Pere Goriot

Pere Goriot Metaphors and Similes

"that pasty faced old maid reminds me of a long worm steadily eating its way through a beam." (pg. 46) (Metaphor)

Bianchon complains that Mlle. Michonneau reminds him of a long worm. The metaphor partially works to evoke her physical appearance since the elderly spinster is old, gray-haired, and quite thin; the students find her extremely unattractive. In this sense, the metaphor is an example of Balzac's Realist tendency to give an unflinching and sometimes unflattering portrayal of his characters. The metaphor also serves as an example of foreshadowing, since Mlle. Michonneau is described as a worm, which might appear harmless and even helpless, but ends up having destructive potential. Although the elderly spinster seems doddering and incompetent, she ends up being crafty enough to bring down a criminal mastermind for her own financial gain.

"Rue Neuve-Sainte-Genevieve is like a bronze frame for a picture for which the mind cannot be too well prepared by the contemplation of sad hues and sober images." (pg. 4) (Simile)

This simile is part of the imagery used at the beginning of the novel to give a vivid evocation of the novel's setting. In this simile, Balzac compares the street on which the boardinghouse is located to a frame in which a sad picture is contained. The simile makes the boardinghouse and the life of its inhabitants into the subject of art, worthy of being looked at and elevated before an audience. It is clear that these subjects are somewhat depressing to look at, but they still merit attention.

"Her voice was as shrill as a cricket calling from its bush as winter approaches." (pg. 9) (Simile)

This unflattering simile is used to describe Mlle. Michonneau's voice. The simile helps to give a reader a sense of exactly what her voice sounds like by using a vivid and highly specific comparison. The simile compares her voice not just to any cricket, but a cricket who is seeing the seasons decline and wither. Because Mlle. Michonneau is elderly and getting closer and closer to the end of her life, the comparison to an approaching winter is apt.

"their spirits react to the radiation given off by a woman as a plant breathes in from the air the substances it needs." (pg. 51) (Simile)

This simile compares the behavior of Rastignac and other young men to plants absorbing nutrients from the air around them. Young men are highly sensitive to, and dependent upon, the presence and attention of women, and in fact require this exposure in order to thrive. This simile offers an interesting inversion of the expected power dynamic between genders: it is often assumed that women seek and require the attention of men who are courting them, and there is a long tradition of using metaphors of flowers or blossoms to describe women. Here, however, it is women who have the power to control men's welfare by offering or denying attention and affection.

"Paris is in truth an ocean that no line can plumb. You may survey its surface and describe it; but no matter how numerous and painstaking the toilers in this sea, there will always be lonely and unexplored regions in its depths, caverns unknown, flowers and pearls and monsters of the deep overlooked or forgotten by the divers of literature." (pg. 10-11) (Metaphor)

Balzac likens the city of Paris to an ocean with vast and unknowable depths. This metaphor helps to rationalize his choice to focus his novel on the lives of seemingly ordinary characters living in an unremarkable place. The allusion to secrets and mysteries draws on an older tradition of fiction animated by dramatic and grotesque revelations; Teresa Bridgeman describes Balzac's project of "translocating the mystery and the marvelous of the Gothic novel to the physical and social world of Paris itself" (pg. 52). As becomes evident amongst both the boarders and the aristocrats, everyone is hiding secrets, hidden desires, and unarticulated motivations. The metaphor also highlights why Rastignac's quest to advance his social position is going to be challenging, since he will have to navigate all of these mysteries and unspoken rules through trial and error.