The political and historical context of Pere Goriot is important for understanding the full implications and critiques of the novel. Balzac is very careful to provide precise dates for the action of the novel, adding to the Realist element. The main plot begins in November 1819, during a period known as the Bourbon Restoration. However, Goriot's personal history and the story of how he made his fortune dates back to the pre-Revolutionary period.
The French Revolution began in 1789, fueled by economic frustration and outrage at persistent social inequality. A period known as the "Reign of Terror" began around 1793, lasting until 1794. During the Revolution, King Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette were deposed and executed, while most titled aristocrats either fled France with their families or were imprisoned and put to death during the subsequent Reign of Terror. Political turmoil meant that food supplies were often uncertain, and bread riots were common. During this time, anyone who seemed to have too much money or the wrong type of political allegiances could be executed on flimsy charges.
The narrator describes how "in the days before the Revolution, Jean-Joachim Goriot was an ordinary workman" (pg. 80), and then explains that Goriot was "canny enough to purchase his master's business when chance made him a victim of the first uprising of 1789" (pg. 80). Goriot's economic prosperity has its origins in the time when the French class system was subject to a violent upheaval. Further political and economic instability also benefited him since grain shortages drove prices up and made people eager to purchase whatever grain goods they could get their hands on. Because Goriot was not an aristocrat, he was able to remain safe and see his business prosper during the Revolution.
In 1795, after various uprisings and struggles, a new Constitution was established and the Directory, a new administrative body, took over. The executions stopped, and France became involved in several wars in which a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte began to show his leadership qualities. Napoleon Bonaparte eventually organized a military coup in 1799, taking over the leadership of France as the First Consul of the Republic. In 1804, Napoleon was crowned Emperor of France with the overwhelming support of the French people as expressed by referendum. His reign was characterized by the introduction of a uniform legal system and by a resurgence in the French economy. Napoleon’s reign lasted until 1812, when he was forced to abdicate the French throne and was exiled to the island of Elba following a disastrous attempt to invade Russia in the winter.
At this point, a Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII, was restored to the French throne. Louis XVIII was the younger brother of the executed King Louis XVI who had been living in exile since 1791. Although Napoleon escaped in 1815 and raised another army, he was defeated again at Waterloo and exiled to the island of Saint Helena. The Bourbon Restoration continued through the reign of Louis XVIII, who died in 1824, and his brother, who ruled as Charles X from 1824-1830. With the return of the Bourbon monarchy, there were many shifts in power and political influence. A self-made man like Goriot who had been able to succeed during the Revolution and Napoleonic Period, when there was an emphasis on overthrowing traditional systems of inherited wealth, would likely no longer have the same influence or prestige. The narrative hints that part of the reason why his daughters and son-in-law become embarrassed by Goriot is that he seems like an outdated relic of a time that has now passed away.
During the period of the novel's action, between 1819 and 1820, changes in the French economy that allowed bankers, merchants, and other people to accumulate wealth without having noble titles, created an unprecedented level of class mobility. It was therefore not unreasonable for the young student Eugène de Rastignac to aspire to join the upper class by marrying into a wealthy family or by conducting a love affair with a wealthy or aristocratic woman. Many members of the French aristocracy had titles that dated back to before the Revolution, but just as many had been created by Napoleon and his successor, King Louis XVIII. Many families which had not been “noble” previously had been elevated to the aristocracy. The uncertainty of how to measure someone's precise status and influence makes it possible for Rastignac to decide to groom himself into the figure of a wealthy and sophisticated young man.