The Project Gutenberg ebook of Father Goriot, by Honore de Balzac

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The Project Gutenberg EBook of Father Goriot, by Honore de Balzac
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Title: Father Goriot
Author: Honore de Balzac
Translator: Ellen Marriage
Release Date: March, 1998 [Etext #1237]

Posting Date: February 22, 2010

Language: English


Produced by Dagny

By Honore De Balzac

Translated by Ellen Marriage

To the great and illustrious Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a token

of admiration for his works and genius.


Mme. Vauquer (_nee_ de Conflans) is an elderly person, who for the past

forty years has kept a lodging-house in the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve,

in the district that lies between the Latin Quarter and the Faubourg

Saint-Marcel. Her house (known in the neighborhood as the _Maison

Vauquer_) receives men and women, old and young, and no word has ever

been breathed against her respectable establishment; but, at the same

time, it must be said that as a matter of fact no young woman has been

under her roof for thirty years, and that if a young man stays there for

any length of time it is a sure sign that his allowance must be of the

slenderest. In 1819, however, the time when this drama opens, there was

an almost penniless young girl among Mme. Vauquer's boarders.

That word drama has been somewhat discredited of late; it has been

overworked and twisted to strange uses in these days of dolorous

literature; but it must do service again here, not because this story is

dramatic in the restricted sense of the word, but because some tears may

perhaps be shed _intra et extra muros_ before it is over.
Will any one without the walls of Paris understand it? It is open to

doubt. The only audience who could appreciate the results of close

observation, the careful reproduction of minute detail and local color,

are dwellers between the heights of Montrouge and Montmartre, in a vale

of crumbling stucco watered by streams of black mud, a vale of sorrows

which are real and joys too often hollow; but this audience is so

accustomed to terrible sensations, that only some unimaginable and

well-neigh impossible woe could produce any lasting impression there.

Now and again there are tragedies so awful and so grand by reason of the

complication of virtues and vices that bring them about, that egotism

and selfishness are forced to pause and are moved to pity; but the

impression that they receive is like a luscious fruit, soon consumed.

Civilization, like the car of Juggernaut, is scarcely stayed perceptibly

in its progress by a heart less easy to break than the others that lie

in its course; this also is broken, and Civilization continues on her

course triumphant. And you, too, will do the like; you who with this

book in your white hand will sink back among the cushions of your

armchair, and say to yourself, "Perhaps this may amuse me." You will

read the story of Father Goriot's secret woes, and, dining thereafter

with an unspoiled appetite, will lay the blame of your insensibility

upon the writer, and accuse him of exaggeration, of writing romances.

Ah! once for all, this drama is neither a fiction nor a romance! _All is

true_,--so true, that every one can discern the elements of the tragedy

in his own house, perhaps in his own heart.

The lodging-house is Mme. Vauquer's own property. It is still standing

in the lower end of the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, just where the road

slopes so sharply down to the Rue de l'Arbalete, that wheeled traffic

seldom passes that way, because it is so stony and steep. This position

is sufficient to account for the silence prevalent in the streets shut

in between the dome of the Pantheon and the dome of the Val-de-Grace,

two conspicuous public buildings which give a yellowish tone to the

landscape and darken the whole district that lies beneath the shadow of

their leaden-hued cupolas.
In that district the pavements are clean and dry, there is neither mud

nor water in the gutters, grass grows in the chinks of the walls. The

most heedless passer-by feels the depressing influences of a place where

the sound of wheels creates a sensation; there is a grim look about the

houses, a suggestion of a jail about those high garden walls. A Parisian

straying into a suburb apparently composed of lodging-houses and public

institutions would see poverty and dullness, old age lying down to die,

and joyous youth condemned to drudgery. It is the ugliest quarter of

Paris, and, it may be added, the least known. But, before all things,

the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve is like a bronze frame for a picture for

which the mind cannot be too well prepared by the contemplation of sad

hues and sober images. Even so, step by step the daylight decreases,

and the cicerone's droning voice grows hollower as the traveler descends

into the Catacombs. The comparison holds good! Who shall say which is

more ghastly, the sight of the bleached skulls or of dried-up human


The front of the lodging-house is at right angles to the road, and

looks out upon a little garden, so that you see the side of the house

in section, as it were, from the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve. Beneath the

wall of the house front there lies a channel, a fathom wide, paved with

cobble-stones, and beside it runs a graveled walk bordered by geraniums

and oleanders and pomegranates set in great blue and white glazed

earthenware pots. Access into the graveled walk is afforded by a door,

above which the words MAISON VAUQUER may be read, and beneath, in rather

smaller letters, "_Lodgings for both sexes, etc._"
During the day a glimpse into the garden is easily obtained through a

wicket to which a bell is attached. On the opposite wall, at the further

end of the graveled walk, a green marble arch was painted once upon

a time by a local artist, and in this semblance of a shrine a statue

representing Cupid is installed; a Parisian Cupid, so blistered and

disfigured that he looks like a candidate for one of the adjacent

hospitals, and might suggest an allegory to lovers of symbolism. The

half-obliterated inscription on the pedestal beneath determines the date

of this work of art, for it bears witness to the widespread enthusiasm

felt for Voltaire on his return to Paris in 1777:

"Whoe'er thou art, thy master see;

He is, or was, or ought to be."

At night the wicket gate is replaced by a solid door. The little garden

is no wider than the front of the house; it is shut in between the wall

of the street and the partition wall of the neighboring house. A mantle

of ivy conceals the bricks and attracts the eyes of passers-by to an

effect which is picturesque in Paris, for each of the walls is covered

with trellised vines that yield a scanty dusty crop of fruit, and

furnish besides a subject of conversation for Mme. Vauquer and her

lodgers; every year the widow trembles for her vintage.

A straight path beneath the walls on either side of the garden leads to

a clump of lime-trees at the further end of it; _line_-trees, as Mme.

Vauquer persists in calling them, in spite of the fact that she was a de

Conflans, and regardless of repeated corrections from her lodgers.

The central space between the walls is filled with artichokes and

rows of pyramid fruit-trees, and surrounded by a border of lettuce,

pot-herbs, and parsley. Under the lime-trees there are a few

green-painted garden seats and a wooden table, and hither, during the

dog-days, such of the lodgers as are rich enough to indulge in a cup

of coffee come to take their pleasure, though it is hot enough to roast

eggs even in the shade.
The house itself is three stories high, without counting the attics

under the roof. It is built of rough stone, and covered with the

yellowish stucco that gives a mean appearance to almost every house in

Paris. There are five windows in each story in the front of the house;

all the blinds visible through the small square panes are drawn up awry,

so that the lines are all at cross purposes. At the side of the house

there are but two windows on each floor, and the lowest of all are

adorned with a heavy iron grating.

Behind the house a yard extends for some twenty feet, a space inhabited

by a happy family of pigs, poultry, and rabbits; the wood-shed is

situated on the further side, and on the wall between the wood-shed and

the kitchen window hangs the meat-safe, just above the place where the

sink discharges its greasy streams. The cook sweeps all the refuse

out through a little door into the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, and

frequently cleanses the yard with copious supplies of water, under pain

of pestilence.

The house might have been built on purpose for its present uses. Access

is given by a French window to the first room on the ground floor, a

sitting-room which looks out upon the street through the two barred

windows already mentioned. Another door opens out of it into the

dining-room, which is separated from the kitchen by the well of the

staircase, the steps being constructed partly of wood, partly of tiles,

which are colored and beeswaxed. Nothing can be more depressing than

the sight of that sitting-room. The furniture is covered with horse hair

woven in alternate dull and glossy stripes. There is a round table in

the middle, with a purplish-red marble top, on which there stands, by

way of ornament, the inevitable white china tea-service, covered with

a half-effaced gilt network. The floor is sufficiently uneven, the

wainscot rises to elbow height, and the rest of the wall space is

decorated with a varnished paper, on which the principal scenes from

_Telemaque_ are depicted, the various classical personages being

colored. The subject between the two windows is the banquet given by

Calypso to the son of Ulysses, displayed thereon for the admiration of

the boarders, and has furnished jokes these forty years to the young

men who show themselves superior to their position by making fun of the

dinners to which poverty condemns them. The hearth is always so clean

and neat that it is evident that a fire is only kindled there on great

occasions; the stone chimney-piece is adorned by a couple of vases

filled with faded artificial flowers imprisoned under glass shades, on

either side of a bluish marble clock in the very worst taste.

The first room exhales an odor for which there is no name in the

language, and which should be called the _odeur de pension_. The damp

atmosphere sends a chill through you as you breathe it; it has a stuffy,

musty, and rancid quality; it permeates your clothing; after-dinner

scents seem to be mingled in it with smells from the kitchen and

scullery and the reek of a hospital. It might be possible to describe

it if some one should discover a process by which to distil from the

atmosphere all the nauseating elements with which it is charged by the

catarrhal exhalations of every individual lodger, young or old. Yet,

in spite of these stale horrors, the sitting-room is as charming and

as delicately perfumed as a boudoir, when compared with the adjoining


The paneled walls of that apartment were once painted some color, now

a matter of conjecture, for the surface is incrusted with accumulated

layers of grimy deposit, which cover it with fantastic outlines. A

collection of dim-ribbed glass decanters, metal discs with a satin sheen

on them, and piles of blue-edged earthenware plates of Touraine ware

cover the sticky surfaces of the sideboards that line the room. In a

corner stands a box containing a set of numbered pigeon-holes, in which

the lodgers' table napkins, more or less soiled and stained with wine,

are kept. Here you see that indestructible furniture never met with

elsewhere, which finds its way into lodging-houses much as the wrecks of

our civilization drift into hospitals for incurables. You expect in such

places as these to find the weather-house whence a Capuchin issues on

wet days; you look to find the execrable engravings which spoil your

appetite, framed every one in a black varnished frame, with a gilt

beading round it; you know the sort of tortoise-shell clock-case, inlaid

with brass; the green stove, the Argand lamps, covered with oil and

dust, have met your eyes before. The oilcloth which covers the long

table is so greasy that a waggish _externe_ will write his name on the

surface, using his thumb-nail as a style. The chairs are broken-down

invalids; the wretched little hempen mats slip away from under your

feet without slipping away for good; and finally, the foot-warmers are

miserable wrecks, hingeless, charred, broken away about the holes. It

would be impossible to give an idea of the old, rotten, shaky, cranky,

worm-eaten, halt, maimed, one-eyed, rickety, and ramshackle condition of

the furniture without an exhaustive description, which would delay

the progress of the story to an extent that impatient people would not

pardon. The red tiles of the floor are full of depressions brought about

by scouring and periodical renewings of color. In short, there is

no illusory grace left to the poverty that reigns here; it is dire,

parsimonious, concentrated, threadbare poverty; as yet it has not sunk

into the mire, it is only splashed by it, and though not in rags as yet,

its clothing is ready to drop to pieces.

This apartment is in all its glory at seven o'clock in the morning,

when Mme. Vauquer's cat appears, announcing the near approach of his

mistress, and jumps upon the sideboards to sniff at the milk in the

bowls, each protected by a plate, while he purrs his morning greeting to

the world. A moment later the widow shows her face; she is tricked out

in a net cap attached to a false front set on awry, and shuffles into

the room in her slipshod fashion. She is an oldish woman, with a bloated

countenance, and a nose like a parrot's beak set in the middle of

it; her fat little hands (she is as sleek as a church rat) and her

shapeless, slouching figure are in keeping with the room that reeks of

misfortune, where hope is reduced to speculate for the meanest

stakes. Mme. Vauquer alone can breathe that tainted air without being

disheartened by it. Her face is as fresh as a frosty morning in autumn;

there are wrinkles about the eyes that vary in their expression from

the set smile of a ballet-dancer to the dark, suspicious scowl of

a discounter of bills; in short, she is at once the embodiment and

interpretation of her lodging-house, as surely as her lodging-house

implies the existence of its mistress. You can no more imagine the one

without the other, than you can think of a jail without a turnkey. The

unwholesome corpulence of the little woman is produced by the life she

leads, just as typhus fever is bred in the tainted air of a hospital.

The very knitted woolen petticoat that she wears beneath a skirt made

of an old gown, with the wadding protruding through the rents in the

material, is a sort of epitome of the sitting-room, the dining-room,

and the little garden; it discovers the cook, it foreshadows the

lodgers--the picture of the house is completed by the portrait of its

Mme. Vauquer at the age of fifty is like all women who "have seen a deal

of trouble." She has the glassy eyes and innocent air of a trafficker

in flesh and blood, who will wax virtuously indignant to obtain a higher

price for her services, but who is quite ready to betray a Georges or

a Pichegru, if a Georges or a Pichegru were in hiding and still to be

betrayed, or for any other expedient that may alleviate her lot. Still,

"she is a good woman at bottom," said the lodgers who believed that

the widow was wholly dependent upon the money that they paid her, and

sympathized when they heard her cough and groan like one of themselves.
What had M. Vauquer been? The lady was never very explicit on this head.

How had she lost her money? "Through trouble," was her answer. He had

treated her badly, had left her nothing but her eyes to cry over his

cruelty, the house she lived in, and the privilege of pitying nobody,

because, so she was wont to say, she herself had been through every

possible misfortune.

Sylvie, the stout cook, hearing her mistress' shuffling footsteps,

hastened to serve the lodgers' breakfasts. Beside those who lived in the

house, Mme. Vauquer took boarders who came for their meals; but these

_externes_ usually only came to dinner, for which they paid thirty

francs a month.
At the time when this story begins, the lodging-house contained seven

inmates. The best rooms in the house were on the first story, Mme.

Vauquer herself occupying the least important, while the rest were let

to a Mme. Couture, the widow of a commissary-general in the service of

the Republic. With her lived Victorine Taillefer, a schoolgirl, to whom

she filled the place of mother. These two ladies paid eighteen hundred

francs a year.
The two sets of rooms on the second floor were respectively occupied by

an old man named Poiret and a man of forty or thereabouts, the wearer

of a black wig and dyed whiskers, who gave out that he was a retired

merchant, and was addressed as M. Vautrin. Two of the four rooms on

the third floor were also let--one to an elderly spinster, a Mlle.

Michonneau, and the other to a retired manufacturer of vermicelli,

Italian paste and starch, who allowed the others to address him as

"Father Goriot." The remaining rooms were allotted to various birds of

passage, to impecunious students, who like "Father Goriot" and Mlle.

Michonneau, could only muster forty-five francs a month to pay for their

board and lodging. Mme. Vauquer had little desire for lodgers of this

sort; they ate too much bread, and she only took them in default of

At that time one of the rooms was tenanted by a law student, a young man

from the neighborhood of Angouleme, one of a large family who pinched

and starved themselves to spare twelve hundred francs a year for him.

Misfortune had accustomed Eugene de Rastignac, for that was his name, to

work. He belonged to the number of young men who know as children that

their parents' hopes are centered on them, and deliberately prepare

themselves for a great career, subordinating their studies from the

first to this end, carefully watching the indications of the course of

events, calculating the probable turn that affairs will take, that they

may be the first to profit by them. But for his observant curiosity, and

the skill with which he managed to introduce himself into the salons

of Paris, this story would not have been colored by the tones of

truth which it certainly owes to him, for they are entirely due to his

penetrating sagacity and desire to fathom the mysteries of an appalling

condition of things, which was concealed as carefully by the victim as

by those who had brought it to pass.

Above the third story there was a garret where the linen was hung to

dry, and a couple of attics. Christophe, the man-of-all-work, slept in

one, and Sylvie, the stout cook, in the other. Beside the seven inmates

thus enumerated, taking one year with another, some eight law or medical

students dined in the house, as well as two or three regular comers who

lived in the neighborhood. There were usually eighteen people at dinner,

and there was room, if need be, for twenty at Mme. Vauquer's table; at

breakfast, however, only the seven lodgers appeared. It was almost like

a family party. Every one came down in dressing-gown and slippers,

and the conversation usually turned on anything that had happened

the evening before; comments on the dress or appearance of the dinner

contingent were exchanged in friendly confidence.

These seven lodgers were Mme. Vauquer's spoiled children. Among them

she distributed, with astronomical precision, the exact proportion of

respect and attention due to the varying amounts they paid for their

board. One single consideration influenced all these human beings thrown

together by chance. The two second-floor lodgers only paid seventy-two

francs a month. Such prices as these are confined to the Faubourg

Saint-Marcel and the district between La Bourbe and the Salpetriere;

and, as might be expected, poverty, more or less apparent, weighed upon

them all, Mme. Couture being the sole exception to the rule.
The dreary surroundings were reflected in the costumes of the inmates of

the house; all were alike threadbare. The color of the men's coats were

problematical; such shoes, in more fashionable quarters, are only to be

seen lying in the gutter; the cuffs and collars were worn and frayed at

the edges; every limp article of clothing looked like the ghost of its

former self. The women's dresses were faded, old-fashioned, dyed and

re-dyed; they wore gloves that were glazed with hard wear, much-mended

lace, dingy ruffles, crumpled muslin fichus. So much for their

clothing; but, for the most part, their frames were solid enough; their

constitutions had weathered the storms of life; their cold, hard faces

were worn like coins that have been withdrawn from circulation, but

there were greedy teeth behind the withered lips. Dramas brought to a

close or still in progress are foreshadowed by the sight of such actors

as these, not the dramas that are played before the footlights and

against a background of painted canvas, but dumb dramas of life,

frost-bound dramas that sere hearts like fire, dramas that do not end

with the actors' lives.
Mlle. Michonneau, that elderly young lady, screened her weak eyes from

the daylight by a soiled green silk shade with a rim of brass, an object

fit to scare away the Angel of Pity himself. Her shawl, with its scanty,

draggled fringe, might have covered a skeleton, so meagre and angular

was the form beneath it. Yet she must have been pretty and shapely once.

What corrosive had destroyed the feminine outlines? Was it trouble,

or vice, or greed? Had she loved too well? Had she been a second-hand

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