Critically assess Balzac’s use of dysfunctional families in Old Goriot. What, in your view are the real targets of his critique?

Balzac’s use of dysfunctional family in Old Goriot shows how money in an evolving capitalist society not only had a major role in shaping the behavior and personalities of specific individuals but also affected such institutions as the family. Money as a medium of social exchange distorts traditional social and family ties and leads not only to the central figures being alienated from those around them in the greater world of business and society but also from members of their own family. In the words of George Lukacs “he shows how stormily accumulating money capital usuriously exploits town and countryside and how the old social formations and ideologies must yield before its triumphant onslaught.” Thus, through his construction of dysfunctional families in Old Goriot, Balzac makes a larger critique on the brute forces of capitalism that had shattered the conceptions of mankind, human society, art etc; the tragic self-dissolution of bourgeois ideals by their own economic basis, by the forces of capitalism.

Although written and published 1834-1835, the story told in Le Père Goriot begins in 1819 when France is in the midst of a fierce struggle to establish a new national identity which would incorporate both the monarchical past and the political reality following the revolution. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the victors had returned the Bourbon Louis XVIII, the executed king’s brother, to the throne. But even with a new king there was no way back to pre-Revolutionary times. The “émigré aristocracy demanded indemnities for their losses, the return of their properties, and renewed privileges of all sorts. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution was taking hold in France and a wealthy new commerce-based bourgeoisie was emerging. “A struggle between the two groups was inevitable”(Kanes, Anatomy 3). Society was in transition and there was often confusion as to what was expected in personal, business, and class relations. The volatility of the class and financial structure is clear in Goriot as all the characters must fight for a place in the changing society and in the process negotiate and compromise familial structures and relationships. In 1824 Louis XVIII died and was replaced by Charles X “under whose reign the Restoration government became increasingly conservative, increasingly repressive, and increasingly out of touch with the times” (Kanes, Anatomy 5). Unhappiness with this new ruler led to the 1830 revolution which forced him from power and led to the installation of Louis-Philippe, who seemed to understand the social and economic changes that had taken place and worked to win over the commercial middle class. In 1834, France was entering a new age of laissez-faire capitalism in which the fierce pursuit of money was triggering

a moral crisis. Social and cultural bonds which had once rigidly held society together had been strained with shifting power relations, often tied to the vicissitudes of the new fortunes which were to be made during and following the revolution.

An assessment of familial structures represented in the relationship of the almost obsessive father Goriot with his daughters and their personal marital relationships, Rastignac’s exploitation of his family in the provinces and the utter pandemonium of life and relationships in the family of the Vauquer Mansion further elaborates the point Balzac reflects in his novel. Old Goriot is valued by his daughters only for his material worth, till the time when he can support his daughters’ extravagant lifestyles even if that meant him leading a life of deprivation and abject poverty. After their mother’s death, Goriot brought his daughter up with utmost love and adoration, bestowing on them all the essentials of a luxurious quality life and a good education and married them off to potentially well-off suitors with his daughters themselves owning five or six thousand francs. However, this accumulation of wealth for the “happiness” of his daughter was acquired through unethical practices like making a fortune during a time of extreme crisis like the famine when market prices rose inexorably. After their marriage, the daughters further pushed on by the son-in-laws completely deserted their “grease-stain” of a father, and they would only go to him in times of financial assistance while he led a miserable existence at the Vauquer Mansion. This is again Balzac’s critique of a society that equates love and happiness to material prosperity and which deserts a father who has devoted his whole life to his daughters because of its notions of decorum and class. Delphine confesses to Rastignac, “Anastasie and I between us have bled him white. My poor father would have sold himself if his body could have fetched six thousand francs.” Towards the end of the novel, when Balzac is lying on his death bed and even after repeated messages, his daughters delay their arrival and mess over balls and dinners, and as Goriot goes on a tirade about this story heart-wrenching ingratitude; we are struck by the magnitude of this total disintegration of familial relationships in the midst of a evolving capitalist wherein only material considerations, greed and a pursuit of personal gain and profit rule inter-personal familial relationships. As Dorothy Kelly comments, “In the novel, what has taken the place of blood is money. Money has become the universal floating signifier that can be transformed into anything else; fatherhood, for instance, is not really the blood that one passes on to his off-springs, but the money that is transferred.” Even the marital relations between the Nuchingens and the Restauds are marred by material considerations; it was from the very beginning on a relation based on feeling but essentially an economic transaction meant for the benefit of both partners. Pressures on Delphine and Anastasie to maintain certain standards of lifestyle lead to extravagant expenditures amounting to excessive debts and it is these economic problems that leads to a total breakdown of the familial structure of marriage. Even when these women indulge themselves in adulterous alliances, material needs and requirements underline their real motivations.

Rastignac’s provincial family might seem at first look seem to represent the ideal of a pure organic structure still united by a feeling of love and solidarity in contrast to the Parisian families that are consumed by envy and conflict of interests and that which is untouched yet by the evils of a rapidly growing capitalist economy. However, even for Rastignac’s family of nobility fallen in bad times, there is a constant struggle to balance the requirements and needs of the other members of the family and the expenditure and costs involved in supporting Rastignac’s education and living in Paris. Out of the three thousand francs that Rastignac’s father earns from the family estates, one thousand two hundred is extracted by Rastignac and the rest of the family is hard-pressed on the remaining meager amount. Also further, when Rastignac manipulates and plays on the feelings of his mother and sisters to acquire monetary resources for his pursuit of recognition in the high class Parisian circles, we get a sense of the ferocious social and economic realties of the period wherein all feelings of love and moral consciousness are overcome by ambition, desire and greed.

Even the Mansion Vauquer with its inhabitants and their inter-personal relationships presents to us the structure of a family, dysfunctionalized and contaminated by the needs and pressures of a growing capitalist society. The way the guests are treated at the Maison Vauquer by Mrs. Vauquer and the way in which she handles her relationships with them immediately takes up the theme of the power of money in society. Boarders who can pay more have comfortable and attractive lodgings closer to the ground floor. Those boarders who cannot pay as much are moved up the stairs to less desirable rooms. Goriot’s identity in the novel is tied to his financial history.  In the beginning, Madam Vauquer determinedly pursues Goriot as he was enamoured by his collections and clothes and imagined him to be a very rich man, and was overcome by an intense liking for the old man at the bottom of which lay the desire for material prosperity and class mobility. As Goriot falls in life, as his mind and body deteriorate, he is moved higher and higher in the pension until at the end, penniless, he dies in a small, squalid attic room. In this, of course, he is not alone as all the characters are defined at least in part as to how money affects their relation to one another. Mademoiselle Tailliefer’s relationship with her father and brother is based on inheritance and money and she is accepted by her father, only in a scenario when he realizes that he has no potential heir to his property and money. Poiret and Michonneau betray Vautrin for money. And of course the lives of Goriot and Rastignac and their relations are determined to a large extent by the quest for and the lack of money. Even at the end, when Goriot lies on his death bed, Madame Vauquer, in spite of her friendly words, is concerned only about the payment of the rent and the cost of the sheet which will be used to wrap his dead body.

Also we see, that complicitous in the pressures exerted by the brute force of the growing capitalism, is the tendency of the rising bourgeois to hanker after the elegance and prestige of the aristocracy in its pursuit to challenge the powers of the aristocracy. In the process, one gets absorbed in its world of selfishness and hypocrisy that completely destroys inter-personal relations and ideals of familial love and trust. Rastignac’s desire and ambition, Goriot marrying his daughters to high-class suitors and then the rejection of his daughters of their father residing with them in the same house, Madam Vauquer’s initial liking of Goriot and the desire of all characters for wealth are also propelled by this desire to acquire the so called status of the aristocracy and the power and respect that came with it.  In one instance, Madame Beauséant complains to Rastignac about “stupid shopkeepers who put on hats like ours and think they’ll start acting like us, too”

Balzac had once written, “I consider the family and not the individual as the true social unit. In this regard, I suppose I run the risk of being considered a backward thinker” and by presenting in Old Goriot a series of dysfunctional families, Balzac critiques all those brute forces of capitalism and the tendency of upward class mobility that has led to the disintegration of the stability of traditional familial structures bonded by a sense of love and solidarity.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s