At the heart of symbolism

The Père Goriot

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Vautrin's portrait

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) has gathered several of his works, describing the manners of his time, under the title the Comédie humaine. The work depicts all the social classes of the French society at that time: a ruined nobility which seeks to boost the family fortunes by marrying into money; the upper bourgeoisie in search of honour and fortune; the lower bourgeoisie, the dream of which is to climb the social scale; people and peasants, the foundation of the society. The work describes more than two thousand portraits covering plenty of professions and jobs. Vautrin's character practised a certain number of them, enough to appear in several novels of the “Comedy”.

In “The Père Goriot” (1834), Balzac interrupts the description of the sad and nauseating “Vauquer's boarding house” to present the characters of his novel. He limits himself to roughly sketch extras whereas he meticulously portrays the main actors thoroughly. The Père Goriot, a former manufacturer of vermicelli racked by a mysterious sorrow; Eugène de Rastignac, a young law student, noble and poor, but determined to make his way in Paris; the enigmatic Vautrin, a jovial sort built like a colossus, disturbing and skilful and who knew everything in life. Its sober and complete portrait can only stimulate the curiosity of the reader:

Extract from the “Père Goriot”

Vautrin (the man of forty with the dyed whiskers) marked a transition stage between these two young people and the others. He was the kind of man that calls forth the remark: “He looks a jovial sort!” He had broad shoulders, a well-developed chest, muscular arms, and strong square-fisted hands; the joints of his fingers were covered with tufts of fiery red hair. His face was furrowed by premature wrinkles; there was a certain hardness about it in spite of his bland and insinuating manner. His bass voice was by no means unpleasant, and was in keeping with his boisterous laughter. He was always obliging, always in good spirits; if anything went wrong with one of the locks, he would soon unscrew it, take it to pieces, file it, oil and clean and set it in order, and put it back in its place again; “I am an old hand at it,” he used to say. Not only so, he knew all about ships, the sea, France, foreign countries, men, business, law, great houses and prisons...

Honoré de Balzac : “Père Goriot”. Translated by Ellen Marriage.