Le Père Goriot, which is translated literally in English as “The Father Goriot,” is a novel by Honoré de Balzac. It was published in serial form, as was customary at the time, through the winter of 1834-35. As a Realist writer, de Balzac strove to present people and events exactly as they were, without idealizing or romanticizing people. His work, like that of most Realists, therefore includes long passages of descriptive narrative that establish physical descriptions and characters.
Compared to a French roman or romance, such as the type made popular by Alexandre Dumas and his son, Realist novels do not rapidly advance the plot. The long descriptive passages necessary to create the sense of accuracy and versimilitude tend to bog down the action. Likewise, in order to eschew the Romantic tendency to exaggerate the positive attributes of characters, Realist authors went out of their way to emphasize their human failings. Among the contemporary criticisms Balzac received was the fact he emphasized the corruption and greed of his characters to the point of exaggeration.
The novel is set in the fall of 1819, after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. The social environment in France can best be described as having been in constant upheaval since the French Revolution of 1789. During this revolution, when King Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette were deposed and executed, most titled aristocrats either fled France with their families or were imprisoned and put to death during the subsequent Reign of Terror, when bread riots were common and people were often murdered or legally executed simply for being too wealthy.
The main character Goriot was a maker of noodles and pasta prior to the Revolution. In a time when grain was scarce, and when rising bread prices was one of the primary factors that caused the Revolution, he dealt in grain and sold a very necessary finished product. Most of the public’s attention was on bakers and their bread, however hungry people do require food, and so Goriot was able to make phenomenal profits despite substantial personal risk. His high profits continued through the Reign of Terror, when wealthy people were often executed or had their assets seized simply because they were wealthy. Therefore, Goriot was intelligent and resourceful.
The Reign of Terror is generally regarded as having occurred in 1794 with the execution of the politician Robespierre and some of his supporters the Jacobins. In 1795, after various uprisings and struggles, a new Constitution was established and the Directory, a new administrative body, took over. The executions stopped, and France became involved in several wars in which a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte began to show his leadership qualities. This Napoleon Bonaparte eventually organized a military coup in 1799, taking over the leadership of France as the First Consul of the Republic.
In 1804 Napoleon was crowned Emperor of France with the overwhelming support of the French people as expressed by refernendum. His reign was characterized by the introduction of a uniform legal system and by a resurgence in the French economy. Napoleon’s reign lasted until 1812, when he was forced to abdicate the French throne exiled to the island of Elba following a disastrous attempt to invade Russia in the winter. At this point, a Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII, was placed on the French throne. But Napoleon escaped in 1815, raised another army, and arrived in Paris at the head of the French army which had abandoned the Bourbon King in favor of Napoleon. He reigned until after his military defeat by Wellington in Waterloo, when the French people finally turned against him. He abdicated in favor of his son in 1815, and accepted exile to the island of Saint Helena. At the time of the story, Napoleon was still alive but in exile.
The novel also features some characters who are members of the French aristocracy. Many had titles that dated back to before the Revolution, but just as many had been created by Napoleon and his successor, King Louis XVIII, who reigned until 1824. Many families which had not been “noble” previously had been elevated to the aristocracy. This, coupled with the changes in the French economy that allowed bankers, merchants, and other people to accumulate wealth without having noble titles, created an unprecedented level of class mobility. It was therefore not unreasonable for the young student Eugène de Rastignac to aspire to join the upper class by marrying into a wealthy family or by conducting a love affair with a wealthy or aristocratic woman.
Instability in politics and the economy is one of the factors that affects the characters in this book. Yet by the time the story was published, Napoleon was dead and the French society and economy, while still changing, had settled down somewhat.