Père Goriot

by

Honoré de Balzac

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Père Goriot Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Honoré de Balzac's Père Goriot. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Honoré de Balzac

Honoré Balzac was the second of five children born into a socially ascendant French family. As a child, Balzac spent most of his time being cared for by a nurse or attending boarding school; his parents showed little warmth toward him or his siblings. As a teenager, he continued his education in Paris, studying law at the Sorbonne. In fact, in 1819 (when Père Goriot is set), Balzac was a poor law student in his early twenties, just like his eventual character Eugène de Rastignac. By the time Balzac completed his legal training, he decided to become a writer instead. However, it wasn’t until 1829 that he published his first novel, Le Dernier Chouan. After the publication of a short story collection in 1830, his popularity in Paris’s literary circles began to grow. Balzac was known for his remarkable work ethic, often staying up all night engaging in coffee-fueled writing sessions. Many of his novels and stories were collected in the 17 volumes known as La Comédie humaine, intended to offer a panoramic view of French society. Because of his attention to detail and his well-rounded characters, Balzac is regarded as a founding figure in literary realism. In 1850, Balzac married a Polish countess named Madame Eveline Hanska, with whom he had corresponded for almost 20 years. Months later, he died in Paris.
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Historical Context of Père Goriot

Père Goriot is set during the Bourbon Restoration, which is dated between the fall of Napoleon in 1814 and the popular uprisings of the July Revolution in 1830. During this period reigned Louis XVIII and Charles X, both brothers of Louis XVI (whod been executed during the French Revolution in 1793). These kings instituted a constitutional monarchy which, unlike its absolutist pre-Revolutionary counterpart, incorporated some checks on the monarchs power. Otherwise, the monarchy retained some of the Revolution’s changes, such as the central role of Paris in French governance and culture, which is reflected in the novel. Another aspect of the Bourbon Restoration which the novel reflects is the prominence of a new aristocracy which arose after the Revolution. Tensions grew between the new aristocracy and the emerging middle class. While many Parisians remained entrenched in poverty, some from the middle classes—like the character of Rastignac in Père Goriot—could attempt to adapt to aristocratic norms  and climb to a higher social standing. Père Goriot is considered to be Balzac’s most important novel, and it falls within the Scènes de la vie privée section of his multi-volume La Comédie humaine, which consists of 91 short stories, novels, and essays, all organized into different aspects of French life in the early 19th century.

Other Books Related to Père Goriot

Balzac was influenced by Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott, author of such works as Ivanhoe, to incorporate realistic historical details into his fiction. The father-daughter strife of Père Goriot has also been likened to the plot of Shakespeares King Lear, and the story of Vautrins temptation of Rastignac invites comparison to Goethes Faust. Of the many novels that make up Balzacs La Comédie humaine, one of the most critically acclaimed is Eugénie Grandet, which in turn influenced Washington Square by Balzacs protégé, Henry James.
Key Facts about Père Goriot
  • Full Title: Père Goriot
  • When Written: 1834
  • Where Written: France
  • When Published: Serialized in Revue de Paris in 1834; published as a book in 1835
  • Literary Period: Realism
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: Paris, France; November 1819–February 1820
  • Climax: Goriot’s death
  • Antagonist: Vautrin
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for Père Goriot

Rastignac Recurs. Recurring characters are a notable feature of Balzac’s fiction. Many characters in Père Goriot appear in other Balzac novels, especially Rastignac, whose social climbing is traced in other works in La Comédie humaine, such as La Maison Nucingen.

Criminal Minds. The famous criminal Eugène-François Vidocq (whose background was mostly in petty theft; he later reformed and became a detective) inspired Balzac to create the character of Vautrin. Balzac was interested in people who led lives of crime, and in 1834, the same year he wrote Père Goriot, he met Vidocq personally.