The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

Living Edition
| Editors: Jeremy Tambling

Balzac: Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot)

  • Jeremy TamblingEmail author
Living reference work entry


Balzac; Brecht; Capitalism; Colonialism; Dickens; July Revolution; Jungle of Cities; Melodrama; Paris; Thackeray

Of the novels of Balzac (97 by some counts, plus short stories) making up the Comédie humaine [Human Comedy], Père Goriot is one of the most significant in being inseparable from rendering Paris, so much so that he questions in the opening page of the book whether anyone outside Paris will be able to understand it. “Paris” is here defined as what lies between “les buttes de Montmartre et les hauteurs de Montrouge” – that is, the rising ground of Montmartre, on the northern perimeter of the old city, and the heights of Montrouge, on the southern perimeter, near the Porte d’Orleans. It is, of course, Paris pre-Haussmann. Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) wrote about Paris in 1819 (though there are references to what happened in 1822), after the defeat of Waterloo and the restoration of the conservative Bourbon monarchy of Louis XVIII, but he has in mind the Paris following the July Revolution which brought Louis-Philippe to the throne (1830) as a bourgeois monarch, and in the time of France’s colonial expansion, particularly into Algeria, and the invitation to the French from Louis-Philippe’s minister François Guizot (1787–1874), “Enrichissez-vous!” – make yourselves rich! That is what the novel shows happening, adventurers trying to make good, focused on the young man, here Rastignac, from the provinces coming to Paris for the first time (as Balzac had come from Tours in 1814): the novel thus making a clear distinction between Paris and the rest of France and taking pride in being able to fetishize its qualities.

The novel appeared in four “articles,” or sections, in serial form, in the literary journal Revue de Paris, for 14 and 28 December 1834 and 25 January and 11 February 1835. Each article was divided into four chapters, which were removed for publication by Werdet in book form: the novel streams on, with virtually no break. The second edition added chapter-divisions. This serialization form needs to be compared with Dickens and Thackeray, his equivalents in England. In 1841, and already a sick man, Balzac started to assemble his writings into the Comédie humaine, with an Avant-Propos [preface] proposing the virtues of religion and monarchy and putting Père Goriot into a section called Scènes de la Vie parisienne, but he altered this in 1845, to make the novel one of the Scènes de la Vie privée. The shift from thinking of the novel as one of Paris to one of private life (concentrating on the youth of Rastignac) makes no difference: Père Goriot is one of the novels which has most influenced critical thinking about the novel as an urban genre.

Père Goriot demands thinking about Paris in three ways: first, it is the novel where Balzac starts to make characters reappear from earlier novels and appear again in later: the criminal Vautrin being the best example. The city is the place where people appear and disappear and have multiple existences and do not even seem consistent in chronological age. Second, it is viewed as integral to the incidents of the text, part of its unity. Third, its places indicate ways to read the city and ways in which the city creates the subject. Walter Benjamin says of Balzac’s Comedie humaine that “Paris is the breeding-ground of his mythology.” Drawing attention to the repetition of the same streets and corners of Paris from which his characters step, he argues that “topography is the ground plan of every mythic space of tradition, as it is of every such space, and […] it can become indeed its key” (Benjamin 2002: 83; C1,7). Père Goriot has four major areas of Paris in view. The first is the boarding house run by Mme Vauquer, in which old Goriot lives, the pasta maker who made a vast profit during the Revolution in 1793 and saw his two daughters married off advantageously for money: they are still dependent on him but keep away from him, like King Lear’s two elder daughters. The second is the Faubourg Saint-Germain area for the old aristocracy; the third the financial quarter on the right bank, the Chaussée d’Antin, to the east of the present Opéra, here the daughters live; and the fourth, the cemetery of Père Lachaise, where Goriot is buried. The first is just beyond the Latin Quarter, in the Rue Neuve Sainte-Geneviève (now Tournefort), in the streets shut in between the dome of the Val-de-Grâce [a military hospital] and the dome of the Pantheon [eighteenth century: on the summit of the so-called Montagne Sainte-Geneviève], “two monuments which change the conditions of the atmosphere, casting yellow tones, and darkening everything by the gloomy tints which their cupolas project.” The two “domes” are part of Balzac’s way of thinking in terms of binary oppositions. The yellow is a marker of fog, referred to in the novel, and of oppressive dirt, and of the dull yellow which spoils so many facades of buildings in Paris. The pension Mme Vauquer runs, mean and filthy, with an unmistakable boarding-house smell, is advertised as for “persons of both sexes and others,” and the witty, or uncomprehending, alliance of the city with sexual “deviance” is confirmed by the presence in the house of Vautrin, an escaped convict and homosexual, based on the famous criminal François-Eugène Vidocq (1775–1857), whose Memoires had appeared in 1828 and who had become chief of police. (Balzac met him.) Vidocq may also lie behind the portrait of the policeman who arrests Vautrin, Bibi-Lupin, another criminal with an animosity toward Vautrin. Benjamin quotes from Vidocq: “Paris is a spot on the globe, but this spot is a sewer and the emptying-point of all sewers” (98; C8a,1), and that associates with the novel’s intensive references to mud, especially dangerous to people walking, as Rastignac discovers, and to the idea that the pension, as an image of Paris, is like the entry to the Catacombs.

The two fashionable areas are where Rastingnac’s cousin, la vicontesse de Beausánt, lives; Goriot’s daughter, Anastasie, Mme de Restaud, lives in the rue de Helder, and her sister, Delphine, Mme de Nucingen, married to a banker, lives in the rue Saint-Lazare. Much detail is spent on Rastignac learning how to negotiate, for the first time, the complicated entry into these houses. Père Lachaise, the cemetery in the east (20th arrondissement), opened in 1804, and after Rastignac has buried Goriot, the novel’s, and his, father figure, on the last page, he ascends to the summit of the cemetery to get a better view – it is essential to see that for Balzac, the summit does not, as it would for an earlier writer, imply moral superiority – and looks at the area lying (“couché” – there is the suggestion of the city as a courtesan) between the column in the Place Vendôme and the dome of the Invalides. Again the punning on “dome” gives a binary opposition, reinforced by the gap between them, formed by the Seine, which is home to the fashionable society which he wanted to enter: a beehive, whose sweetness he wants to suck out. He wants to square up to the city, hence the words “A nous deux maintenant” – now the fight’s on between you and me – but not in the spirit of revolt, rather in wanting to possess it, so that he settles for going to dine with Mme de Nucingen, as his mistress: hence reinforcing the sense of the city as a woman. The sites seen from Père Lachaise are associated with Napoleon and Louis XIV, respectively, the Invalides forming the western limit of the eighteenth-century Faubourg Saint-Germain (earlier, a suburb beyond Saint-Germain-des-Prés; the etymology of “faubourg” derives from “foris” [outside] and “burgis” [fortress, town]), now, post-1815, highly reactionary (and the subject for much of Proust’s novel). What he sees is a panorama, which word associates with the new forms of viewing the city – the Panorama (1799) and the Diorama (1822); the former was a circular 360-degree view of a city, or battlefield, etc. painted on the walls of a rotunda; and the latter, adding in lighting and movement, carries the idea of an optical illusion already inherent in the Panorama. Early in the novel (de Balzac 1991: 45), it gives rise to a series of puns and jokes formed by adding rama to various words, it being understood that Paris has these fashions with words which only ever last a month. The city as the place of seeing double associates with the idea of an evanescent modernity in language, Paris as a city of words: the point associates with the ephemera of journalism in the city. (In Paris, people always, semi-deliberately, mispronounce names, or get them wrong, with the same sense of nothing, or nobody, having permanence.)

Père Goriot is often characterized as melodrama, itself a Parisian form, beginning in the 1790s. Vautrin, the night before his arrest, is off to see J.B. Marty (1779–1863) acting in the melodrama Le Mont Sauvage by Guilbert Pixérécourt (1773–1844), the “Corneille of the Boulevards,” based on a novel with a medieval (i.e., Gothic) subject, Le Solitaire by Charles-Victor Prévot (actually first performed in 1823). This would have been at the Gaîté, in the Boulevard de Temple, between the 3rd and 11th arrondissements, and part of the fourteenth-century walls of the city, destroyed by Louis XIV (for “boulevard,” cp. “bulwark”). The melodramatic tendency in the novel is to present everything as at the extreme: the height of society, or its most squalid, as with the pension. When Rastignac says that “a Juvenal could not depict the horrors masked by [Paris’s] gold and glittering jewels” (Balzac 1991: 239), the sense of a critique which reads the city with satire which assumes a confident superiority, as in Juvenal, has been replaced by a sense of the city as double (masked) and so corrupt that it can only be spoken of in wholly material terms which need to heighten the sense of outrage while, as in melodrama, thrilling the audience, or readership. Vautrin gives a more Balzacian sense of Paris when he compares it to a forest in America (100); thinking of Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” novels, where the American Indians have the skill to track wild animals through forests, the image implies that Paris needs detective skills, to follow traces, and he gives an early sense of the “jungle of cities,” an image which Brecht follows.


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© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LondonUK