In her towering box at the fashionable opera house, Mme de Beausant “was scanning the theatre with her opera-glasses, and though apparently taking no notice of Madame de Nucingen, did not miss her slightest move” (112). The vicomtesse, as though an all-knowing omnipresent figure in this scene, is thus the most suitable mentor for Rastignac, the penniless student. Her role in the novel points out not only the necessity for the female mentor in Balzac’s bildungsroman plot, but also demonstrates the power of women in Parisian society and how it is problematic.When Anastasie reveals her social skills by downplaying Eugne’s blunder of mentioning Pere Goriot, she justifies the narrator’s comment praising her for possessing “that remarkable ability which women are endowed” (54). This is not the only instance in the novel in which the female sex is admired. For example, even at the end of their affair, the vicomtesse’s command over the Marquis d’Ajuda forces him to fearfully conceal his engagement to Mademoiselle de Rochefide. Earlier on, in the scene where Eugene first visits Anastasie, he sees her in a cashmere negligee, and the narrator describes his reaction by stating, “young men’s eyes take everything in; their spirits react to the radiation given off by a woman as a plant breathes in from the air the substances it needs” (51). The word needs here, clearly emphasizes great power.In Pere Goriot, the power of female agency is not, however, always a mystical and abstract power displayed by the above incident, but rather, most of the time, female characters demonstrate social power. In the novel, men duel with actual swords while women use words and gestures as “daggers”. This is apparent in a scene in which the duchesse de Langeais pays the vicomtesse a visit in order to inform her friend that the marquis is to dine at the Rochefide’s. The injured vicomtesse retaliates and as the two friends engage in a verbal battle the narrator uses phrases such as “felt the question like a stab in the heart,” “looking daggers,” and “the blow was too violent” (65-66). Furthermore, it is also probably not a coincidence that the person who annihilates Eugene with a mere look is a woman: “the duchesse treated Eugene to one of those arrogant looks which scan a man from top to toe and leave him feeling squashed and worthless” (66).For these reasons, it makes absolute sense that Eugene, entering a social battle, would seek a powerful woman to be his mentor. On the surface it seems as though Eugene approached Mme de Beausant merely because they are related. When he pleads for her help he states, “I need one to teach me what you women explain so well: life” (64). The fact that she is part of the “you women” makes her the appropriate mentor, and even Mme de Beausant agrees that a woman is necessary for the job when she explains to the duchesse that Eugene “is looking for a woman to teach him good taste.” When the vicomtesse is put up to the task of finding a woman for Eugene, Monsieur d’Ajuda confirms, “no one but you could have picked out a woman for him at the very moment when she [Delphine] needs comforting.”From another standpoint, Eugene has been offered mentorship from one other character, Vautrin, who bears many similar qualities with the vicomtesse. Like Mme de Beausant, who stands at the top of Faubourg Saint Germain possessing a sort of all-knowing awareness, Vautrin, the treasurer of an underground criminal society, seems to know everything as well. As the vicomtesse is aware of Delphine’s innermost thoughts that “she [Delphine] is devoured by jealousy” of Anastasie, her older sister (72), Vautrin knows Eugene has stolen his sisters’ money (96) and that while Anastasie was “laughing, dancing, larking about, with her peach-blossom waving and her dress gathered up, she was like a cat on hot bricks…at the thought that her bills of exchange, or her lover’s, might not be honoured”(43). Not only do both potential mentors have access to important information, but both come up with plans that would bestow Eugene with a young, beautiful woman and wealth. Vautrin advises Eugene to marry Victorine, who will inherit her father’s fortune once her brother is killed, and the vicomtesse tells Eugene to win over Delphine de Nucingen. Both Mme de Beausant and Vautrin’s plans for Eugene’s success are wickedly rooted on the exploitation of others, and although the vicomtesse’s plan does not involve murder, her suggestion to take advantage of sisterly rivalry is immoral. As each urges Eugene to combat the corrupt world, they sound almost identical. Success is vital, for Mme de Beausant tells Eugene that “in Paris success is everything, it is the key to power” (73), and the master criminal encourages the student to “succeed! succeed at any price” (96). Vautrin suggests that “it’s no good being honest” (97), mirroring the vicomtesse’s opinion that “the more coldly calculating you are, the further you will go” (72).Despite the similarities between the lessons Mme de Beausant and Vautrin offer, Eugene is disturbed by what Vautrin has to say. He believes that Vautrin’s advice is “bluntly what Madame de Beausant put more delicately” (104), but even more importantly that Vautrin’s words “ripped” his heart “with claws of steel”(104). Mme de Beausant’s advice, on the other hand, does not upset him. Eugene admires her for her nobility. “He has always found the vicomtesse courteously affable, full of that easy grace conferred by an aristocratic upbringing” (108). There are times when Eugene feels differently about the vicomtesse, however, but soon after each time he feels snubbed by her, “his bitter thoughts were soon dispelled” (109).Mme de Beausant is the best possible mentor in the novel in many other ways. The vicomtesse is part of the aristocratic world and her name magically opens all doors. Under the novel’s bildungsroman structure, a male mentor represents the father who is to be rid of or forgotten, thus confirming that the most suitable mentor is a woman. In a more practical point of view, in Pere Goriot a person of the same sex is almost always competition. There is rivalry between Mme de Beausant and Mme de Rochefide, Mme de Beausant and the duchesse de Langeais, Delphine and Anastasie, and when Eugene first sees Maxime at the Maison de Restaud, he mentally declares war on Anastasie’s lover. Lastly, if hypocrisy is the key to succeeding, then the vicomtesse is the best mentor of all. On the very night of her Ball, the night her love affair comes to an end, the night she plans to leave Paris for a convent in Normandy, “she appeared to everyone like her usual self, and looked so exactly as she had looked when happiness filled her with radiance, that even the least sensitive admired her, just as young Roman women applauded the gladiator who managed to die smiling” (234).Although her mentorship proves to be necessary for Eugene’s rise up the social latter, Mme de Beausant’s role as mentor is problematic is many ways. Eugene too often feels belittled by her and must “grovel, put up with anything” because “in a matter of moments the best of women can withdraw her promised friendship and cast you off like an old shoe” (109). Eugene is sensitive of her treatment towards him and on one occasion of her snubbing him, “the most trivial events of his life conspired to drive him into a course of action in which…he must, as on the battlefield, kill or be killed, deceive or be deceived” (109). While the vicomtesse’s condescension and the luxuries that she represents both pushes and entices him to choose the immoral path, his rejection of Vautrin’s counsel forces him to question himself. After Vautrin’s confrontation in the second chapter of the novel, Eugene rejects the cynical world offered him and exclaims “I want to work with honour, with integrity! …Success will come very slowly that way, but everyday I will be able to lay my head on my pillow with a clear conscience” (104). The very next day, he is visited by the tailor and once “seeing himself well dressed, with smart gloves, smart boots, Rastignac forgot his virtuous resolution” (105).The elegance of his new clothing is just as attractive as Mme de Beausant and the lavish world of Faubourg Saint Germain. This is the prime dilemma of Mme de Beausant’s mentorship; she is responsible for sparking Eugene’s desire to rise up the ladder for it was her invitation, in the earlier part of the novel, which opened the doors of high society to her cousin. When Mme de Beausant tells Eugene what he must do, he does not question the morality of her suggestions as he does with Vautrin’s lectures. She is the mentor who teaches the same corruption as Vautrin, but masks its ugliness just as women mask their true appearance with make-up.Works CitedBalzac, Honor. Pre Goriot. Trans. A. J. Krailsheimer. New York: Oxford UP 1999.
In the first paragraph of his novel Pere Goriot, Balzac describes his primary setting, the Maison Vauquer, as a “respectable establishment” that has never been sullied by any “breath of scandal” (1). This statement significantly defines the house in terms of scandal, the author choosing to reference its purity only through exclusionary description — there is no direct mention of morality, rather Balzac chooses to frame the Maison Vauquer within a construction of secrecy and conspiracy. This authorial choice establishes the focus of the novel on the world of conspiratorial plots right from the beginning, because it centers the reader not on what is right within this Parisian world, but what is wrong — purity is the exception, as we come to see, in this small microcosm of the Parisian landscape. The whole of Pere Goriot exists within and between these different plots, creating a type of suspended system in which all characters are related, and our protagonist Eugene serves as tour guide through the intricate weavings of this treacherous world.Once introduced to this house of awaited-scandal, we meet its characters, a sort of microcosmic social physiology of 19th century Paris. This tendency toward social categorization is pervasive throughout the novel, which helps underscore the conspiratorial network of plots woven within; as each person typifies a certain social type or function, they thusly serve to illuminate a particular plotline that is specified to their personal situation. The boarders “all viewed each other with a mixture of mutual indifference and distrust deriving from their respective situations” (14). Most significantly, Pere Goriot has no major plot, meaning there is no specific goal or conflict set up in the beginning for the reader. Rather, numerous smaller plotlines gradually build up until together they construct the large facade of one major story line; yet when this facade is examined, one begins to see that in fact both at the beginning and at the end we have but fractured stories that all happen within one small geographic and societal area. This idea of containment cannot be emphasized enough—at the boarding house Madame Vauquer provided “cells [that] belonged to her. She fed these convicts serving a life sentence and wielded over them an authority they respected,” (14) and the quartier in general felt “like a prison” (2). Balzac calls attention again and again to the enclosed feeling of the novel’s space, thus creating in the reader a habitual association of imprisonment with the boarding house and all related to it. This trend wraps another layer of secrecy around the novel, so when Balzac finally reveals the protagonist Eugene, the introduction seems fitting for this secretly plotting world:”Without his observant curiosity and the skill with which he contrived to enter the Parisian social scene, this narrative would have lacked the stamp of authenticity which it surely owes to his shrewdness and his desire to probe the mysteries of a dreadful situation that was carefully concealed both by those who had created it and by the victim of it” (8).Balzac, we see, has consciously made the choice to foreshadow the rest of the work in this one short introduction, creating a narrative of the parvenu based in and built around melodramatic intricacies of Parisian society.We see these complexities most strikingly in the relationships Eugene builds with the various other characters of the novels. Interestingly, every single one of the relationships connects with others in the novel except for Eugene’s relationship with Bianchon, who is also his only friend from a plotless world, the world of academia. Bianchon, however, does get exposed to the conspiracies at the end of the novel, but he only comes in and leaves again, never getting caught in the web of relations that ultimately terrorizes both the Maison Vauquer and the upper class of the Faubourg St. Germain. We can find the best examples of this world of plots in its characters: Pere Goriot serves as the incarnate of the secrecy and paranoia that characterize this world, while Vautrin symbolizes the crime, hiding, and treachery. These two characters are often found juxtaposed within Eugene’s consciousness, creating a dialogue between evil and good that caters to the topos of duality found throughout the novel: Vautrin is both an asset and a detriment to the boarding house, Pere Goriot is both in control and in utter servitude, Mlle. Victorine is both a pauper and a member of the noblesse. Goodness and evil are found in everyone, and thus everyone has to hide one or both of them. Eugene serves as the tableau against which all these conflicting emotions and plotlines are played out while he strives to make his way in society. Even Vautrin has merit; “In a word, that villain has told [Eugene] more about virtue than [he had] ever got from men or books” (104). The complication becomes even deeper when Eugene begins to unravel what is going on late at night at the boarding house.”He was about to return to his room when he suddenly heard a sound hard to describe…he suddenly saw a dim glow on the second floor, coming from Monsieur Vautrin’s room.’What a lot of mysterious goings-on for a family boarding house!’ he said to himself. He went down a few steps, began to listen and caught the sound of gold chinking…’You need to stay up all night if you want to know what is going on around you in Paris!'” (33)This passage is the first moment when Eugene becomes aware of the conspiracies that will eventually enfold him. Though he does not know why exactly, he is “distracted by suspicions” (33). The novel is constructed in a very precise manner—the chapter titles segment the work into specifically-themed scenes, and the scenes all come artfully together at the end, when a tragic death conveniently brings everyone both physically and thematically together. Yet beneath this construction there is a world of small and significant bonds—Pere Goriot to his two daughters, the daughters to each other, Eugene to his aunt, his aunt to the upper crust of society, and that society to the Maison Vauquer, through the connection of Pere Goriot and Eugene. Also significant are the connections within the boarding house itself, because it figures in as the juxtapositional setting to the salons of the upper society. It is between these two worlds that Eugene navigates.Money is also a huge factor in the binding of conspiracy to the novelistic plot. Everyone in the book either has tons of it or none of it—significantly, there is no middle ground, creating both a metaphorical and physical no man’s land that Eugene passes through, and never notices, on his way between these two poles. There is never any physical description of his voyage, as if there was nothing at all to see, as if he went through a world that doesn’t exist. And any type of legitimate job does not make accumulation of wealth possible, as Vautrin cunningly points out to Eugene:”‘You have ten years of hardship, you need to spend a thousand a month, have a library, chambers, lead a social life, kiss the hem of some solicitor’s gown to get briefs, lick up the dust of a law court with your tongue. If such a career led to anything worthwhile I wouldn’t say no, but try to find five advocates in Paris earning more than fifty thousand a year at fifty! Bah! I’d rather take to piracy than be reduced to that…Do you know the way to get on here? Through brilliant intelligence or skillful corruption. It’s no good being honest'” (96-7).This statement is the most overt recognition of the novelistic plot in the work—it is almost metaliterary in its self-awareness. Vautrin is both the master conspirator of the Comdie Humaine and the spatial narrator of the work—he is the one that lays out for the reader the moral probematik of the work, as well as the blunt truth of it, all mixed in with conspiracy. Perhaps this is the fundamental strength behind the binding of such plots with the novelistic plot—in essence, the conspiracies are where the truth hides in 19th century society, while the lies reside in the overt quotidian world.
Through ‘Le Père Goriot’ Honoré de Balzac explores the antithetical nature of several ideals: love and wealth, social status and happiness, rebellion and obedience, and – what a reader may find to be the most intriguing – morality and success. Balzac seems to have conflicting thoughts about the idea of being morally corrupt in order to achieve great success, and this kind of inner conflict has been manifested in his creation of two opposing characters: Goriot and Vautrin.
Vautrin, who we later find out is actually the escaped prisoner Jacques Collin, lives in Madame Vauquer’s boarding house along with Goriot, Eugene Rastignac, Victorine, and several others. He is a rather obscure character, but it is quite apparent to the other residents that his past is riddled with some kind of darkness which he tries to conceal: “He set up his good humor, his obligingness, and his unfailing gayety as a barrier between himself and others; but through it gleamed from time to time alarming flashes of his hidden nature” (19). He is seen as a manipulative, greedy and morally corrupt man who will go to any great lengths to achieve great success.On their own, Vautrin’s defining qualities may often lead to the assumption that he is a definite antihero, but I consider Balzac’s portrayal of him to be much more complex than that – which actually adds to the realism of the novel. He does not allow for any of the characters to appear one dimensional and allows his own conflicting thoughts to bleed through each of the characters’ polarizing qualities – most noticeably, in my opinion, through Vautrin. He is portrayed rather ambivalently; he is kind yet ruthless, immoral yet loyal, cheery yet fearful. Balzac paints him as a radical: “…as it gave him pleasure to scout at law, to lash society, or drag to light its inconsistencies; as if he cherished some grudge against the cause of order or hid some mystery in the dark recesses of his life” (19) and portrays him to be a strong intellect. This shows how Balzac believes, despite his immoral nature, that Vautrin is a strong and respectable character. In fact, his dark past seems to strengthen his character even further.
The only way to achieve great success, as Vautrin believes, is through unethical – or criminal – means, and there are several instances that support this line of thinking. For instance, Victorine only inherits a large fortune because Vautrin has her brother assassinated. Even Goriot, a man portrayed to be of an extremely high standard of morality, earned his wealth through rather unethical means: He profited from the selling of vermicelli during the French revolution, making him a kind of war profiteer. This immoral act is not explicitly outlined in the novel, as it is rather inconsistent with Goriot’s character. This kind of contrasting quality is also present within Vautrin: he is seen to be a kind of paternal figure for Eugene Rastignac and even refers to himself as ‘Papa Vautrin’. While speaking with Rastignac, he even says “…and I’ll tell you why I like you. In the first place, I know you inside and out, just as well as if I had made you” (127). While Goriot is shown to be a paternal figure throughout the novel, his criminal nature is only implied. On the other hand, Vautrin’s criminal nature is emphasized yet he is a kind of covert paternal figure. These kind of conflicting representations of Vautrin’s character shows Balzac’s relationship with the idea of juxtaposing success with moral conduct. We can observe that the more morally responsible person a character is shown to be, the more his fortune is depleted. This is shown through Goriot’s desire to help out his daughters who have put themselves into poor situations, which ends up financially exhausting him – he is left with nearly nothing, and with no one.
However, when Vautrin is on the brim of earning a small fortune from the murder that he arranged but does not get to enjoy the fruits of his labor since he ends up in prison for another crime he has committed. The irony within this lies in the fact that while he views committing a crime to be necessary in order to achieve success, it is a crime that he has committed that prevents him from earning the fortunes he worked for. This, once again, leaves us rather confused as to what Balzac truly feels about the whole idea that one must be unethical to be successful. He also explores the similarities between the two characters; Goriot was always quick to help his daughters in times of need and Vautrin would lend money to all those that were in need but “…these creditors would have died sooner than not repay him, for in spite of his apparent good temper there was a keen and resolute expression in his eye which inspired them with fear” (18). This portrays Vautrin to be a stronger and more willful character, once again showing Balzac’s respect for him. Later in the novel, Goriot explicitly identifies himself with Vautrin when he says that he is willing to murder for his daughter and to be imprisoned – like Vautrin. They both also used women as a means for Rastignac’s success – Goriot through Delphine and the apartment he provides for the two of them to live in, and Vautrin by having Victorine’s brother assassinated so that Rastignac can marry a rich heiress. This shows the immoral side of Goriot and goes to show that Vautrin serves as a kind of amplified version of what Balzac feels to be true human nature. The links between each of the contrasting themes are explored through the characters in the novel; Goriot represents a kind of docility while Vautrin represents defiance. Corruption cannot be associated with Goriot because of his obedience, but also because it leads to success and power – neither of which Goriot possesses.
Balzac portrays society and success in the Parisian community as realistically as possible and gives readers a better sense of the corruption that materialism often incites – and the burden of portraying this seems to fall primarily on Vautrin. His sense of materialism is seen through different instances in the book including when he talks about Parisian women:“if their husbands cannot pay for their unbridled extravagance, they will get the money in other ways. They would rip open their mother’s breasts to get the means of outshining their rivals at a ball.” (57). While the idea that one being morally responsible and being wealthy are inversely related may seem unjust, Balzac’s emphasis on this – through his creation of the character Vautrin – shows how much of a realist he is.