I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list, and my latest review is about Old Man Goriot. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels. This review will contain spoilers.
Old Man Goriot
Old Man Goriot focuses heavily on three characters: Rastignac, a young student determined to break into Paris high society; Vautrin, a jovial criminal who takes Rastignac under his wing; and the titular Goriot himself. Despite being the title character, we get very little from Goriot and see his tragedy play out mainly through the eyes of Rastignac.
The novel is one of those rich, meandering tapestries full of mesmerising detail. Indeed, Balzac is generally credited with founding realism in European literature. The book is not stylised or romanticised in any way, but rather depicts the thoughts and actions of people who may as well be real.
As such, it makes for a depressing read. Goriot’s story is not a happy one. A hardworking small businessman, he makes enough money to ensure his daughters are ‘well married’ and they enter a higher social strata. They quickly snub their father, except when they need more money. Goriot sacrifices more and more of his own well-being to try and help his daughters with little reward. Eventually, penniless, he suffers a stroke and dies slowly – but his daughters are too busy attending an important high society ball and do not visit him before he finally dies. They also do not attend his funeral, choosing instead to let a medical student and Rastignac (his fellow boarder) organise a paupers grave.
The way this desire to ‘go up in the world’ and achieve greater wealth and fame corrupts people is played out again in the character of Rastignac. From a poor rural area of France, he has high ambitions but quickly realises you need wealth and connections to even be noticed. He takes money from his family, that they can ill afford, and even contemplates becoming an accessory to murder.
Despite the fairly horrible actions of the characters, they are well-fleshed out and surprisingly sympathetic. Poverty is shown to be a grim and horrible thing, and it is no surprise that people are desperate to escape to the glittering world of wealth and good fortune.
Indeed, with our own inequality of wealth rising, this book has some surprisingly poignant moments. The poverty of the boarding house, the desperation of most of the characters to escape, and the prejudice the wealthier class has against the poorer ones – even to the extent of daughters turning against their father – all feels sadly modern.