“They would all walk past a blind man in the street without a glance, or listen unmoved to a tale of disaster, and would see in death only the solution of a problem of misery which in their own suffering made them callous to the most terrible sufferings of others.” Briefly assess the occupants and their relationships in Madame Vauquer’s “unofficial asylum.” What larger comment if any is Balzac making?                                                                                                                               (2002)

The occupants and visitors of Madam Vauquer’s boarding house in the Rue-Neuve-Sainte-Genevieve between the Latin Quarter and the Faubourg Saint-Marcel present the microcosm of Parisian society in the early 19th century, their lives reflect all those forces, contradictions and social realities that were the benchmarks of early 19th century Parisian life in the context of the political and social reality following the revolution and the resultant sense of disillusionment. This “unofficial asylum” is, as the narrator says “a sample of all the elements that make up society” :—- a young provincial man from a family characteristic of nobility fallen in bad times in a ruthless pursuit of  wealth and success; an unscrupulous criminal in hiding whose seductive rhetoric and powerful characterization exposes the thin line between crime and law, morality and immorality; a poor hapless father with an almost dangerously obsessive love for this two daughters who exploit him till his deathbed and value him only for his materialist importance but who too has a history of exploitation and unethical practices to amass the wealth he acquired; an angelic young woman disinherited by her rich and influential father who is looked after by the widow of a paramilitary paymaster, a man who is the pathetic product of a life of monotony and allegiance to order and the state and an elderly spinster who could have frightened “the angel of pity away”, all ruled and attended to by an unwholesomely plump old lady who happens to be ‘good woman at heart’.

The novel opens appropriately enough for a masterwork of formal realism with a detailed description of the pension ‘Maison Vauquer’. Many of the principal characters live there and much of the action will be centered there. The Mansion Vauquer and the its physical condition  of “indestructible furniture”, “broken backed chairs”, greased and stained carpets, hollowed broken red tiles, unaesthetic dust laden objects all around with a characteristic boarding house smell of stuffiness, decay and staleness, in itself,  permeates a miserable sense of suffocation, frustration and drudgery, a feeling of the vulgar and commonplace and this is the first indicator that the narrator provides us in understanding the larger shared reality of the boarders. The life of misery that has eventually made these boarders insulated to any form of sensation and tragedy is reflected in the immediate surroundings of their dwelling. Moreover, its location in an obscure corner of Paris further establishes the isolation and peripheral societal status of the ‘inmates’ of this “prison cell”. As the narrator further comments, “…the depressing spectacle the interior of the house presented was matched by the clothing of the inmates, who were every bit as dilapidated.” The boarding house milieu becomes “a moral and physical atmosphere which impregnates the landscape, the dwelling, furniture, implements, clothing, physique, character, surroundings, ideas, activities, and fates of men…..” (Auerbach)

As the story unfolds, all of these inhabitants interact in a complex story and Balzac tells us that “this drama is not fictional, it’s not a novel. All is true. So true you’ll be able to recognize everything that goes into it in your own life, perhaps even in your own heart”. The boarding house has seven inhabitants besides the visitors who come in at mealtimes and the helper Christophe and the cook Sylvie. The owner of this boarding house is Madam Vauquer whose whole existence revolves around her house, it is impossible “to conceive of one without the other”. Left by a dead husband with “only her eyes to weep with and the house to live in”, Madam Vauquer claimed to know “what real trouble was, she had suffered all that a woman could” and this sense of having experienced intense personal pain led to a tendency of preventing herself from sympathizing with anyone in trouble. One of the first floor rooms was inhabited by Madam Courture, the widow of a Commissioner General in the service of the republic and an adolescent girl called Victorine Taillefer. She is the estranged daughter of a wealthy man who has disowned her because he suspects she may be the result of his wife’s adultery. In the novel, she represents the damsel in distress who “if she had been happy she would have been enchanting”; the chaste innocent religious young lady against whom the corrupted forces of society has melted grave injustices and to which she is completely helpless and resigns herself to her fate finding solace in “religious feeling”. The two rooms on the second floor were occupied by an old man Poiret and Monsieur Vautrin. Monsieur Poiret represents the tragedy of an industrial life, his profession has affected him such a way that he has become an appendage, an extension of the machine he worked with, “one of the drudges of our great social treadmill”. His vitality has been sucked by his surrounding and he has become a mere mute puppet in the hands of the industry and of the state and its systems as seen in the last scenes when the mere incidence of a police official demanding his services makes him betray his boarding and floor mate. Monsieur Vautrin as is revealed towards the end of the novel is a notorious criminal living under disguise identifying himself as a retired merchant, making the boarding house his safe haven. The first thing that strikes us about Vautrin is his extreme cynicism and his complete repudiation of and detachment from any moral standards set by the society, which gives us a sense of a vast experience of the trials and tribulations in his life, of a man who has seen and been through it all. Out of the four rooms on the third floor, one was occupied by an elderly spinster Mademoiselle Michonneau whose “blank look chilled the blood; her shrunken face seemed a threat.” Her expressionless existence blended into the general gloomy and melancholy atmosphere of the place. The other room was held by a retired manufacturer of Vermicelli, “familiarly know without protest as Old Goriot”, whose initial description is completely based on the opinions established by the other boarders and Mrs. Vauquer. Out of the two remaining rooms meant for temporary residents like students, one was being inhabited by a law student Eugene de Rastignac who struggles against poverty and lack of resources to find a place for himself in the glam world of the Parisian aristocracy which had completely enamored the young lad. We, thus, see that all the inhabitants of the Mansion Vauquer are represented to have been through experiences in life that have “withstood the storms of life” and whose lives are “living dramas acted in silence, icy dramas which seared the heart, on which no curtain is rung down.” Balzac thus through the occupants of this “unofficial asylum” renegotiates the concept of tragedy and who it befalls. Tragedy instead of being a grand tale of lofty ideals of powerful individuals like emperors and kings is seen even in the petit boarding house and the daily struggles and pains of the common people are accorded tragic stature and dimension.

However, for most of these people, who have battled with inclement forces, withstood bad weather and fought with the hardships of life; tribulation and experience has led neither to self knowledge or maturity and growth nor to a greater sensitivity to the daily struggles and pains of one’s fellow beings.  Instead is has only led to hardness and grimness, and a complete indifference. It has made them immune to the pains and sufferings of the people around – “Like long married couples they has no longer anything to say to each other.” Aware of their inability to relieve their neighbour’s troubles in any way, a certain callousness has set in them, wherein they are unable to respond with sympathy to any cause, but lead self-absorbed lives in the pursuit of personal gain and accumulation of wealth and social stature and as the narrator comments, “It takes something outrageous to produce a lasting impression”. This is Balzac’s larger comment on the nature of metropolitan urban existence in context of France entering a new age of laissez-faire capitalism build on principles of individualism and personal gain with a much reduced sense of commune and fellow-feeling. Personal tragedy becomes fodder for gossip as is seen again when the boarders are incapable of responding to the tragedy of Vautrin’s arrest and resign themselves to “their usual careless indifference to the fate of others”.  Even in their relationships with each other, the insensitivity and inability to rise above one’s selfish considerations and prejudices is reflected in the warped limited perception through which the boarders perceive Old Goriot as a lecherous old man on the instigation and manipulation of Madam Vauquer besides other slander, before the ‘truth’ is revealed. It once again reveals how some people, even Vautrin who in most cases shows a nuanced no mater how cynical world view, are incapable of rising above narrow minded perceptions to see and recognize tragedy whenever it is seen. The behaviour of the boarders towards Old Goriot also reflects how it is human nature “to prove our strength at the expense of another person or a thing?” In this regard too, Balzac dwells on the larger question of how this tendency to exploit the weaker, the helpless and passive and lack of sensitivity and empathy for misfortune goes “to the root of many social injustices.” In fact, this heartlessness and selfishness evident in the boarding house and used as a social critique by Balzac is also depicted in dysfunctional marital relations of the Restauds and the Nucingens, the relationship of Old Goriot with his two daughters and in the adulterous alliances of Parisian men and women, driven by a sense of complete material considerations.

Also 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. 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 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. Goriot’s identity in the novel is tied to his financial history. We are told about his past, before the main action of the novel begins, when he first became wealthy by taking advantage of shifting historical conditions to make money in the grain market..  In Le Père Goriot “Money is treated as a basic constituent of life, as he fundamental element of modern urban life, and in Balzac’s insistence on the details of its accumulation and dispersion lies a large part of what he has to say in this novel about French history as it was lived in daily life.” (Bellos, Old Goriot).

In conclusion, we can refer to what Auerbach said, referring to Old Grandet of Eugenie Grandet but writing that is obviously pertinent to boarders of Mansion Vauquer too, that he as other such characters in nineteenth century realism “are not mere caricatures. . . but terrible realities which must be taken wholly seriously; they are involved in tragic complications, and not withstanding their grotesqueness are themselves tragic” and hence needs to be dealt with a certain sensitivity and sympathy, which Balzac does with amazing skill and aplomb.


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