Pere Goriot or Father Goriot is but a one novel in Balzac's massive work, The Human Comedy. Like his other novels from the same collection, Father Goriot is set against the backdrop of excessive wealth (at any cost), striking poverty, and nothing in between.
Some familiar characters go in and out of this novel, only to reappear in later works, but for the sake of simplicity, I must concentrate on the two men who carry this work forward - Goriot and Rastignac.
Only Balzac could have created these two characters. Goriot - a simple poor man who came to riches; Rastignac - a poor nobleman. What ties these two men together is, at first their lodging situation and later their love for a woman. In Goriot's case, it is his daughter Delphine. In Rastignac's case, it is the same Delphine, but he sees her as his ticket to the riches he promised himself to obtain.
In an era where the Parisian women ruled the social scene, a young man is nothing unless a woman takes him under her wing. When both husbands and wives maintain lovers on the side, and your social status is judged by how much money you have and whose ball you are invited to, nothing is sacred and the end always justifies the means.
Goriot renounces everything to make his daughters happy, and Rastignac renounces his pure and noble ideals to get ahead. Along the way, they meet in the middle, in the place where poverty dug its claws into every fiber of their surroundings, emotions are questioned, ideals abandoned, and decency is as scarce as water in the desert.
Balzac has a way of portraying the disparity between the two social contrast that is both admirable and revolting. His characters are complicated human beings, and while we are afforded only a momentary glimpse at their lives, we cannot but love or hate them.
His ability to find the best and worst in people is second to none, and while his works are often full of slow-moving passages, the language alone is beautiful enough to carry the prose forward.
It is difficult to talk about this work in depth without disclosing spoilers, so it must suffice to state that Father Goriot is a spectacular study of the human condition and society. The characters in this book undergo multiple internal changes, and the ones that come across as unscrupulous turn out to have more decency in them than the noble ones. But such is our society, and such is the [rightfully called] human comedy.
I am now tempted to read the all novels that form La Comédie humaine.