One of the main themes in Le Père Goriot is the quest to understand and ascend society's strata. The Charter of 1814 granted by King Louis XVIII had established a "legal country" which allowed only a small group of the nation's most wealthy men to vote. Thus, Rastignac's drive to achieve social status is evidence not only of his personal ambition but also of his desire to participate in the body politic. As with Scott's characters, Rastignac epitomizes, in his words and actions, the Zeitgeist of the time in which he lives.
Through his characters and narration, Balzac lays bare the social Darwinism of this society. In one particularly blunt speech, Madame de Beauséant tells Rastignac:
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. And if ever you should love, never let your secret escape you!
This attitude is further explored by Vautrin, who tells Rastignac: "The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been discovered, because it was properly executed." This sentence has been frequently – and somewhat inaccurately – paraphrased as: "Behind every great fortune is a great crime."
Influence of Paris
The novel's representations of social stratification are specific to Paris, perhaps the most densely populated city in Europe at the time. Traveling only a few blocks – as Rastignac does continually – takes the reader into vastly different worlds, distinguished by their architecture and reflecting the class of their inhabitants. Paris in the post-Napoleonic era was split into distinct neighborhoods. Three of these are featured prominently in Le Père Goriot: the aristocratic area around the Boulevard Saint-Germain, the newly upscale quarter of the rue de la Chaussée-d'Antin, and the run-down area on the eastern slope of the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève.
These quartiers of the city serve as microcosms which Rastignac seeks to master; Vautrin, meanwhile, operates in stealth, moving among them undetected. Rastignac, as the naive young man from the country, seeks in these worlds a new home. Paris offers him a chance to abandon his far-away family and remake himself in the city's ruthless image. His urban exodus is like that of many people who moved into the French capital, doubling its population between 1800 and 1830. The texture of the novel is thus inextricably linked to the city in which it is set; "Paris", explains critic Peter Brooks, "is the looming presence that gives the novel its particular tone".
Rastignac, Vautrin, and Goriot represent individuals corrupted by their desires. In his thirst for advancement, Rastignac has been compared to Faust, with Vautrin as Mephistopheles. Critic Pierre Barbéris calls Vautrin's lecture to Rastignac "one of the great moments of the Comédie humaine, and no doubt of all world literature". France's social upheaval provides Vautrin with a playground for an ideology based solely on personal advancement; he encourages Rastignac to follow suit.
Still, it is the larger social structure that finally overwhelms Rastignac's soul – Vautrin merely explains the methods and causes. Although he rejects Vautrin's offer of murder, Rastignac succumbs to the principles of brutality upon which high society is built. By the end of the novel, he tells Bianchon: "I'm in Hell, and I have no choice but to stay there."
While Rastignac desires wealth and social status, Goriot longs only for the love of his daughters: a longing that borders on idolatry. Because he represents bourgeois wealth acquired through trade – and not aristocratic primitive accumulation – his daughters are happy to take his money, but will see him only in private. Even as he is dying in extreme poverty, at the end of the book, he sells his few remaining possessions to provide for his daughters so that they might look splendid at a ball.
The relations between family members follow two patterns: the bonds of marriage serve mostly as Machiavellian means to financial ends, while the obligations of the older generation to the young take the form of sacrifice and deprivation. Delphine is trapped in a loveless marriage to Baron de Nucingen, a money-savvy banker. He is aware of her extramarital affairs, and uses them as a means to extort money from her. Anastasie, meanwhile, is married to the comte de Restaud, who cares less about the illegitimate children she has than the jewels she sells to provide for her lover – who is conning her in a scheme that Rastignac has heard was popular in Paris. This depiction of marriage as a tool of power reflects the harsh reality of the unstable social structures of the time.
Parents, meanwhile, give endlessly to their children; Goriot sacrifices everything for his daughters. Balzac refers to him in the novel as the "Christ of paternity" for his constant suffering on behalf of his children. That they abandon him, lost in their pursuit of social status, only adds to his misery. The end of the book contrasts Goriot's deathbed moments with a festive ball hosted by Madame de Beauséant – attended by his daughters, as well as Rastignac – suggesting a fundamental schism between society and the family.
The betrayal of Goriot's daughters is often compared to that of the characters in Shakespeare's King Lear; Balzac was even accused of plagiarism when the novel was first published. Discussing these similarities, critic George Saintsbury claims that Goriot's daughters are "as surely murderesses of their father as [Lear's daughters] Goneril and Regan". As Herbert J. Hunt points out in Balzac's Comédie humaine, however, Goriot's tale is in some ways more tragic, since "he has a Regan and a Goneril, but no Cordelia".
The narrative of Goriot's painful relations with his children has also been interpreted as a tragicomic parable of Louis XVI's decline. At a crucial moment of filial sentiment in Balzac's novel, Vautrin breaks in singing "O Richard, O mon roi"--the royalist anthem that precipitated the October Days of 1789 and the eventual downfall of Louis XVI--a connection that would have been powerful to Balzac's readers in the 1830s. An ill-founded faith in paternal legitimacy follows both Goriot and Louis XVI into the grave.
Rastignac's family, off-stage, also sacrifices extensively for him. Convinced that he cannot achieve a decent status in Paris without a considerable display of wealth, he writes to his family and asks them to send him money: "Sell some of your old jewelry, my kind mother; I will give you other jewels very soon." They do send him the money he requests, and – although it is not described directly in the novel – endure significant hardship for themselves as a result. His family, absent while he is in Paris, becomes even more distant despite this sacrifice. Although Goriot and Vautrin offer themselves as father figures to him, by the end of the novel they are gone and he is alone.