A Comparison Of "Old Goriot" And "King Lear"

2020 words - 8 pages

"How sharper than a serpent's tooth

it is to have a thankless child."

(Act 1 scene 4 lines 282-3)

This quotation may have been taken from "King Lear" but it is also very apt for Balzac's novel "Old Goriot." Both stories tell of misplaced loyalties, thankless children and self-knowledge, which comes too late. Both eponymous characters surrender their fortunes to their daughters, excepting Cordelia in "King Lear", only to find themselves outcasts. Old Goriot starts out as a wealthy retired merchant, but ends the tale a pauper in a pauper's grave. He lived in a boarding house moving progressively down in room size and luxury the longer he is there. Old Goriot becomes the butt of all the jokes at the boarding house after Madame Vauquer fails to seduce him into becoming her next husband. Goriot has only one passion in his life and that is his daughters. They are the world to him and he lives vicariously through their happiness. His daughters are spoilt, selfish human beings, who see their father solely as a bank. They turn to him when they need money and Goriot can refuse them nothing, even if it will leave him destitute. He behaves as if dispensing money and dispensing affection where the same thing. His attempts to `monetize' affection lead only to the ruination of his daughter, to their disastrous marriages and finally to his alarming end. He would have been horrified to have been compared to Vautrin and yet his words to Delphine:

"Money is life itself"

echo those which the criminal tells Rastignac. According to Lucienne Frappier-Mazur:

"Money is the great leveller in this novel."

He goes on to explain how its ubiquitous presence in the story causes everyone to quantify their actions and emotions, and to judge everyone in terms of exchange value. Even people are bought and sold in this novel: the residents of Madame Vauquer's boarding house are not only poor but look like:

"worn faces on coins withdrawn from circulation."

The landlady herself has the face of a "discounter", Mlle. Michonneau is an old "huckster" and even the Duchess de Langeais favours Rastignac with "an auctioneer's glance." Madame Vauquer measures the care and attention she pays her guests in direct proportion to the amount of rent they pay. This is highlighted as, with each downgrading of room Goriot moves from being the landlady's favourite tenant to her favourite joke. Goriot is only following the trends of the time. In giving his daughters the appearance of a rich background he is enabling them to traverse the higher echelons of their society. As Rastignac quickly discovers, in order to even be acknowledged as breathing one must have fountains of money behind them:

"The demon of luxury gnawed at his heart, a fever

for gain seized him, for money dried his throat."

In desperation Rastignac turns to his family, upon receiving the money he declares:

"Yes, success, whatever the cost! No wealth on earth

could repay...

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