Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

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I believe it is possible to be very glad I read a book and yet still not really like it. I read not just for entertainment but for broader perspective.

Reading Balzac certainly gave me a different perspective. In a sense, it’s kind of a mix between Dumas (humorous exaggeration) and Zola (heart-breaking realism). Honoré de Balzac, who wrote Père Goriot in the 1830s, is named the “father of realism” and this book seems an apt precursor to Zola’s sagas (one of which I read earlier this year).

Père Goriot is not a book I’ll label as a favorite. It was overly dramatic and yet full of humor that I didn’t find funny. But beyond the writing, I simply didn’t like the story and failed to seriously care about any of the characters. I wanted to care. I wanted to overly moved as Balzac  warned in the beginning that I would be:

you who sink down in your soft easy chair, saying to yourself: Maybe this book is going to be fun. And then, after you’ve read all about Père Goriot’s miserable secrets, you’ll have yourself a good dinner and blame your indifference on the author, scolding him for exaggeration, accusing him of having waxed poetic. Ah, but let me tell you: this drama is not fictional, it’s not a novel. All is true – so true you’ll be able to recognize everything that goes into it in your own life, perhaps even in your own heart. (page 6)

Balzac succeeded in writing of universal things, but as we discussed in our book group, it’s a somewhat negative portrayal of human nature. In Père Goriot, Balac depicts a young man (Eugéne de Rastignac) who will do anything to get to the top of society. At times, he seems to struggle to balance his upbringing with the questionable activities he seeks after. Yet, for the most part, it seemed to me that Eugéne was abandoning and using his mother, even as he was upset with Goriot’s daughters for abandoning and using their father. What a negative view of humanity to equate Eugéne’s desire for power to the politicians and business people today who likewise abandon family for positions of prestige! Yet, such is Balzac’s point.

Not all humanity is power-grubbing and selfish. The sweet scenes between Eugéne and the old man are precious, and I did get rather chocked up towards the end. But even Goriot was a man who had cheated his fellows during the years of the Revolution, spoiled his daughters, and lived for a powerful life (not that he succeeded). In some respects, his miserable end seemed to me what he deserved. But that makes me sound rather heartless.

I read this for my classics book club, and we had a great discussion Wednesday night. Will I be reading more Balzac? Probably not. But I’m glad I read this and could discuss it with a book club.

I read the Norton Critical Edition, translated by Burton Raffel. I loved the translation: it was easy to read and yet had a depth of writing that the other I tried (Henry Reed) didn’t have.  While I didn’t read much of the end matter, that which I did read was very interesting.

Have you read Balzac? Do you like his “realistic” portrayal of society?

Reviewed on June 18, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

    • Jenny, I don’t know tons about Balzac but um, yeah, I think he was writing from experience. I think he was a big part of “society life”, living off gambling proceedings, having affairs with rich women, etc…

    • Bibliolatrist, I think our book group mostly liked it. I found it depressing, because even the person we’re supposed to pity (Goriot) was to blame for his misery!!

    • Karen, you have to keep in mind that I did NOT like Zola really at all. (I read The Masterpiece.) So “as good as Zola” is a sentence that makes no sense to me lol. To me, this was not quite as BAD as Zola was.

      To me, this Balzac was better reading than the Zola because there was a little attempt at humor and exaggeration. Zola was just plain depressing to me. I’d say Zola fans would probably like this a lot more than I did!

  • I have to admit I’ve never read Balzac and I’m a little intimidated by him.
    .-= Amanda´s last post on blog ..Carnet de Voyage, by Craig Thompson =-.

    • Amanda, intimidated? Really? I found this much more accessible than Zola. Maybe because it did have some humor. And it was MUCH shorter than the Zola’s I’ve seen (my copy was 215 pages). I think there is a chance you’d like it. But I say that simply because I know you love Zola. This is a bit more ….. cynical of society. I’m not sure if you’d like it or not.

      I saw by your Nana post that you dislike rich people stories. This is kind of about poor people aspiring to be rich people. Apparently, some other Balzac stories are more just about the already rich people.

      Anyway, I’d say you shouldn’t be intimidated by this Balzac. This one at least is pretty accessible.

      • It’s not that I dislike rich people stories, just that I get tired of them after awhile and I was disappointed Nana was another of those rather than about poor people like Germinal was.

        But yes, there are many, many authors that intimidate me like crazy!

        • Amanda, well, I’d say since you like Zola, you shouldn’t be intimidated by Balzac, at least this one — not that you’ll love it (I have no idea) but because it’s quite accessible and has some humor too!

  • I haven’t read any de Balzac, though we do have one of his books in our towering TBR pile. But I do completely understand your feelings of appreciating a book but not really enjoying it. That pretty much sums up my experience with both Lolita and The Master & Margarita. Maybe I just don’t connect with Russian lit as well as I thought I did?
    .-= Steph´s last post on blog ..“The Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe =-.

    • Steph, I’m glad I’m not the only one who can read a book and appreciate it and yet not like it… I hope you can find some Russian Lit you like. I really loved Crime and Punishment, for example.

  • I believe it is possible to be very glad I read a book and yet still not really like it. I read not just for entertainment but for broader perspective.

    I totally agree. I feel that way about several books, like Wuthering Heights. Also, I’ve been meaning to read some Balzac. Thanks for the review!
    .-= Jessica´s last post on blog ..When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead =-.

    • Amateur Reader, I saw on your site that you’d read a LOT of Balzac. I actually did browse through some of your old posts last week when I finished the book.

      I’m not sure I’m going to like any of it — but I’ll have to give Balzac another chance some time!

  • I am very bummed that I missed the discussion.

    I like your point about how Eugene is treating his mother similar to the way Goriot’s daughters treat him. I never thought about that. It seemed to me, though, that Eugene had much more genuine affection for Goriot than his daughters.

    I felt that the ending left a wide-opening for a follow-up novel, so I’d like to read that; I have to see if it is part of Balzac’s Human Comedy.
    .-= Suzanne´s last post on blog ..Ulysses Wednesday – #1a =-.

    • My apologies…I read a little further and I do see what you are saying in that Balzac’s realism influenced Zola’s “naturalism”.

      I’m actually reading this book in French for a course I’m taking, but I think I might actually like it if I read it in English. !

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