The novel opens with a lengthy and detailed description of the Parisian boardinghouse where much of the action takes place. The use of this detailed imagery gives the reader a vivid sense of setting, and draws attention to Balzac's gift for noticing small details about the world around him. The use of imagery to describe a common, everyday setting rather than a fantastical or unusual one was part of Balzac's contribution to the rise of Realism in literature. By spending a lot of time describing the minute details of a recognizable world, and being highly specific about a particular time and place, Balzac challenged traditional notions of what was "worth" writing about, and the balance between action and representation.
When Rastignac is first taken to the apartment Goriot has set up for Delphine, he is struck by its dainty beauty. Balzac uses detailed imagery to describe how the apartment evokes luxury, comfort, and femininity. The imagery of the apartment serves a number of purposes: it makes it clear how attentive and doting Goriot is because no detail has escaped him in terms of making his daughter comfortable and happy. The details of the luxurious apartment also create a juxtaposition with the shabby boardinghouse, and becomes emblematic of Rastignac's desires and ambitions. The apartment represents the life he could be leading if he becomes wealthy and accepted in society.
The Boardinghouse Dining Room
At various points in the novel, the boarders gather to eat together and these scenes are usually described using imagery to evoke what the scene looks, sounds, and even smells like. The dining room is important because it is a place where the boarders, with all their secrets and private motivations, come together and where many of their interactions take place. The imagery reinforces the unglamorous perspective on their lives and physical realities since Balzac does not shy away from including coarse or unsettling imagery. The imagery of the boardinghouse residents dining together shows why Rastignac comes to feel ashamed of the way he is currently living and anxious to move up in the world.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery
The final scene of the novel takes place in Pere Lachaise cemetery, where Goriot is given a pauper's burial on a bleak winter day. All of the imagery around this setting reinforces the idea of a world as a cold and unforgiving place, and ends the novel on a cynical note. Rastignac realizes that virtue is not rewarded as he watches the kind and generous old man being buried alone, impoverished, and unloved. The imagery of an isolated, frozen, and sterile external world reinforces Rastignac's understanding of what society and individual psychologies are actually like. The barren and lifeless imagery also reinforces the way Goriot has been cut off from his essential identity as a father because his daughters have abandoned and rejected him.
Pere Goriot Questions and Answers
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