The Ambitions of Children Let Loose in Paris: Le Père Goriot – Book Review

Updated: Dec 21, 2019

Clara Zou

Honoré de Balzac paints a social scene of Paris that fills the reader with the desire to belong and be part of an enchanting lifestyle full of beautiful fashion, exquisite homes, and luxurious evenings spent dancing. From the perspective of a law student, Monsieur Eugène de Rastignac, Balzac illustrates the ambition of sons and daughters to become part of the esteemed social sphere in Paris. Unfortunately, the ambition comes at the unsustainable expense of families and the emotional toll on parents who wish to provide for their children.


Title page of Honoré de Balzac’s Old Goriot (1834)

When Eugène Rastignac arrives in Paris with the intent to study law, the circumstances of his life in Paris are altered quickly once he contacts his aunt, Madame de Beauséant. “[Rastignac was] quite unaware of the extent of the favor. Admission to these gilded halls was like being awarded a patent of nobility.” The swift entry into the aristocratic world captivates the provincial youth’s attention. In being introduced to the social heart of Paris, Rastignac quickly alters his mission from studying law to pursuing social ascension and prominence. The student becomes driven and frantic to enter into an enticing world filled with prestige, wealth, and respect. With the goal to ascend in the social scene, the letter from son to mother is dramatic; it equates the situation to one of life or death if Rastignac does not receive the necessary funds. In providing the funds for her son’s endeavor, Rastignac’s mom acts in a maternal manner and provides for her child to the best of her ability.

The response is mirrored by “Old” Goriot, who provides near eight hundred thousand francs to each of his two, prized daughters, Comtesse Anastasie de Restaud and Delphine de Nucingen. In the story, Rastignac encounters the two daughters after they have already become well-established in high-society Paris. Despite Rastignac’s fresh arrival in the prestigious society, the children share their intent to be a part of high society at any unreasonable cost. Whether the efforts lead to Rastignac’s mother nearly mortgaging her home or Goriot living in squalor, the parental desire to meet their children’s demands are unsustainable and upsetting. The monetary efforts are a result of the parents feeling obligated to provide for their children within their means.


Newer edition of Le Père Goriot

In reading Balzac’s story, it is critical to understand the children do not behave ambitiously and demand excessive amounts of money to be malicious. Instead, the appealing world of nobility has captivated their attention; Rastignac and Goriot’s daughters cannot look away from a world filled with splendor. Anastasie and Delphine have acquired a taste for such luxurious lifestyles at an early age during their upbringing, meanwhile, Rastignac gets his foot in the door when Madame de Beauséant introduces him and takes him under her wing. Rastignac then declares his desperation for money; the threat of suicide if he does not get the funds is not a form of immoral pressure to coerce his own mother. Instead, the law student from the Southern countryside has become obsessed with the benefits and beauty of high society living in Paris.

Overall, sons and daughters are enchanted by the dazzling, social life in Paris. Furthermore, the ambition to be socially relevant in the sphere of Parisian nobles is a benevolent one. High society Parisians live in this beautiful world that everyone yearns to be a part of and the intoxicating feeling comes at the cost of parents like Old Goriot.


Painting of Honoré de Balzac

Le Père Goriot is an 1835 French novel written by Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850).

#bookreview #literature #France #Frenchhistory #Europeanhistory

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