Le Père Goriot By Honor de Balzac Summary and Analysis Part 4: Section 3

Summary

The next day is a historic one in the annals of the boardinghouse. Breakfast is served late as almost everyone has overslept after the previous evening of festivities. Vautrin has gone out before breakfast, giving Mlle. Michonneau a chance to pour the drug into the convict's coffee.

Eugène comes down quite upset. He has not had a chance to warn the Taillefers, he has received a letter from Delphine reproaching him for not coming to see her the evening before, and Vautrin greets him with "a cold and fascinating glance" charged with "magnetic power." Presently, one of M. Taillefer's servants rushes in to announce that Frederic has been fatally wounded in a duel. At Vautrin's cynical comment on the foolishness of youth, Eugène lets out a horrified exclamation. The boarders talk of fate, how it has brought Victorine her father's millions, and of how lucky Eugène is. Eugène disgustedly tells them that he is not going to marry Victorine and adds that he is leaving to see Delphine.

By that time the drug is beginning to affect Vautrin, who soon collapses on the floor as if felled by a stroke. Under the pretense of helping him to bed, Mlle. Michonneau takes off his shirt, slaps him on the shoulder, and the brand of the convict appears white on the red skin. Mlle. Michonneau has earned her three thousand francs, and, as she is alone with Poiret in the room, she decides to search for some hidden money but is prevented by Mme. Vauquer's entrance.

In the meantime, Eugène, on his way to Delphine's, meets Bianchon, who tells him that he has read all about young Taillefer's duel, adding jokingly that Eugène can now marry into a fortune. Rastignac, very upset, vehemently reiterates that he will never marry Victorine, and when Bianchon insists, he bursts into such a violent anger that the medical student thinks him ill.

Eugène, who wants to be left alone, tells Bianchon that he is needed at the boardinghouse to look after Vautrin. Eugène then leaves for a walk to put his mind at ease, trying to convince himself that there will be, after all, nothing indecent in his relationship with Mme. de Nucingen as it is an accepted custom.

Back at the boardinghouse, Bianchon examines Vautrin with suspicion. He has seen Poiret and Michonneau talking to a policeman, Mlle. Michonneau has tried to get rid of the matter Vautrin vomited, and the patient has recovered too quickly to have had a stroke. It looks like a plot against Vautrin. And when the boarders compliment Vautrin on his remarkable recovery, Bianchon mentions overhearing Mlle. Michonneau talking about someone called "Cheat-Death," which would be quite an appropriate name for him.

The joviality immediately disappears from Vautrin's face, replaced by a hard, ferocious expression; simultaneously, a rumble is heard on the street and Gondureau and his men appear to arrest the ex-convict "In the name of the King and the law!" Vautrin's first impulse is to resist and try to escape, but when he sees the officers draw their pistols, by a remarkable feat of self-control he calms down and lets himself be captured.

Mme. Vauquer and the boarders are fascinated at the extraordinary change in Vautrin's face, actions, and language, for he is now Jacques Collin, the convict, "the type and mouthpiece of a degenerate race, a brutal, supple, clear-headed race of savages." He glares at Mlle. Michonneau and tells her what he could do to a squealer like her, but that he will forgive her, ironically adding, "I am a Christian!" He tells everyone that he will not stay in prison very long. Upon leaving, he bids Eugène goodbye in an amazingly soft and sad voice, adding that he has left a friend behind to look after him, meaning of course, young Taillefer's murderer.

Vautrin's exit elicits some reactions from the boarders, who, rather than blame the convict, assail Mlle. Michonneau. They claim they do not want a traitor in their midst and threaten to leave if Mme. Vauquer keeps the old girl. It does not take the landlady very long to decide where her interest lies, and she asks Mlle. Michonneau to please leave. After a weak struggle, the old maid agrees and exits with her faithful Poiret. It is a blow to Mme. Vauquer to lose two boarders, but her trial is not yet over. A messenger comes in with a letter saying that Frederic Taillefer has died and that, of course, Victorine will now stay at her father's, with Mme. Couture as her companion. At that moment, Goriot comes in with a happy face, and taking Eugène aside, says that his daughter is waiting for them.

Eugène, in a state of euphoria, can hardly wait until the evening, when he leaves with Goriot to what is soon to be the young man's own apartment. Delphine greets them in the drawing room with a tenderness that delights Eugène and convinces him of his success, and if some reluctance troubles him at the idea of living in such an expensive place paid for by his lover's father, he is soon persuaded by Delphine's pouting and Goriot's telling him that it is just a loan that the father is pleased to make to see his daughter happy.

When the old man adds that he will pay all the bills until the suit against Delphine's husband for her fortune is ended, Rastignac cannot help crying at Goriot's generosity, knowing how poor Delphine's father is and how much he has bled himself to make his children happy. And all Goriot asks of Delphine is that she come and visit him once in a while in the maid's room he has rented upstairs.

The three spend the rest of the evening together, the young couple in bliss and Old Goriot seldom leaving them in peace, staring at his daughter or kissing her dress, the way a young lover would. At midnight the two men depart, Eugène with an invitation to dine with Delphine the next day and go to the opera.

The two men return to the boardinghouse and find Mme. Vauquer and her servants by the stove. The landlady has been complaining about the events of the day, thinking only of the money she would be losing. She greets her "faithful" lodgers with pleasure, but her smile vanishes when they say that they, too, will be leaving. This, plus the announcement that her cat is missing, is the last straw for the landlady, who collapses.

Analysis

This section concludes the detective story and depicts Vautrin's arrest. It is interesting to note that the convict's downfall seems to be his triumph, for we witness such a culmination of his character traits that we are filled with as much admiration as horror. We admire his almost superhuman strength, will power, and self-control, while we are horrified by his devilish cunning and his cruelty. Balzac puts it very effectively:

The real Vautrin shone forth, revealed at once before them all. They understood his past, his present and future, his pitiless doctrines, his actions, the religion of his own good pleasure, the majesty with which his cynicism and contempt for mankind invested him, the physical strength of an organization proof against all trials.

An enigmatic side to Vautrin's character is his friendly and apparently sincere attitude toward Rastignac. Throughout the book, he seems to have been the only one Vautrin really cares for. When arrested, Vautrin speaks to Eugène "with a pleasant smile that seemed strangely at variance with the savage expression in his eyes." It has been suggested that Vautrin is gay, but one can't see any clear indication of this in the book. It seems that Vautrin's interest in the young man is more profound than that and one of the unifying elements in the novel.

In the preceding section, we saw the theme of paternity developed, a purely animalistic paternity. Can we not see here the element of spiritual paternity in Vautrin's attempts to create another self, an alter-ego possessing the qualities that he lacks: beauty and refinement? Balzac's physical appearance (almost that of Vautrin) and his aristocratic ideal (he added the "de" to his name) seem to support this idea.

Rastignac is now freed from Vautrin's influence, but we watch the slow degradation of his character as his relationship with Goriot and Delphine becomes closer and closer.

Another moving outburst of Goriot's paternal love is described here in its sublimity and its animal and amoral manifestation. It is pathetic to see the old man kissing his daughter's feet, sniffing her dress, staring lovingly at her like a dog. Also pathetic is how his passion destroys every moral principle to the point of his saying (describing that day when Eugène and Delphine will commit adultery), "This is the happiest day I've had since you girls got married."

A final significant aspect of this section is found in Mme. Vauquer's punishment for her greed. She will see her lodgers leave, one after the other. This point was developed by Balzac, who, when accused of immorality, replied that most of his characters pay for their mistakes.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

After seven years of marriage, Mme. Goriot




Quiz