. Without understanding too much of the background French – specifically in Paris – social context which Honoré de Balzac based his text upon, the reader can relate to the marked stratification of social classes, and the corresponding need for the protagonist Eugène de Rastignac to climb up the ladder through different means. At the same time, common phenomenon such as corruption, greed and the proliferation of self-serving attitudes can be identified, which makes the reader empathise with Rastignac for the wretched circumstances and company that he finds himself in. The plot of having an honest individual come from provinces, who is then spring-boarded into the harsh realities of French society (and the struggles experienced throughout the journey) is certainly not new; nonetheless, Balzac’s bildungsroman is marked by detailed characterisation, and huge contrasts established between groups and people.

2. But does Rastignac really learn the lessons at the end of the novel? At the end of the novel, Rastignac makes this grand declaration of war with Paris, exclaiming to the city that “it’s between you and me now”. On the first reading, one will interpret this as Rastignac’s emergence from youth – as well as the associated notions of innocence, gullibility, lethargy, ignorance et cetera – and development towards maturity; however, the decision to dine with Delphine de Nucingen – in spite of her callousness in the face of Old Goriot’s death – might be a subtle reminder that Rastignac remains entrapped within the pursuit of wealth and status, and the continued pursuit of materialistic or pragmatic means. More tellingly, the higher Rastignac climbs up through the social strata – evidenced superficially by his dressing, daily habits and haunts, his new company as well as his participation in different activities – the more distant he is from his family members. Beyond their utilitarian purpose when Rastignac had to cobble money to finance his endeavours, he makes no further mention of them besides the letters penned in the beginning, and eventually finds himself alone in urban exodus after both his father figures leave his life.

3. Madame de Beauséant’s advice to Rastignac, on the realities of achieving a position in high society. “The more cold-blooded your calculations, the further you will go. Strike ruthlessly; you will be feared. Men and women for you must be nothing more than post-horses; take a fresh relay, and leave the last to drop by the roadside; in this way you will reach the goal of your ambition. You will be nothing here, you see, unless a woman interests herself in you; and she must be young and wealthy, and a woman of the world. Yet, if you have a heart, lock it carefully away like a treasure; do not let any one suspect it, or you will be lost; you would cease to be the executioner, you would take the victim’s place”.

4. Love, money and power (I). Love, money and power are key drivers in the novel, because they are the means through which Rastignac – or the stereotyped notion for anyone seeking Parisian “success” in the form of social status and wealth – has to adopt. Vautrin and Madame de Beauséant makes it clear to Rastignac right from the get-go that “romance” is the fastest way for Rastignac to achieve some form of footing in society: Vautrin goes to great lengths to have Victorine’s brother killed in a duel so as to have the latter’s inheritance made available, before encouraging Rastignac to pursue Victorine; while Madame de Beauséant tutors Rastignac’s in the lessons of high society, which leads him to eventually establish a romantic relationship with Delphine de Nucingen. Love, passion and marriage are disdained as mere tools for people to advance in society, establish themselves as upper-class, wealthy citizens; and the unbelievable absence of true love is made even more evident by Goriot’s unselfish dedication towards his daughters. Unfortunately, even though he had intentioned for marriage to be a positive progression for his daughters, (cognisant of how he might have spoiled them from young), there is no clear happy, romantic ending for any of the characters in the text.

5. Love, money and power (II). Other than the tool of love, with his wide connections and the ability to intelligently negotiate through criminal activities, Vautrin demonstrates to Rastignac the importance of obtaining money and power; particularly for Vautrin himself, who seeks to rebel against a system that has accorded him little respect. His intellect and larger-than-life personality – corroborated most clearly with his soliloquy upon his discovery and arrest – and might go in some way of motivating Rastignac to remain true to his heart, and can further the probable contention that all the events in the end fill the latter with resolve to go against the system, emerge victorious, and perceive the treacherous process as a means to an end; an end of innocence and happiness. Still, Rastignac recognises his extent of corruption by the society that has engulfed him entirely; and as he watches the innocence and purity displayed by medical student Bianchon, he asserts that “I’m in Hell, and I have no choice but to stay there”.

6. A third-person narrative, but first-person perspectives. To blend in the mix of social criticisms and Rastignac’s personal experiences, Rastignac functions primarily as a form of vehicle to allow the reader to make independent judgements based on his actions, interactions and reactions to situations per se, and not be swayed by emotional or romantic justifications of his actions. After all the novel is a social commentary on the bigger picture; on the corruption of these practices undertaken by Rastignac and his counterparts, with the protagonist functioning as a central magnet that brings all the themes and characters together. The boarding-house is the perfect setting for these aforementioned purposes; besides having Rastignac, Goriot and Vautrin under one roof, it sets the ground for character development for the rest of the story. This interesting narrative style is epitomised in the opening chapters, when Balzac intricately examines the assortment of lodgers through physical observations, but also leaves room for foreshadowing and interpretation with questions of suspense.

7. At times, Balzac also seizes the opportunity – something which the narrative style affords him – to give his personal inputs during the story-telling. “That word drama has been somewhat discredited of late; it has been overworked and twisted to strange uses in these days of dolorous literature; but it must do service again here, not because this story is dramatic in the restricted sense of the word, but because some tears may perhaps be shed intra et extra muros before it is over” and “Once for all, this drama is neither a fiction nor a romance! All is true, – so true, that everyone can discern the elements of the tragedy in his own house, perhaps in his own heart”.

8. Old Goriot. Goriot, at the end of it all, seems to be the only character who has been untainted by the demands and temptations of the Parisian community. He builds his fortune from scratch, does not succumb to materialistic passions, but retains this unwavering love for his daughters that is sadly, unrequited. In spite of his crude actions, and shabby dressing and housing conditions – contrasted by the supposed glamour and beauty of French high society – his character and personality remains the most admirable, reinforces the reader’s appreciation for him. The pathetic unfolding of events following his stroke, death and funeral is sad and moving – especially when he is confronted by the apathy of his daughters – and is also a harsh criticism of the superficiality of French society, given the similar apathy displayed by the lodgers (even though it was same-old when Goriot was alive).

9. Anastasie de Restaud and Delphine de Nucingen. Social mores define largely how both women act throughout the novel. In the pursuit of money and prestige, Anastasie de Restaud is cold and calculating (and by no coincidence, she is plunged into eventual poverty and misery after Goriot’s death); while Delphine de Nucingen does show some semblance of affections, though she is strictly restricted by societal pressures.

10. The growing-up journey. “The next day Rastignac dressed himself very elegantly, and about three o’clock in the afternoon went to call on Madame de Restaud. On the way thither he indulged in the wild intoxicating dreams which fill a young head so full of delicious excitement. Young men at his age take no account of obstacles nor of dangers; they see success in every direction; imagination has free play, and turns their lives into a romance; they are saddened or discouraged by the collapse of one of the visionary schemes that have no existence save in their heated fancy. If youth were not ignorant and timid, civilization would be impossible”.

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About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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