The novel reflected several historical events that flipped the French social order in short succession: the French Revolution, which led to the First Republic; Napoleon's rise, the fall and the return of the House of Bourbon. Le Père Goriot begins in June 1819, four years after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and the Bourbon Restoration. The book depicted the mounting tension between the aristocracy, which had returned with King Louis XVIII and the bourgeoisie produced by the Industrial Revolution. In the narrative, France saw a tightening of social structures, with a lower class steeped in overwhelming poverty. By one estimate, almost three-quarters of Parisians did not make the 500–600 francs a year required for a minimal standard of living. At the same time, this upheaval made possible a social mobility unthinkable during the Ancien Régime. Individuals willing to adapt to the rules of this new society could sometimes ascend into its upper echelons from modest backgrounds, much to the distaste of the established wealthy class.
When Balzac began writing Le Père Goriot in 1834, he had written several dozen books, including a stream of pseudonymously published potboiler novels. In 1829 he published Les Chouans, the first novel to which he signed his own name; this was followed by Louis Lambert (1832), Le Colonel Chabert (1832), and La Peau de chagrin (1831). Around this time, Balzac began organizing his work into a sequence of novels that he eventually called La Comédie humaine, divided into sections representing various aspects of life in France during the early 19th century.
One of these aspects which fascinated Balzac was the life of crime. In the winter of 1828–29, a French grifter-turned-policeman named Eugène François Vidocq published a pair of sensationalized memoirs recounting his criminal exploits. Balzac met Vidocq in April 1834, and used him as a model for a character named Vautrin he was planning for an upcoming novel.