Pere Goriot

Pere Goriot Study Guide

Le Père Goriot, translated literally in English as “The Father Goriot,” is a novel by Honoré de Balzac. As a Realist writer, 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 verisimilitude 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.

Balzac seems to have been influenced in his development of the Vautrin plotline by a real-life criminal named Vidocq. Vidocq had become notable in 1828 when he published a memoir describing his sensational life of crime. Balzac met with Vidocq in April 1834, and began to plan a story that would feature a criminal mastermind. At the same time, his journals and notes from the summer of 1834 reveal that Balzac was also interested in a storyline where an elderly father is mistreated by his daughters. Working with his usual speed, Balzac wrote the novel in just over a month in the autumn of 1834. The novel was published in serialized form in the periodical Revue de Paris between December 1834 and February 1835. The novel was then published as a complete volume in spring 1835. In subsequent editions, Balzac often made significant changes and revisions.

Le Pere Goriot forms part of Balzac's La Comedie Humaine, a series of novels meant to provide a totalizing vision of 19th-century French society. One of Balzac's literary innovations was his practice of having the same characters appear in multiple novels, and many of the figures from Le Pere Goriot appear in Balzac's other novels as well. In some cases, these subsequent appearances provide additional insight into plot events and character motivations. For example, in La Maison Nucingen (1837), Balzac reveals that the Baron Nucingen was actually responsible for orchestrating the affair between Delphine and Rastignac himself.

Despite some mixed initial reviews, Pere Goriot fairly quickly became accepted as one of Balzac's best novels. It was popular with readers as well as critics, and "Rastignac" became a term used in the French language to refer to someone who was socially ambitious or grasping. The novel was adapted into stage productions almost immediately, which furthered its success and popularity. Subsequently, the novel has been adapted into a number of film versions.