The next afternoon at three o'clock, Eugène de Rastignac, all dressed up, leaves the boardinghouse to call on Mme. de Restaud. His head is full of dreams, his heart of happiness, for he is sure he has made a favorable impression on the pretty countess. He suffers his first setback as he is shown in by a coldly disdainful footman, who sizes him up at first glance as a young man in financial difficulty. Eugène is dressed in evening clothes at three o'clock in the afternoon; since he arrives on foot, he apparently cannot afford a cab, much less own a carriage. His pride hurt, he tries to show that he is well acquainted with the Restauds, and preceding the footman, he finds himself lost in the servants' quarters!
Introduced into the drawing room, Eugène meets Maxime de Trailles, Mme. de Restaud's lover, and can't help admiring and envying the young man's attire and haughty attitude. Mme. de Restaud's cold reception leaves Eugène no doubt that only Maxime matters to her, which makes him furious, and instead of taking his leave, he decides to annoy the lover by remaining. A moment later, M. de Restaud comes in, greets Maxime, and ignores Rastignac until he finds that the young man belongs to their society.
Eugène, astonished at this social triangle — the wife, the lover, and the seemingly permissive husband-keeps on talking to annoy the countess and Maxime, who obviously want to be left alone. In the middle of the conversation, he happens to mention the name of Goriot, whom he had seen in the house and whom he had heard kissing the countess (thereby supporting Vautrin's theory of the old man's mistresses). The count's amiable attitude turns to coldness and the countess seems terribly flustered. Realizing he has made a blunder, Rastignac takes his leave. After his departure, the count instructs the footman never to let him in again.
Quite disenchanted, Eugène sets out to call on his cousin, Mme. de Beauséant, to try to find an explanation for this strange attitude. There he finds Mme. de Beauséant's lover, the Marquis d'Ajuda-Pinto, who is pleased to see Rastignac as that will give him a chance to take his leave of Mme. de Beauséant. In fact, d'Ajuda-Pinto is contemplating marrying a rich aristocrat, Mlle. de Rochefide, and is trying to break up his affair. He gives as an excuse for leaving that he is expected at the British ambassador's for dinner, but Mme. de Beauséant hears him plainly tell his coachman to drive him to the Rochefides. She sits down and, in a trembling hand, writes a note to her lover demanding an explanation.
She is still very upset and gives Rastignac a rather cool reception, but soon the disarming naïveté of the young man makes her warm up to him. Rastignac tries to tell his cousin about his blunder but is interrupted by the arrival of a friend of hers, the Duchess de Langeais. The duchess has hardly settled down before she maliciously starts needling her "friend" about the possible marriage between d'Ajuda-Pinto and Mlle. de Rochefide. Mme. de Beauséant turns pale and, to change the conversation, asks Rastignac the nature of his blunder. On hearing the name of Goriot, the two women tell him that it was no wonder that the Restauds reacted as they did, for Mme. de Restaud is Goriot's daughter, and in high society, the daughter of a merchant does not like to be reminded of her humble origin. Then the two ladies begin to tell Eugène Old Goriot's story.
A merchant in flour and noodles, Goriot had acquired a great fortune during the Revolution by selling on the black market. Goriot's one weakness was his daughters; he married one to M. de Restaud and the other to the Baron de Nucingen, a rich banker. As long as the Republic and the Empire lasted, the sons-in-law, in need of protection, accepted Goriot, his money, and his influence, but as soon as the Bourbons came back to the throne, they discarded a father-in-law who came from such "common stock." Goriot's daughters, used to the splendor of an aristocratic, wealthy, independent life, started feeling so ashamed of him that he then decided to make a sacrifice and move away.
After telling this story, the two women add some very pessimistic comments about this wicked society. When the duchess finally leaves, Mme. de Beauséant gives Eugène his first Machiavellian lesson on how to succeed in a society in which the women are corrupt and the men "despicably vain." Hide your feelings, she says; consider men and women merely as post-horses and "strike ruthlessly." She then offers Eugène her help.
As Mme. de Restaud is now out of the question, why not try Mme. de Nucingen? There would be a good chance of success. First, Goriot could introduce him to her; second, there is a rivalry between the two sisters, as Mme. de Restaud, belonging to an old aristocratic family, is invited everywhere, whereas Mme. de Nucingen, married to a foreigner of recent aristocracy, belongs to the middle-world banned by the aristocratic salons of Paris. She would give anything, Mme. de Beauséant adds, to be invited to my place. I will do that for you, she will be eternally grateful, and, if you can gain her favor, "other women will begin to lose their heads about you."
This section deals with Rastignac's first rough contact with the reality of high social circles, a contact that will lead to a subtly insidious change in the young man's way of thinking and in his already decaying moral values. He receives his first lesson in cynical behavior from his cousin, whom he considers a friend and whom he admires.
Eugène first realizes the power of money and affluence after the cold and somewhat ironic reception of the Restauds' footman, who conveys silent contempt for a young man who does not own a carriage, is improperly dressed, and obviously knows nothing of the social amenities.
His sense of morality is shocked by the domestic triangle — evidently accepted by the husband — that he finds in the Restauds' house, and his ego is hurt by the disdain shown him by the countess, who obviously is interested only in Maxime de Trailles.
Finally, he hates his social awkwardness, which has made him blunder twice in one day.
Later, when Eugène visits his cousin hoping to find solace and reassurance, he finds her involved in the same social triangle. He sees in the duchess, supposedly his cousin's friend, an example of the ruthless, destructively jealous relationship found in this society even among friends. Finally, Eugène is told the bitter truths on how to succeed in a money-depraved society.
The elements that will contribute to Eugène's involvement with Old Goriot are introduced. He discovers that the girls seen visiting the old man are really his daughters and not his mistresses, that Goriot has made many sacrifices for their happiness, and that he now has been shut out of their lives and exists in poverty. The young man's resulting pity and his later entanglement with Delphine will make him the link between Goriot and his daughters and between the boardinghouse and high society.
The rivalry, introduced in this section, between the two daughters has resulted in Delphine's jealousy of her sister, who belongs to a higher social circle. This rivalry will end in a violent and dramatic clash, which will eventually kill their father.
The duchess inserts a comical social note when, with the contemptuous haughtiness of the born aristocrat, she repeatedly massacres the name of Goriot, a commoner of obviously no importance.