When you have read of the secret sorrows of old Goriot you will dine with unimpaired appetite, blaming the author for your callousness, taxing him with exaggeration, accusing him of having given wings to his imagination. But you may be certain that this drama is neither fiction nor romance. All is true, so true that everyone can recognize the elements of the tragedy in his own household, in his own heart perhaps.

So Balzac lets us know what to expect within the first couple pages of Old Goriot (or Pere Goriot depending on the translation). But while Goriot is the pivot around which the story revolves, the story itself belongs to Eugène de Rastignac, student of law, poor, ambitious. He has come to Paris from the country to study and make something of himself. His family scrimps and saves and goes without in order to send him as much money as they can. Rastignac takes up residence in the shabby but genteel boardinghouse of Madame Vauquer. Everyone at the boardinghouse makes fun of old Goriot, a quiet gentle man who keeps to himself. They see him occasionally with a well-dressed woman and assume he has spent all his money on mistresses. Rastignac, however, discovers the truth.

Eager to make a name for himself, Rastignac takes advantage of a family connection, his cousin the Viscountess Madame de Beauséant. Rastignac is like a cute puppy peeing on the carpet because he is so very excited and wants only to please. The Viscountess takes a liking to him and agrees to introduce him into society and teach him a thing or two.

It turns out that Goriot’s mistresses are actually his two beloved daughters. He has given then all his money and lives in increasing poverty as he gradually sells off all his remaining valuables in order to help them out of debts and buy their love. For he loves them very much and has deluded himself into believing they love him just as much in return. Rastignac falls in love with one of the daughters, Delphine, who, like her sister, is in a loveless marriage to a husband who has used her fortune badly.

This being Paris high society, everyone has affairs and as long as appearances are kept up that all is proper between husband and wife, nobody really cares. Rastignac and Delphine with full knowledge and encouragement from Goriot, launch themselves into a romance.

But poor Rastignac, he has two angels sitting on his shoulders. Goriot is the good angel and Vautrin the bad. Vautrin is a rich and ruthless dandy who ingratiates himself with everyone. All the residents at the boardinghouse love him. He offers to be like a father to Rastignac, lending him all the money he needs and teaching him everything he needs to know about how to be a success and become rich. Vautrin with his “basilisk glance” offers so many temptations to Rastignac that he finds himself on the brink of giving in and sacrificing any conscience he might have remaining to him.

But Goriot saves Rastignac by dying. Goriot’s death reveals to Rastignac the true nature of Delphine and her sister, their selfishness, insincerity and lack of conscience and duty. He had thought high society was just a game but now he understands just how depraved it all is. His response is to declare war, though what that means exactly, we are left to wonder, at least at the end of Old Goriot.

I have never read Balzac before so this was an interesting experience. He sticks hard to the realism, no flights of fancy, no romance, no dreamy moments. He shines a very bright light into all the dark corners revealing the dirt and the flaws, no one and nothing is spared, not even Goriot, the most sympathetic of all the characters. Balzac is given to making narrative intrusions and providing opinions. But at the same time he can turn out a marvelous description like this one of the lodgers at the boardinghouse:

Although their cold, hard faces were worn, like those on coins withdrawn from circulation, their withered mouths were armed with avid teeth.

The book is not a fast read nor is it especially compelling. However, it is a well-written, well-told story that is worth the effort. I read the book along with Danielle which was nice because we kept each other going. Be sure to hop over to her blog and read her thoughts on the book.