In the summer of 1834 Balzac began to work on a tragic story about a father who is rejected by his daughters. His journal records several undated lines about the plot: "Subject of Old Goriot – A good man – middle-class lodging-house – 600 fr. income – having stripped himself bare for his daughters who both have 50,000 fr. income – dying like a dog." He wrote the first draft of Le Père Goriot in forty autumn days; it was published as a serial in the Revue de Paris between December and February. It was released as a novel in March 1835 by the publishing house of Werdet, who also published the second edition in May. A much-revised third edition was published in 1839 by Charpentier. As was his custom, Balzac made copious notes and changes on proofs he received from publishers, so that the later editions of his novels were often significantly different from the earliest. In the case of Le Père Goriot, he changed a number of the characters into persons from other novels he had written, and added new paragraphs filled with detail.
The character Eugène de Rastignac had appeared as an old man in Balzac's earlier philosophical fantasy novel La Peau de chagrin. While writing the first draft of Le Père Goriot, Balzac named the character "Massiac", but he decided to use the same character from La Peau de chagrin. Other characters were changed in a similar fashion. It was his first structured use of recurring characters, a practice whose depth and rigor came to characterize his novels.
In 1843 Balzac placed Le Père Goriot in the section of La Comédie humaine entitled "Scènes de la vie parisienne" ("Scenes of life in Paris"). Quickly thereafter, he reclassified it – due to its intense focus on the private lives of its characters – as one of the "Scènes de la vie privée" ("Scenes of private life"). These categories and the novels in them were his attempt to create a body of work "depicting all society, sketching it in the immensity of its turmoil". Although he had prepared only a small predecessor for La Comédie humaine, entitled Études de Mœurs, at this time, Balzac carefully considered each work's place in the project and frequently rearranged its structure.