Just as a play is divided into scenes and acts, a conventional novel is divided into chapters which usually, taking one aspect of the story, help the reader break it down and follow more easily the progression of the plot. Le Père Goriot is not organized in this manner, although Balzac originally divided the book into parts having the following titles:
A Bourgeois Boardinghouse
The Two Visits
Debut in the World
Trompe la Mort (Cheat-Death)
The Two Daughters
The Father's Death
In the later editions, however, the titles were dropped and in most English translations we find no such divisions. In our brief synopsis of the book, we have tried to define eight phases of the novel which seemed to give a clearer, more logical account of the story.
Instead of the conventional main plot, we seem to have three interrelated stories, and it is difficult at first to decide which one is the most important:
The Adventures of Rastignac — A Story of Ambition
The story of a young ambitious student who has come from his native province full of hope, devoid of money; of his efforts to conquer Paris; of the gradual changes in him through his contacts with this savage society in which "Success is Virtue"; and of his involvement with Vautrin, Victorine Taillefer, and Delphine de Nucingen.
The Adventures of Vautrin — A Story of Revenge
This component brings into the work elements of mystery and melodrama which remind one of Balzac's earlier Gothic production. But it is much more than an adventure-type story; it gives also the characterization of a man — Vautrin, escaped convict, ostracized by society, seeking revenge. A powerful character physically and mentally, a keen and cynical judge of his fellow men and of the evils of the social order, Vautrin will try to use Rastignac as his alter ego to be an instrument for revenge.
The Adventure of Père Goriot — A Story of Paternity
Tragic, pathetic, human, this story is concerned with a man in whom paternal love has destroyed every other human trait — and will eventually destroy him. We may find Old Goriot's passion close to animality, but we cannot help feeling pity for this man who has accepted poverty and vexations so that his daughters may be happy; we cannot help being deeply moved by his agony and death, the culmination of the tragedy of his life.