Old Goriot (Penguin Classics)
Marion Ayton Crawford
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Honoré de Balzac’s great theme was money, and in his best-loved novel, Old Goriot, he explored its uses and abuses with the particularity of a poet. A shabby Parisian boarding house in 1819 is the setting where his colorful characters collide. These include an elderly retired merchant called Old Goriot, who has bankrupted himself for the sake of his two rapacious, social-climbing daughters, Delphine and Anastasie; a mysterious and sinister conspirator named Vautrin; Victorine, a disinherited heiress; and a naive and impoverished law student from the country, Eugène de Rastignac.
Rastignac is appalled at first by the greed and corruption he finds in Paris, but he soon sets his sights on conquering high society. He joins forces with the array of schemers who surround him, while the suffering, self-sacrificing Goriot yearns in vain for his daughters’ love. The sprawling, vibrant, and turbulent Paris of the post-Napoleonic era is itself a major character in the novel, an emblem of the social upheaval that Balzac portrays so brilliantly. Old Goriot was the first of Balzac’s novels to employ his famous technique of recurring characters, and it has come to be seen as the keystone in his grand project, The Human Comedy.
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to see him.’ ‘Yes, of course,’ she said; ‘but after the ball. Dear Eugène, be nice, don’t read me a sermon. Come.’ They set off. Eugène sat in silence, and after a while Delphine said, ‘What’s the matter now?’ ‘I can hear your father’s death-rattle,’ he replied, with a touch of anger. And he began with the vehement eloquence of youth to tell her of the barbarous cruelty to which vanity had driven Madame de Restaud, of her father’s desperate illness brought on by his supreme act of
state of affairs, which was being as carefully concealed by the victim as by those responsible for it. Above the third floor was a loft for drying laundry, and two attic rooms where the boots, Christophe, and fat Sylvie, the cook, slept. As well as the seven lodgers in the house Madame Vauquer had, year by year, some eight medical or law students and two or three regular guests who lived in the neighbourhood. These all came for dinner only. The dining-room seated eighteen at dinner, and at a
parsimony with which every crumb was hoarded, and saw the family drink wine made from the lees of the wine-press. In sum, a multitude of circumstances it is unnecessary to detail here made him long to distinguish himself, and his ambition to succeed increased tenfold. Like all great minds Eugène wished to owe his success to nothing but his own merit. But his temperament was preeminently southern; so that when he came to carry them out his resolutions were bound to be affected by the hesitations
love-letters to her, or the sentimental monkey-tricks that go down so well with women, such as sprinkling drops of water on your writing-paper like tears when you are separated from her: you seem to me to be perfectly well acquainted with the lingo of the heart. ‘Paris, you see, is like a forest in the New World where a score of savage tribes, the Illinois, the Hurons, struggle for existence: each group lives on what it can get by hunting throughout society. You are a hunter of millions; to
the naïve paintings of the Middle Ages in which all accessories are neglected, and the artist reserves the magic of his brush for the painting of the calm, proud face, whose pallor seems to catch a golden reflection from Heaven. ‘But he only took two glasses, after all, Mamma,’ said Victorine, passing her fingers through Eugène’s hair. ‘If he were a dissipated young man, child, he would have carried his wine like all the others. The fact that he was overcome by it speaks in his favour.’ They