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The Boardinghouse as a House of Mirrors in Balzac’s Le Père Goriot
Realism is the “art of representing actuality” (Preston Dargan 72), which Honoré de Balzac successfully exploits in his novel Le Père Goriot. A keen observer of the “language, errors, opinions of the Parisian bourgeois” (Mortimer 84), Balzac creates a narrative that owes its verisimilitude to minute and vivid descriptions of the human experience. Moreover, he builds a peculiar kind of realism in which the architecture is imbued with human character. A small-scale model of Paris, the boardinghouse emulates a house of mirrors, symbolizing not only entrapment (Tadié 35) and corruption, but also the ability to shift between multifarious traits and identities which ultimately lead to the degradation of the human condition.
Firstly, Mme Vauquer’s pension bourgeoise represents a metropolis in miniature (Tadié 31), where the unseen forces of greed, lust, and confusion work to the detriment of the characters. The boardinghouse foreshadows destruction: “it has a stuffy, musty, and rancid quality” (Balzac 5). It is a mixture of old but likable: “floor is sufficiently uneven,” (6) “this apartment is in all its glory at seven o’clock in the morning,” (7) it is decrepit yet charming: “nothing can be more depressing than the sight of that sitting-room […] yet, [it] is as charming and as delicately perfumed as a boudoir” (7). The boardinghouse entraps its inhabitants after they have been rejected by society (Tadié 36). Such is the case of Father Goriot, who has been left to wither away after investing his entire fortune in his daughters’ matrimonial affairs.
Secondly, Balzac uses the mirroring effect of the boarding house to create a myriad of unusual and confusing reflections. The characters project themselves upon the house: Mme Vauquer is “the embodiment and interpretation of her lodging-house” (Balzac 7), Rastignac undergoes great character development, exhibiting everything from childish naïveté and devotion to violence, compromise, and deception, while the arch-criminal and insouciant Vautrin is “the Mephistopheles to Rastignac’s Faust” (Tadié 35). Vautrin is an elaborate phony with multiple identities, while Poiret and Michonneau turn out to be informers for the police. Goriot’s title, père, could mean both “old” and “father,” pointing to his physical and moral downfall in contrast to his paternal love and sacrifice for his daughters.
In conclusion, the boardinghouse in Balzac’s Le Père Goriot typifies a “strikingly organized metaphorical description” of a heightened reality (Farrant 123), a house of mirrors where characters are faced with what they are, what they ought to be, and what they unfortunately become.
Balzac, Honoré de. “Father Goriot”. Translated by Ellen Marriage. Anconna Media, 2014.
Farrant, Tim. “An Introduction to Nineteenth-century French Literature”. London, 2007.
Mortimer, Armine Kotin. “For Love or for Money: Balzac’s Rhetorical Realism”. Columbus Ohio State University Press, 2011.
Preston Dargan, Edwin. “Studies in Balzac II. Critical Analysis of Realism”. Modern Philology, Vol. 16, No. 7. The University of Chicago Press, 1918, pp. 351-370.
Tadié, Benoit. “Balzacian Ghosts in ‘The Boarding House’. European Joyce Studies (19). 2011, pp. 31-41.
This is described as a "Realist" novel in which the author strives to describe people and events as they truly are. What literary techniques does the author use to accomplish this goal? Provide examples.
Balzac uses long descriptive passages upon introducing the primary setting, which is the Vauquer house, and its various residents. He emphasizes negative physical traits such as Poiret's thin legs and the landlady's girth. He also allows the characters to display petty cruelty, such as when Bianchon uses a simile to compare the elderly Miss Michonneau to a worm. Such scenes do not meaningfully advance the plot, but they paint a very vivid image of the setting and its characters.
One of Vautrin's most cherished beliefs is that, behind every great fortune, there must have been a crime of some sort, but perfectly concealed. Which plot events support Vautrin's view of the world?
Victorine inherits a fortune because Vautrin arranges to have her brother killed. Delphine's wealthy husband embezzles (or pretends to have embezzled) her sizable dowry. Goriot himself became wealthy immediately before and during the French Revolution, by dealing in a product related to wheat flour. This was at a time when wheat and bread prices were at an all-time high, and people could make a fortune by hoarding flour at a time of famine when people were literally starving to death. The author does not say outright that Goriot did so, but it is implied.
Why are Goriot's daughters in conflict with one another?
Delphine and Anastasie were rivals even as children. When they married, their father divided his estate in half, leaving himself only a modest income and standard of living, in order to provide both young women with a substantial dowry. This, he believed, would allow them to attract husbands who could make them happy.
Anastasie is married to a Count de Restaud. Delphine is married to a banker, baron de Nucingen. But Delphine, because she married money instead of social status, is not welcome in Anastasie's more elevated social circles. This state of affairs irritates Delphine. Both daughters also have financial trouble, and compete over their father's scarce remaining resources.