Eugène de Rastignac has just returned from home, where he spent a vacation. On the old family estate he compared provincial life in its dullness with the brilliance and excitement of Parisian life. His illusions are gone and his ambition has grown; he now wants to be a social success and has noticed that hard work is not really the way to attain his goal. What he needs are connections to conquer the capital, and, as the great moving force in society is women, why not try to find a patroness?
He remembered how during his youth his aunt, Mme. de Marcillac, talked about the high aristocracy with which she was intimately acquainted. Could she not be his passport to success? And, indeed, upon his request, she wrote him a letter of introduction to a cousin, one of the most influential women in Paris, the Viscountess de Beauséant.
Mme. de Beauséant replies by inviting Eugène to a ball, where for the first time he meets the cream of society and manages to dance with one of the prettiest women in Paris, Countess de Restaud, who extends an invitation to call on her whenever he wishes.
The young student's head is whirling with joy when, at two in the morning, he returns to the boardinghouse, for not only has he gained an entry into society, but he has also succeeded in making an impression on one of Paris' beauty queens.
A noise suddenly disturbs his train of thought, a groan which seems to come from Goriot's room. Peering through the keyhole, Eugène sees the old man twisting silver plates into ingots and, with tears in his eyes, sighing "poor child."
Eugène's first reaction is that Goriot is a thief, but the words he has heard, the tears he has seen, make him decide not to be too hasty in condemning the old man. On his way back to his room, he hears other noises: muffled footsteps, voices from Vautrin's room, the clink of money, then someone departing. What could Vautrin be doing at this time of night?
Eugène is puzzled by these events, but he eventually goes to sleep thinking of the pretty countess.
This section deals with another main character in the novel — Eugène de Rastignac — with his first glimpse at Parisian high society, with the awakening of the young man's ambitions, and with the mysteries he discovers at the boardinghouse.
It is also a first step toward the entanglement of three different characters: Rastignac, Goriot, and Vautrin. Rastignac's entry into society will enable him to meet Goriot's daughters and become close to the old man, while the ambitions aroused at the sight of this new and brilliant world that he will want to conquer will make him a prey for Vautrin.
In this section, the first description of Eugène's frame of mind is effected by Balzac with undertones of irony and compassion. Our author cannot help feeling sympathy for this young provincial who reminds him so much of himself, a struggling law student in the capital.
Here also starts the detective story with its mysteries: the suspicious actions of Vautrin, who seems to be entertaining people at two in the morning and to be storing or receiving money.