Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Old Goriot - what genuine feelings survive when everything's a transaction?

Honoré de Balzac sets much of his novel, Old Goriot, in a dingy Parisian boardinghouse during the period of the Bourbon Restoration. Madame Vauquer runs the place and might call herself the "mother" of all the tenants - mostly young people who are struggling to make their way in the world (like the law student, Eugène de Rastignac), old people who are probably stuck there for good (like the titular character, Goriot), and maybe one or two others whose finances are a mystery.

The boardinghouse occupants, if one squints, could be seen as a kind of family, dining together and getting in each other's business, but Madame Vauquer isn't a real mother. Her relationship with the boarders is transactional, and the ones who can't afford to pay her much get the worse rooms. It's business.

That said, the actual familial relationships in the book often come to resemble the transactional boardinghouse family - with poorer or more "useless" members shunted away. Old Goriot (and in French, the book is called "Père Goriot") acts on his fatherly love by draining himself of all his savings and possessions to give his daughters every material object they want. Once he slips into poverty, he sees less of them (they sometimes permit him to visit them surreptitiously, so that no one in fashionable society will witness it), but he still wrings every last bit of money out of himself when they enter into financial conflicts with their husbands.

Eugène comes from a poor branch of a noble family and soon abandons his law studies to focus on social climbing. He uses his connections to wealthier parts of his family to gain a foothold among the upper classes, and he starts an affair with one of Goriot's married daughters, Delphine de Nucingen, with his eye toward the same end. He begins to treat Goriot in a friendly way only after discovering the identities of his daughters. Eugène's family out in the country seem a loving bunch and have placed their hopes on his success at law, but the one time we see the contents of his letters to them it's when he requests money.

As he mixes with more of Parisian high society, will Eugène come across genuine emotion that's free from the influence of transactions?

Eugène doesn't want to be cynical. For instance, he initially has some hopes that Delphine is nobler than her sister, and that the love they share may rise above the money and social position they both crave.

At the end of the book, he renders Goriot a service that comes with no expectation of repayment. In this final service, Eugène receives assistance from his friend, Bianchon, a medical student. This is significant, as Bianchon is someone who is comfortable in his own skin and quite open about who he is; he knows that once his studies are over, he'll practice medicine in the country without much of a salary, but he's content with his life and his prospects, unlike Eugène. He represents who Eugène might have been.

(Eugène realizes that instead he could become like his shadowy fellow lodger, Vautrin, whose few genuine feelings are twisted up in criminality and brutal views of the world - "You must either cut your way through these masses of men like a cannon-ball, or slink through like a plague." Or Eugène may end up like his wealthy relation, Madame de Beauséant, who has become knowledgeable and bitter about all the corruption about her, and ultimately retreats from society.)

Even as Eugène renders Goriot that final service at the end of the novel, one that's based on generosity of spirit rather than expectation of reward, he faces further disillusionment about finding anything or anyone genuine in Parisian society. But will that stop him from pursuing his ambitions? Eugène began the novel with some innocence. By the end, he has already headed down a road that may lead to wealth and social desirability, but also corrupts. At least he understands what he's dealing with better, by the end.

I read the Dover Thrift edition of this book, with the translation by Ellen Marriage. It was on my list for the Classics Club Challenge.