Summary and Analysis
Part 2: Section 2
It is five o'clock when Eugène leaves his cousin; on his way back to the boardinghouse, his thoughts are whirling. He feels both angry and lost: angry at his blunder, at the cold reception he received at the Restauds', and at Mme. de Restaud and her lover; lost at the realization of his unimportance without money. All this reminds him of Vautrin's words, more brutal perhaps, but essentially the same: "Success is virtue." As he walks into the bleak boardinghouse, Eugène has made up his mind to study hard to become a successful lawyer and, at the same time, a man of fashion.
In this state of mind, he is certainly not prepared to take any jokes, and when Vautrin, at the dinner table, calls him a "lord," he reacts violently and warns him that he is not to be joked at and neither is M. Goriot, Mme. de Restaud's father. This piece of news is quite a sensation among the boarders, and there is a sudden change of attitude toward Goriot, who does not even seem to notice it.
The dinner over, Eugène decides to take Mme. de Beauséant's advice to try his luck with Delphine, but he needs money. Where can he get it? He goes to his room and writes a letter to his mother and his two sisters, asking for funds. He feels ashamed of his action, for he knows how poor they are and how much of a sacrifice it will be, but the urge to succeed is too strong. In the days that follow, he increases his visits to Mme. de Beauséant and decides to stop his studies for a while, with the intention of making up for lost time later.
Eugène's next step is to find out all he can about Goriot's life in order not to repeat the blunder he made at the Restauds'. He finds out that Goriot had two passions, his trade and his wife, and that when Mme. Goriot died after seven years of marriage, he transferred his love to his daughters. That love soon turned extreme. He could not refuse his girls anything, even the most extravagant. He raised them far above their station, giving them private tutors and a companion who taught them manners. In short, they were ready for any kind of life except that of their own social class.
Goriot allowed them to select their husbands. Anastasie, who liked glory, married Count de Restaud; Delphine, who loved money, married Nucingen, "a banker of German extraction who became a baron of the Holy Roman Empire." Very soon, since his daughters and sons-in-law were shocked to see him continue with his business, Goriot agreed to retire. He then took refuge in Mme. Vauquer's boardinghouse, where he finally found himself completely rejected by his daughters' husbands, who would have nothing to do with a commoner.
At the beginning of the preceding section, we find Eugène thinking over the past events with mixed feelings. He is angry at the blunders he has made and at the reception he received from Mme. de Restaud, whom he had thought attracted to him, and above all, he is filled with a feeling of inadequacy, of his unimportance in the world where money is almighty.
The subtle change in him has started, but he is still trying to reconcile his moral principles and his ambitions. By studying hard, he will try to become a successful lawyer but remain a man of fashion. This decision is very important in Eugène's future development, for he will soon find that it is impossible to compromise.
This will lead to his entanglement with Vautrin, the tempter, who has discovered Eugène's hidden ambition and starts needling the young man about his social status, ironically calling him a "lord," which he is not but would like to be. Vautrin will eventually show him that he must go all the way, in one direction or another.
This section also completes the psychological delineation of the title character. We learn a last but salient circumstance — Goriot's passion for his daughters, its origin and its quality. We are told that after losing his wife, Goriot transferred his love to his business and his daughters, and his paternal passion soon became disproportionate. He spoiled his two daughters, bringing them up as if they were aristocrats, hiring private tutors for them, giving them riding lessons, and acceding to their every whim. Goriot went so far as to ruin a man who told him, as a joke, that Delphine had been hit by a carriage. He finally procured for each a husband of her choice.
This inordinate passion explains all of Goriot's past and present actions and will be the cause of his future downfall. Balzac's concept of the fatality of passion is shown here to be very similar to that expounded in tragedy, and indeed this book is composed very much like a tragedy. This revelation completes Balzac's exposition for this work.
We can now understand the structure of a Balzac novel and the reason for this lengthy exposition (over one-third of the novel). What has Balzac been doing in the preceding pages?
He has placed each character in his social surroundings and has given us, piece by piece, details on his psychological makeup. He has started the interaction among the main characters appropriate to their psychology and social position. Now we have all the information we need to fully appreciate and deeply feel the tragic fate awaiting Old Goriot, the evolution of Rastignac, the role of Vautrin, and the clash of characters. Now, indeed, the tragedy can start and fill us with interest, compassion, and horror.