By 1819, when Balzac's novel opens, old Goriot is reduced to living in a mean forty-five franc room on the third floor, his fine cambric shirts and diamond pin long sold. Moon-faced, unhappy and unkempt, his only visitors are two glamorous Parisian women, "too pretty to be good", who call infrequently and surreptitiously, leaving their carriages on the corner of the boulevard. They are his daughters, Goriot claims, but the only lodger generous enough to believe him is Eugene Rastignac, an impoverished law student, ambitious to plant a foot in the glittering society of Faubourg Saint-Germain. In Old Goriot, Balzac turns the excessive paternal love of a retired vermicelli merchant into a tragedy as devastating as King Lear. It is a key novel in his Comedie humaine, typical in its marvelous vitality and wit, and in its profound treatment of two consuming obsessions, money and love.
Honoré de Balzacs great theme was money, and in his best-loved novel, Old Goriot, he explored its uses and abuses with the particularity of a poet. A shabby Parisian boarding house in 1819 is the setting where his colorful characters collide. These include an elderly retired merchant called Old Goriot, who has bankrupted himself for the sake of his two rapacious, social-climbing daughters, Delphine and Anastasie; a mysterious and sinister conspirator named Vautrin; Victorine, a disinherited heiress; and a naive and impoverished law student from the country, Eugène de Rastignac.
Rastignac is appalled at first by the greed and corruption he finds in Paris, but he soon sets his sights on conquering high society. He joins forces with the array of schemers who surround him, while the suffering, self-sacrificing Goriot yearns in vain for his daughters love. The sprawling, vibrant, and turbulent Paris of the post-Napoleonic era is itself a major character in the novel, an emblem of the social upheaval that Balzac portrays so brilliantly. Old Goriot was the first of Balzacs novels to employ his famous technique of recurring characters, and it has come to be seen as the keystone in his grand project, The Human Comedy.
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The son of a civil servant, Honoré de Balzac was born in 1799 in Tours, France. After attending boarding school in Vendôme, he gravitated to Paris where he worked as a legal clerk and a hack writer, using various pseudonyms, often in collaboration with other writers. Balzac turned exclusively to fiction at the age of thirty and went on to write a large number of novels and short stories set amid turbulent nineteenth-century France. He entitled his collective works The Human Comedy. Along with Victor Hugo and Dumas père and fils, Balzac was one of the pillars of French romantic literature. He died in 1850, shortly after his marriage to the Polish countess Evelina Hanska, his lover of eighteen years.
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