The story is set in Paris, France. It begins at the end of November 1819. Most of the events take place at the boarding house owned by a fifty-year-old widow surnamed Vauquer. She has seven permanent borders. The wealthiest live on the first story along with Madame (Mrs.) Vauquer: a military commissary officer’s widow named Mrs. Couture and her young relative, a schoolgirl named Victorine Taillefer. Mrs. Couture is her legal guardian. On the second floor lived an elderly Mr. Poiret and a man of about 40 who dyed his whiskers and wore a black wig, giving his name as Vautrin. On the third floor three of the four rooms are occupied: one by an elderly spinster named Miss Michonneau, one by a student named Eugene Rastignac who lived on 1,200 francs per year provided by his large family in Angoulème, and one by a Mr. Goriot who allowed the others to address him more familiarly as “Father” Goriot. Goriot is a retired maker of vermicelli, noodles, and Italian paste.
Goriot is regarded with contempt by his fellow boarders, even though he is the eldest. He has previously been a man of great means, having retired to the Vauquer household in 1813 with a considerable and costly wardrobe. His shirts were fronted in cambric, he had a substantial amount of silver serving-ware, and he wore a pair of diamond shirt-pins connected with a short chain. A little on the chubby side back then, Goriot possesed many fine and expensive things including a posset-dish with doves on it, which was a wedding-gift from his late wife and his most cherished possession. On his initial arrival he spent more than was sensible on his appearance and on his rooms, and so was regarded as being somewhat less than practical in financial matters.
A man of simple tastes, Goriot was happy with basic fare, did not spend extra money on food, and seldom dined out. This frustrated his hostess, who originally had thought of trying to entice him into marrying her but who started to suspect he was running out of money. Toward the end of the second year Goriot moved up to the second floor so as to pay less money. From that point on, the landlady insisted on being paid in advance and started addressing him as “Father” Goriot. The other tenants gossip about how he came by his money and why he was running out of it.
Goriot is visited by two young women dressed in silk or evening-wear, whom he describes as his daughters. One is blonde, the other brunette. The tenants and servants take them at first for mistresses of Goriot. Near the end of the third year Goriot moves up to the third story and has changed in appearance, having a sorrowful look. He is becoming weaker and his eyes are growing weepy. Still the young women come by from time to time. Nobody believes they are truly the old man’s daughters, because they are far too wealthy and well-dressed to have a father living in such circumstances.
The student Rastignac decides to make a place for himself in high society. He has only one prominent relative, a Vicountess de Beauséant. So he writes to her and receives aninvitation to the ball. He is hoping to attract the attention of a prominent noblewoman, become her lover, and receive income from her. He meets a brilliant and beautiful Countess Anastasie de Restaud, who turns out to be Goriots daughter. According to Vautrin, Goriot (who is gradually crushing his expensive silverwork into ingots to sell) pays the Countess’s overdue bills with the moneylender Gobseck.
Rastignac is being rejected by Anastasie de Restaud, who prefers to be alone with Count Maxime de Tri. Furthermore his relative the Viscountess has just received news that her lover, the Marquis de Ajuda-Pinto, is going to leave her and marry another. But the Viscountess tells Rastignac that Anastasie’s maiden name was Goriot, and that she has a sister, Delphine: the wife of a banker named de Nucingen. The sisters have a rivalry with each other. Although Delphine’s husband is richer, he is not an aristocrat, and Delphine therefore is not a member of high society. So the Vicountess, who also suggests that Rastignac find a young woman with a million-dollar dowry, suggests that Rastignac make use of the Goriot sisters’ rivalry in the meantime. The student writes, asking for a further one thousand two hundred francs from his family which is an unbearable burden for them but which is necessary for him to be properly dressed to mingle with the upper class.
Vautrin has a plot to help Rastignac. The young Victorine, who has been disinherited by her wealthy father prior to her mother’s death, has a brother Vautrin proposes to murder. This will make Victorine the sole heir of more than a million francs, of which Vautrin proposes to receive two hundred thousand when Rastignac marries the young woman. But Eugine falls madly in love with Delphine instead. Her wealthy husband makes her no allowance, and her father pays her everyday bills.
Rastignac starts to dress and act like a dandy, but the police are closing in on Vautrin, who is a wanted criminal. The authorities secure the cooperation of Poiret and Michon in unmascing him. Vautrin is arrested, having already arranged for Victorine’s brother to be killed in a duel. Goriot hires a lawyer who threatens to expose the banker Nucigen’s illegal business practices, securing an income of thirty-six thousand francs per year for Delphine. Goriot rents an apartment for Eugene and Delphine, who separates from Nucigen. All Goriot wants is to live in the upstairs room and share their household. But it turns out that Nucigen has in fact frittered away Delphine’s dowry, and the couple cannot move out. Meanwhile, Anastasie has done something stupid: she pawns her husband’s family diamonds in order to save her lover, Maxime de Tri, from debtor’s prison. She needs twelve thousand francs. The old man has spent the last of his money on the apartment and is now penniless.
The two sisters argue and bicker like vultures over who should have the last of their father’s money, and Goriot collappses with a stroke. He dies on the same day as the Viscountess gives her last ball, having retired frome society. Rastignac hurries back to the old man, whose daughters do not come to visit. They send their empty carriages to his funeral but do not attend themselves, and two students (Rastignac and another young man named Blanchon) pay for the funeral. Afterwards, Rastignac goes to dinner with Delphine.