Money is life; money accomplishes everything.
I recently worked as a slush pile reader for a literary magazine, sorting out the best stories from the flurry of submissions. Many of these were quite expertly written—sharp prose, snappy beginnings, intriguing plots, quirky characters, and all of the other boxes ticked. However, the lion’s share lacked something which I came to call “weight.”
The stories never escaped the sense of airy insubstantiality that besets much fiction, that nagging and persistent sense of emptiness—in short, of being entirely fiction. The characters spoke with the voices of puppets and moved in a daydream world. I could not believe, so I did not care. Balzac presents a striking contrast. From the very start, this novel is heavy-laden with realistic details snatched from history and from daily life. Far from being phantasmagoric, the setting is etched into the memory with acid, becoming more real than the characters themselves.
Doubtless this ability to lend the weight of reality to his stories is what made Balzac the father of realism. But Balzac’s realism is most impressive in his depiction of the Paris of the Bourbon restoration; it does not extend so forcefully to his characters. Even the best characters in this book are rather one-dimensional and static; they achieve force through intensity, not complexity. Balzac endows each of his creations with an overwhelming passion, a monomania. In the case of Goriot it is his daughters; with Rastignac, social clout; and with Vautrin, a general diabolical glee.
But if Balzac does not stop at these monomanias, for he is at pains to show that each of these passions is fundamentally rooted in money. Goriot loses the affection of his daughters by giving away his last bit of money; Rastignac realizes that money is the key to social success; and Vautrin wishes to buy a plantation in the American south. For a nineteenth-century novel, this is refreshing. Balzac eschews the usual plot mechanics of romance and marriage in favor of the far more contemporary problem of making one’s way in a morally treacherous world. He is a genius at revealing how mercenary motives worm their way into even the most intimate of relationships.
Given Balzac’s reputation for realism, I was surprised by the amount of melodramatic passion on display in this novel. Often this was a weakness, loading the book down with declamations and hysterics. But, at times, it allowed Balzac to reach a level of emotional intensity that was almost operatic. This was particularly true in the final scene, where the combination of grinding poverty, total desperation, and feverish despair reached Dostoyevskian proportions. Indeed, Pere Goriot was a major influence on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, as is clear from the many parallels between the two books.
The final result is a book which, if aesthetically rough and conceptually limited, is both an incisive look at the hypocrisies of society and a gripping work of art.
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