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Father Goriot
(Le Père Goriot)

by Honoré de Balzac
The original, squashed down to read in about 30 minutes

Honoré de Balzac. Daguerrotype photograph

(Paris, 1835)

Balzac's great work was his sequence of almost 100 novels and plays called 'La Comédie humaine', a panorama of French life - unpleasantly accurate in its portrayal of character, corruption and greed, so that Balzac is regarded as one of the founders of realism in literature. 'Le Père Goriot' has been adapted for film and stage, and has inspired modern writers to the extent that the novelist Félicien Marceau's said, "We are all children of Le Père Goriot." It has even given the French language the word 'Rastignac', to mean an unprincipled social climber.

Abridged: JH/GH

Father Goriot
(Le Père Goriot)

I. In a Paris Boarding-House

Madame Vauquer, née Conflans, is an elderly lady who for forty years past has kept a Parisian middle-class boarding-house, situated in the Rue Neuve Sainte-Geneviève, between the Latin Quarter and the Faubourg Saint Marcel. This pension, known under the name of the Maison Vauquer, receives men as well as women - young men and old; but hitherto scandal has never attacked the moral principles on which the respectable establishment has been conducted. Moreover, for more than thirty years, no young woman has been seen in the house; and if any young man ever lived there, it was because his family were able to make him only a very slender allowance. Nevertheless, in 1819, the date at which this drama begins, a poor young girl was found there.

The Maison Vauquer is of three stories, with attic chambers, and a tiny garden at the back. The ground floor consists of a parlour lighted by two windows looking upon the street. Nothing could be more depressing than this chamber, which is used as the sitting-room. It is furnished with chairs, the seats of which are covered with strips of alternate dull and shining horsehair stuff, while in the centre is a round table with a marble top. The room exhales a smell for which there is no name, in any language, except that of odour de pension. And yet, if you compare it with the dining-room which adjoins, you will find the sitting-room as elegant and as perfumed as a lady's boudoir. There misery reigns without a redeeming touch of poesie - poverty, penetrating, concentrated, rasping. This room appears at its best when at seven in the morning Madame Vauquer, preceded by her cat, enters it from her sleeping chamber. She wears a tulle cap, under which hangs awry a front of false hair; her gaping slippers flop as she walks across the room. Her features are oldish and flabby; from their midst springs a nose like the beak of a parrot. Her small fat hands, her person plump as a church rat, her bust too full and tremulous, are all in harmony with the room. About fifty years of age, Madame Vauquer looks as most women do who say that they have had misfortunes.

At the date when this story opens there were seven boarders in the house. The first floor contained the two best suites of rooms. Madame Vauquer occupied the small, and the other was let to Madame Couture, the widow of a paymaster in the army of the French Republic. She had with her a very young girl, named Victorine Taillefer. On the second floor, one apartment was tenanted by an old gentleman named Poiret; the other by a man of about forty years of age, who wore a black wig, dyed his whiskers, gave out that he was a retired merchant, and called himself Monsieur Vautrin. The third story was divided into four single rooms, of which one was occupied by an old maid named Mademoiselle Michonneau, and another by an aged manufacturer of vermicelli, who allowed himself to be called "Old Goriot." The two remaining rooms were allotted to a medical student known as Bianchon, and to a law student named Eugène de Rastignac. Above the third story were a loft where linen was dried, and two attic rooms, in one of which slept the man of all work, Christophe, and in the other the fat cook, Sylvie.

The desolate aspect of the interior of the establishment repeated itself in the shabby attire of the boarders. Mademoiselle Michonneau protected her weak eyes with a shabby green silk shade mounted on brass wire, which would have scared the Angel of Pity. Although the play of passions had ravished her features, she retained certain traces of a fine complexion, which suggested that the figure conserved some fragments of beauty. Poiret was a human automaton, who had earned a pension by mechanical labour as a government functionary.

Mademoiselle Victorine Taillefer was of a sickly paleness, like a girl in feeble health; but her grey-black eyes expressed the sweetness and resignation of a Christian. Her dress, simple and cheap, betrayed her youthful form. Happy, she might have been beautiful, for happiness imparts a poetic charm to women, as dress is the artifice of it. If love had ever given sparkle to her eyes, Victorine would have been able to hold her own with the fairest of her compeers. Her father believed he had reason to doubt his paternity, though she loved him with passionate tenderness; and after making her a yearly allowance of six hundred francs, he disinherited her in favour of his only son, who was to be the sole successor to his millions. Madame Couture was a distant relation of Victorine's mother, who had died in her arms, and she had brought up the orphan as her own daughter in a strictly pious fashion, taking her with rigid regularity to mass and confession.

Eugène de Rastignac, the eldest son of a poor baron of Angoulême, was a characteristic son of the South. His complexion was clear, hair black, eyes blue. His figure, manner, and habitual poses proved that he was a scion of a noble family, and that his early education had been based on aristocratic traditions. The connecting link between these two individuals and the other boarders was Vautrin - the man of forty, with the dyed whiskers. He was one of that sort of men who are familiarly described as "jolly good fellows." His face, furrowed with premature wrinkles, showed signs of hardness which belied his insinuating address. He was invariably obliging, with a breezy cheerfulness, though at times there was a steely expression in the eyes which inspired his fellow-boarders with a sense of fear. He knew or guessed the affairs of everybody in the house, but no one could divine his real business or his most inmost thoughts.

II. The Beginnings of the Tragedy

Such a household ought to offer, and did present in miniature, the elements of a complete society. Among the inmates there was, as in the world at large, one poor discouraged creature - a butt on whom mocking pleasantries were rained. This patient sufferer was the old vermicelli maker, Goriot. Six years before, he had come to live at the Maison Vauquer, having, so he said, retired from business. He dressed handsomely, wore a gold watch, with thick gold chain and seals, flourished a gold snuff-box, and, when Madame Vauquer insinuated that he was a gallant, he smiled with the complacency of vanity tickled. Among the china and silver articles with which he decorated his sitting-room were a dish and porringer, on the cover of which were figures representing two doves billing and cooing.

"That," said Goriot, "is the present which my wife made to me on the first anniversary of our wedding-day. Poor dear, she bought it with the little savings she hoarded before our marriage. Look you, madame, I would rather scratch the ground with my nails for a living than part with that porringer. God be praised, however, I shall be able to drink my coffee out of this dish every morning during the rest of my days. I cannot complain. I have on the shelf, as the saying is, plenty of baked bread for a long time to come."

At the close of his first year Goriot began to practise little economies; at the end of the second he removed his rooms to the second floor, and did without a fire all the winter. This although, as Madame Vauquer's prying eyes had seen, Goriot's name appeared in the list of state funds for a sum representing an income of from eight to ten thousand francs. Henceforth she denounced him to the other paying-guests as an unprincipled old libertine, who lavished his enormous income from the funds on unknown youthful charmers. The boarders agreed; and when two young ladies in the most fashionable and costly attire visited him in succession in a semi-stealthy manner, their suspicions, as they believed, were confirmed. On one occasion, Sylvie followed Old Goriot and his beautiful visitor to a side street, and saw that there was a splendid carriage waiting and that she got into it. When challenged upon the point, the old man meekly declared that they were his daughters, though he never disclosed that their occasional visits were paid only to wheedle money from him.

The years passed, and with the gentleness of a broken spirit, beaten down to the docility of misery, Goriot curtailed his personal expenses, and again removed his lodgings; this time to the third floor. His dress turned shabbier; with each ascending grade his diamonds, gold snuff-box, and jewels disappeared. He grew thinner in person; his face, which had once the beaming roundness of a well-to-do middle-class gentleman, became furrowed with wrinkles. Lines appeared in his forehead, his jaws grew gaunt and sharp; and at the end of the fourth year he bore no longer the likeness of his former self. He was now a wan, worn-out septuagenarian - stupid, vacillating.

Eugène de Rastignac had ambitions, not only to win distinction as a lawyer, but also to play a part in the aristocratic society of Paris. He observed the influence which women exert upon society; and at his suggestion his aunt, Madame de Marcillac, who lived with his father in the old family château near Angoulême, and who had been at court in the days before the French Revolution, wrote to one of her great relatives, the Viscomtesse de Beauséant, one of the queens of Parisian society, asking her to give kindly recognition to her nephew. On the strength of that letter Eugène was invited to a ball at the mansion of the viscomtesse in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. The viscomtesse became interested in him, especially as she was suffering from the desertion of the Marquis d'Ajuda-Pinto, a Portuguese nobleman who had been long her lover, and stood sponsor for him in society. At the Faubourg, Eugène met the Duchesse de Langeais, from whom he learned the history of Old Goriot.

"During the Revolution," said the duchesse, "Goriot was a flour and vermicelli merchant, and, being president of his section, was behind the scenes. When a great scarcity of food was at hand he made his fortune by selling his goods for ten times what they cost him. He had but one passion; he loved his daughters, and by endowing each of them with a dot of eight hundred thousand francs, he married the eldest, Anastasie, to the Count de Restaud, and the youngest, Delphine, to the Baron de Nucingen, a rich German financier. During the Empire, his daughters sometimes asked their father to visit them; but after the Restoration the old man became an annoyance to his sons-in-law. He saw that his daughters were ashamed of him; he made the sacrifice which only a father can, and banished himself from their homes. There is," continued the duchesse, "something in these Goriot sisters even more shocking than their neglect of their father, for whose death they wish. I mean their rivalry to each other. Restaud is of ancient family; his wife has been adopted by his relatives and presented at court. But the rich sister, the beautiful Madame Delphine de Nucingen, is dying with envy, the victim of jealousy. She is a hundred leagues lower in society than her sister. They renounce each other as they both renounced their father. Madame de Nucingen would lap up all the mud between the Rue Saint-Lazare and the Rue de Crenelle to gain admission to my salon." What the duchesse did not reveal was that Anastasie had a lover, Count Maxime de Trailles, a gambler and a duellist. To pay the gambling losses of this unscrupulous lover, to the extent of two hundred thousand francs, the Countess de Restaud induced Old Goriot to sell out of the funds nearly all that remained of his great fortune, and give the proceeds to her.

Returning to his lodgings from a ball in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, Eugène saw a light in Goriot's room; and, without being noticed, watched the old man laboriously twisting two pieces of silver plate - his precious dish and porringer - into one lump.

"He must be mad," thought the student.

"The poor child!" groaned Goriot.

The next morning Goriot visited a silversmith, and the Countess de Restaud received the money to redeem a note of hand which she had given to a moneylender on behalf of her lover.

"Old Goriot is sublime," muttered Eugène when he heard of the transaction.

Delphine de Nucingen also had an admirer, Count de Marsay, through whose influence she expected to be introduced into the exclusive aristocratic society to which even the great wealth of her husband and his German patent of nobility could not secure an entry. Apart from her social aspirations, Delphine was personally extravagant; and as the baron was miserly and only gave her a very scanty allowance, she visited the gambling dens of the Palais Royale to try and raise the money which she could no longer coax from her old father.

III. A Temptation and a Murder

To be young, to thirst after a position in the world of fashion, to hunger for the smiles of beautiful women, to obtain an entry into the salons of the Faubourg, meant to Rastignac large expenditure. He wrote home asking for a loan of twelve hundred francs, which, he said, he must have at all costs. The Viscomtesse de Beauséant had taken him under her protection, and he was in a situation to make an immediate fortune. He must go into society, but had not a penny even to buy gloves. The loan would be returned tenfold.

The mother sold her jewels, the aunt her old laces, his sisters sacrificed their economies, and the twelve hundred francs were sent to Eugène. With this sum he launched into the gay life of a man of fashion, dressed extravagantly, and gambled recklessly. One day Vautrin arrived in high spirits, surprising Eugène conversing with Victorine. This was Vautrin's opportunity, for which he had been preparing. When Victorine retired, Vautrin pointed out how impossible it was to maintain a position in society as a law student, and if Eugène wished to get on quickly he must either be rich, or make believe to be so.

"In view of all the circumstances, therefore, I make a proposition to you," said Vautrin to Eugène, "which I think no man in your position should refuse. I wish to become a great planter in the Southern States of America, and need two hundred thousand francs. If I get you a dot of a million, will you give me two hundred thousand francs? Is twenty per cent, commission on such a transaction too much? You will secure the affection of a little wife. A few weeks after marriage you will seem distracted. Some night, between kisses, you can own a debt of two hundred thousand francs, and ask your darling to pay it. The farce is acted every day by young men of good family, and no amorous young wife will refuse the money to the man she adores. Moreover, you will not lose the money; you will easily get it back by judicious speculation!"

"But where can I find such a girl?" said Eugène.

"She is here, close at hand."

"Mademoiselle Victorine?"


"But how can that be?"

"She loves you; already she thinks herself the little Baroness de Rastignac."

"She has not a penny!" cried Eugène in amazement.

"Ah, now we are coming to the point," said Vautrin.

Thereupon, Vautrin insinuated that if papa Taillefer lost his son through the interposition of a wise Providence, he would take back his pretty and amiable daughter, who would inherit his millions. To this end he, Vautrin, frankly volunteered to play the part of destiny. He had a friend, a colonel in the army of the Loire, who would pick a quarrel with Frederic, the young blackguard son who had never sent a five-franc piece to his poor sister, and then "to the shades" - making a pass as if with a sword.

"Silence, monsieur! I will hear no more."

"As you please, my beautiful boy! I thought you were stronger."

A few days after this scene, Mademoiselle Michonneau and Poiret were sitting on a bench in the Jardin des Plantes, when they were accosted by the chief of the detective force. He told them that the minister of police believed that a man calling himself Vautrin, who lived with them in the Maison Vauquer, was an escaped convict from Toulon galleys, Jacques Collin, but known by the nickname of Trompe-la-Mort, and one of the most dangerous criminals in all France. In order to obtain certainty as to the identity of Vautrin with Collin he offered a bribe of three thousand francs if mademoiselle would administer a potion in his coffee or wine, which would affect him as if he were stricken with apoplexy. During his insensibility they could easily discover whether Vautrin had the convict's brand on his shoulder. The pair accepted the bribe, and the plot succeeded. Vautrin was identified as Collin and arrested, just as a messenger came to announce that Frederic Taillefer had been killed in a duel, and Victorine was carried off with Madame Couture to her father's home, the sole heir to his millions. When he was being pinioned to be conveyed back to the galleys, Collin looked upon his late fellow boarders with fierce scorn. "Are you any better than we convicts are?" said he. "We have less infamy branded on our shoulders than you have in your hearts - you flabby members of a gangrened society. There is some virtue here," exclaimed he, striking his breast. "I have never betrayed anyone. As for you, you old female Judas," turning to Mademoiselle Michonneau, "look at these people. They regard me with terror, but their hearts turn with disgust even to glance at you. Pick up your ill-gotten gains and begone." As Jacques Collin disappeared from the Maison Vauquer, and from our story, Sylvie, the fat cook, exclaimed: "Well, he was a man all the same!"

Although the way was now clear for Rastignac to marry the enormously wealthy Victorine, he paid court instead to Delphine, the Baroness de Nucingen, and dined with her every night. Old Goriot was informed of the intrigue by the baroness's maid. He did not resent but rather encouraged the liaison, and spent his last ten thousand francs in furnishing a suite of apartments for the young couple, on condition that he was to be allowed to occupy an adjoining room, and see his daughter every day.

IV. Old Goriot's Death-Bed

The Viscomtesse de Beauséant was broken-hearted when the marriage of her lover was accomplished, but to maintain a brave spirit in the face of society she gave a farewell ball before retiring to her country estate. Among those invited was the Countess de Restaud, who ordered a rich costume for the occasion, which, however, she was unable to pay for. Her husband, the count, insisted on her appearing at the ball and wearing the family diamonds, which she had pawned to discharge her lover's gambling debts, and which had been redeemed to save the family honour. Anastasie sent her maid to Old Goriot, who rose from a sick-bed, sold his last forks and spoons for six hundred francs, pledged his annuity for four hundred francs, and so raised a thousand, which enabled Anastasie to obtain the gown and shine at the ball. Through Rastignac's influence, Delphine, Baroness de Nucingen, received from the viscomtesse a ticket for the dance, and insisted on going, as Rastignac declared "even over the dead body of her father," to challenge her sister's social precedence at the supreme society function. The ball was the most brilliant of the Parisian season. Both Goriot's daughters satisfied their selfish ambitions and gave never a thought to their old parent in the wretched Maison Vauquer.

For Old Goriot was sick unto death. His garret was bare; the walls dripped with moisture; the floor was damp; the bed was comfortless, and the few faggots which made the handful of fire had been bought only by the money got from pawning Eugène's watch. Christophe, the man servant, was sent by Rastignac to tell the daughters of their father's condition.

"Tell them that I am not very well," said Old Goriot; "that I should like to see them, to kiss them before I die."

By and by, when the messenger had gone, the old man said: "I don't want to die. To die, my good Eugène, is - not to see them there, where I am going. How lonely I shall be! Hell, to a father, is to be without his children. Tell me, if I go to heaven, can I come back in spirit and hover near them? You saw them at the ball; they did not know that I was ill, did they?"

On the return of the messenger, Old Goriot was told that both his daughters refused to come and see him. Delphine was too tired and sleepy; Anastasie was discussing with her husband the future disposition of her marriage portion. Then alternately Goriot blamed his daughters and pardoned their unfilial and selfish behaviour.

"My daughters were my vice - my mistresses. Oh, they will come! Come, my darlings! A kiss, a last kiss, the viaticum of your father! I am justly punished; my children were good, and I have spoiled them; on my head be their sins. I alone am guilty; but guilty through love." Eugène tried to soothe the old man by saying that he would go himself to fetch his daughters; but Goriot kept muttering in his semi-delirium. "Here, Nasie! here Delphine, come to your father who has been so good to you, and who is dying! Are they coming? No? Am I to die like a dog? This is my reward; forsaken, abandoned! They are wicked; they are criminal. I hate them. I will rise from my coffin to curse them. Oh, this is horrible! Ah, it is my sons-in-law who keep them away from me!"

"My good Old Goriot," said Eugène, "be calm."

"Not to see them - it is the agony of death!"

"You shall see them."

"Ah! my angels!"

And with these feeble words, Old Goriot sank back on the pillow and breathed his last.

Anastasie did come to the death-chamber, but too late. "I could not escape soon enough," she said to Rastignac. The student smiled sadly, and Madame de Restaud took her father's hand and kissed it, saying, "Forgive me, my father."

Goriot had a pauper's funeral. The aristocratic sons-in-law refused to pay the expenses of the burial. These were scraped together with difficulty by Eugène de Rastignac, the law student, and Bianchon, the medical student, who had nursed him with loving tenderness to the last. At the graveside in Père Lachaise, Eugène and Christophe were the only mourners; Bianchon's duties detained him at the hospital. When the body of Old Goriot was lowered into the earth, the clergy recited a short prayer - all that could be given for the student's money. The pall of night was falling; the mist struck a chill on Eugène's nerves, and when he took a last glance at the shell containing all that was mortal of his old friend, he buried the last tear of his young manhood - a tear drawn by a sacred emotion from a pure heart.

Eugène wandered to the most elevated part of the cemetery, whence he surveyed that portion of the city between the Place Vendome and the dome of the Invalides, where lives that world of fashion which he had hungered to penetrate. With bitterness he muttered: "Now there is relentless war between us." And as the first act of defiance which he had sworn against society, Rastignac went to dine with Madame Nucingen!

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