Honoré de Balzac, Old Goriot
Published by Diogenes, 2007
“Money is life. Money does everything.” These are the desperate words Father Goriot speaks in one of the key moments of the novel with the same title, authored by Honoré de Balzac. The former vermicelli maker just learned that his two daughters are close to bankruptcy. Yet he had married them richly, always prioritizing their well-being over his own. He is given no thanks. Delphine und Anastasie do not visit their father when he lying on his deathbed, sick and impoverished. And so he dies lonely “like a dog”. He, who had previously tried to win their affection “like a dog”.
In ‘Old Goriot’, Honoré de Balzac illustrates the rise and fall of one who has become rich through speculation and yet loses everything. The old man realizes too late that everything and everyone is clinging to money even if the truly important things in life cannot be purchased.
Written in just a few weeks and published in a Parisian journal in 1834/35, the work forms part of the novel sequence ‘The Human Comedy’ (French ‘La Comédie humaine’) with the Scenes from the Private Life section (‘Scènes de la vie privée’). Contrary to Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, Balzac is not concerned with human souls in the hereafter but with human existence in the here and now. The events to which the author refers take place in the aftermath of the French Republic, in the Bourbon Restoration until 1830. The Parisian society is portrayed as rotten through and through, corrupt and greedy.
The place where the archetypical protagonists meet is Madame Vauquer’s somewhat shabby boarding house in 1819 Paris. There is young Rastignac, who wants to be part of high society. Once there, he is repelled by people’s demeanor. Having realized this long ago, the scoundrel Vautrin is just as cold and calculating.
The daughters Delphine and Anastasie strive for a good catch und use their father as a matchmaker. Once married, they look down on him. Father Goriot, on the other hand, got rich through grain speculation. So it is the misery of others that feeds him and his family.
Ultimately, they all succumb to the power of money. Blinded by luxury and riches, they manipulate and gamble – always hoping to be one of the winners in a merciless system.
The author knew what he was writing about. Born in Tours in 1799, Honoré de Balzac tried various formats before writing his main work ‘The Human Comedy’. What he earned as a writer did not sustain him, though. And so Balzac sought the company of well-to-do ladies, who – not unlike Father Goriot – helped him financially. He adhered to this successful strategy even when he became a widely known author from the 1830s onwards. Although industrious Honoré de Balzac received the Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1845, critics faulted his style as too informal.
That does no harm Balzac’s merit, however. Up to the present day, he holds the mirror up to society. His sober description of what power people give to money has rarely been as topical as today.