Book: Old Man Goriot by Honore de Balzac
#86 on the Telegraph’s 100 novels everyone should read.
What is the story about?
The story is about Eugene de Rastignac, a student coming from a loving family from the South pursuing his education in Paris. He lodged in Madame Vaquer’s boarding house where he met Old Man Goriot as well as other interesting characters. Here, he learned the workings of Paris’ upper society.
Before I get into this review, you have to know one thing about me: I’m a classics girl. After reading a number of books in this list from different genre’s, it was very nice and comforting to read a classic, it’s like going back home again after a wonderful whirlwind adventure.
And what a classis this is! I loved it and really enjoyed reading it. It’s not like most classics where its very slow in the beginning then it picks up. It was interesting from the start.
About society .. my mom used to always talk about the ‘good old days’, how life was simpler, people had more respect and values. This book shows that no not really. Since the 1800’s (and I’m sure even before that), it was, is, and always will be about the money.
When Rastignac saw the workings of society, he gave up on his studies because he knew it won’t get him anywhere. It’s all about your connections, who you know and who can take you places, and your street smarts too.
He also knew that wealth brings power and respect. He knew that he had to look the part so he can be accepted in the highest circles of society. So he borrowed money from his mom and sisters knowing very well they really needed it, but he had to get it so he can be seen in the correct waistcoat. And surely enough when he was dressed correctly, he earned people’s respect.
Just like in this day if you drive a monster of a car that costs a fortune, people show respect on road. And I’m sure many inappropriate incidents were laughed off just because the perpetrators are filthy rich.
Another theme that I really enjoyed in this book is human nature. Take Vautrin for example. He is the famous villain in Balzac’s novels. Even though he was a runaway convict, you can still see he has some good in him. Then you have people like Mademoiselle Michonneou, a vile spinster who talks behind everyones back, lives for gossip, and would sell her own mother for money. As Vautrin himself says “we bear less infamy on our shoulders than any of you do in your hearts.”
Another theme that Balzac got into is marriage, which he painted in a very bleak way. No wife in this book is loyal to her husband and none are happy with this institution they are in. Though I agree with most of Balzac’s ideas presented in this book, this is one that I do not agree with.
This leads us to the most important event in this book, which is, as a parent, truly heart wrenching to read.
Old man Goriot is a selfless loving father of two girls (Rastignac was in love with one of them). He gave everything to his two girls, he lives for them. They, on the other hand, are ungrateful kids who only come to their father when they need money. One of them went crying to Goriot because she doesn’t have a decent gown to wear to the ball. Her father, who was already sick, took all he owned and sold it just to get the 1000 francs she needed for her gown. She then sent her maid to collect the money and didn’t even have the decency to collect it herself.
The other one, Rastignac himself said that “he sensed that she would walk over her father’s dead body to get to the ball,” which in the end both daughters did as they were not present at their father’s deathbed, burial, or funeral. It was really painful to read the loving father call out painfully for his daughters but not finding them there next to him when he needed them most.
What I didn’t really get (which is why my rating has a minus in it) is the ending, but it might be lost in translation a bit (think if I read it in French it will be clearer). My version ends with Rastignac telling the city of Paris: “Now let us fight it out!” which I wasn’t sure if he meant he will fight society because of what it did to his dear old Goriot, which he regarded as a father figure by the end.
But I know in other version the line was translated differently and the word ‘fight’ wasn’t used. So did Rastignac fight the social injustices he saw, or did he yield to the social norms and accept them to move forward?
When I further looked into it, looks like he chose the latter path as apparently, the word ‘Rastignac’ is now used in France to name a social climber, who will do anything to better his social status.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book. It was entertaining and full of meaning in almost every page. A true classic!
#85 on the list: The Reb and the Black by Stendhal .. another classic!
Happy reading 🙂