Pere Goriot and Vautrin: Character Analysis of the Interplay Between Immorality and Success
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.