Summary and Analysis
Part 3: Section 1
Eugène finally receives an answer to his letters, one from his mother and another from his elder sister, Laure. They are sending him the money he asked for. However, his joy is tainted with remorse because his mother had to sell her jewels, his sisters to part with their allowances — all this without a single word of reproach. But the thought of the fifteen hundred and fifty francs and what he can do with them blots out Eugène's shame.
He is eating breakfast when the postman enters with his money. The other tenants congratulate him on his good fortune. Vautrin adds a few sarcastic remarks which result in a second clash between the two men. When Vautrin offers a tip to the postman (as Eugène has no small change on him), the young man jumps up and goes to his room to fetch money to repay the debt. Vautrin reacts violently and takes Rastignac outside for what the tenants think will be a duel.
To Eugène's surprise, Vautrin's attitude changes completely. After pointing out the futility of a fight, he offers the young man the loan of a million francs. He goes on picturing the drab future that awaits Rastignac as a poor lawyer and the difficulty of making a name for himself in a society where "corruption is a great power . . . and talent is scarce," where husbands sell their wives and wives cheat on their husbands.
Vautrin's scheme is simple. Rastignac should make Victorine fall in love with him, ask to marry her, and then Vautrin would get the only obstacle to the Taillefer's fortune, Victorine's brother, out of the way by arranging a duel with an expert fencer. Victorine then would get her father's millions and Vautrin a nice commission of 200,000, which would enable him to settle down peacefully in America.
Rastignac's first reaction is one of horror, and he tries to stop Vautrin from talking. After Vautrin's exit, Rastignac realizes how perceptive Vautrin was in guessing his desire for money and success and how similar his description of society had been to that of Mme. de Beauséant's. In his mind, there is a struggle between his conscience and temptation, which he finally resolves by the negative words, "I do not want to think at all; the heart is a sure guide."
His train of thought is stopped by the arrival of his new clothes, and by Old Goriot, who tells him that Mme. de Nucingen is going to a ball at Marshal Carigliano's and that he would be so glad if Eugène could go and report on his daughters. Eugène replies that he will try to go with the help of Mme. de Beauséant. Goriot goes on explaining his relationship with his daughters, finding excuses for their callous attitude toward "an old carcass whose soul is always where [his] daughters are."
This section presents us with the first direct clash between Vautrin and Eugène. Vautrin, who had long ago discovered the young man's hidden ambition and who has tried to arouse it by his ironic remarks, now feels that the time for direct intervention is ripe.
He takes Rastignac aside and, after picturing a bleak future for an intelligent but poor young man in this society, bluntly reveals his plan for having Victorine's brother killed by a swordsman so that the young girl could inherit her father's fortune. Eugène then could marry her and become a rich and influential member of society, accepted everywhere. All the tempter asks is a commission of 200,000 francs.
This speech sharply reveals the character of Vautrin. He shows himself to be a keen psychologist, a rebel against a society that has made him what he is, and a hedonistic man seeking the sensual pleasures of life, who would find happiness on an American plantation surrounded by slaves. Another interesting trait of this depraved character is his seemingly genuine interest in, and compassion for, Eugène.
We can also follow here the subtle evolution of the young student. His moral principles seem to be more easily overcome than heretofore, his remorse is not as long lasting. If he sheds a quick tear when he learns of his mother's and sisters' sacrifices, it is quickly dried at the thought of what he can do with the money he has received. And in spite of his horror, he can't help listening to Vautrin, who sounds so much like his much-admired cousin, Mme. de Beauséant. Eugene is seriously tempted for the first time, and his weakened conscience can only protest in a negative way: "I do not want to think at all," he says, and, "the heart is a sure guide," meaning that he will let himself act from feeling rather than from will.
This state of mind will be further accented by Delphine's cordial reception at the opera. Having been introduced by Mme. de Beauséant, she sees in Eugène a way to gain access to high society and to avenge herself against her unfaithful lover.
This section also accentuates the relationship between Goriot and Eugène, for in him the old man has found someone who can approach, see, and talk to his daughters.
A touching and probably more subjective element in this section is found in the episode of the two letters, particularly the one Eugène receives from his sister. Balzac possibly recalls the days when he was a struggling student in Paris like Eugène, his own financial problems, and the letters he himself sent to his family and to his sister, who, by the way, bore the same name as the girl in the novel, Laure.