Read an Excerpt
From Peter Connor’s Introduction to Pere Goriot
Père Goriot is also the perfect novel to start with if one has read none of the roughly ninety novels and stories that make up La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), the title Balzac gave to his collected oeuvre. It is probably with Père Goriot that Balzac consciously set about perfecting the technique of recurring characters that marks his signal contribution to literary history; in it, he introduces a number of people who reappear in later novels, and brings back a few who have been introduced already in earlier ones. Indeed, Rastignac stands out as an exemplary figure in this new way of envisioning the novel. Avid readers of Balzac at the time had encountered him already in La Peau de chagrin (The Wild Ass’s Skin, 1831), a novel published before Père Goriot (1835) but in which Rastignac appears as a mature man, older than the young student living at the Maison Vauquer in Père Goriot. Père Goriot gives us the story of Rastignac’s beginnings in society; a prequel to The Wild Ass’s Skin, it provides the backstory (as they say in Hollywood), just as other novels in La Comédie humaine will inform us about Rastignac’s adventures later in life. Explaining his system of composition in the preface to Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions, 1843), Balzac writes: “When one of these characters finds himself, like M. de Rastignac in Père Goriot, arrested in mid-career, you should seek him out again in Profil de Marquise (Profile of a Marquesa), in The Interdiction [L’Interdiction], in The Firm of Nucingen [La Maison Nucingen], and finally in The Wild Ass’s Skin, acting in each epoch according to the rank he has then reached.”
This explains the occasional reference in Père Goriot to the future life of one of its characters, as for example when Balzac writes of Rastignac that “the self-possession which pre-eminently distinguished him in later life already stood him in good stead.” Rastignac appears in more than twenty of the novels in La Comédie humaine, a vast tapestry of characters whose lives are interwoven in different ways at different periods. (When one considers the incidence of recurrence of other characters from Père Goriot—the Baron de Nucingen appears or is mentioned in thirty-one stories, Bianchon in twenty-nine, Delphine in seventeen, Gobseck in thirteen, Madame de Beauséant in ten, etc.—one begins to get an idea of the complexity of the social tableau Balzac painted.) The interweaving is crucial: Balzac is less interested in individual characters than in the relations that bind them together at different moments in their lives. Fascinated by the social bond in its manifold forms, Balzac wrote novels and stories that abound in the representation of alliances, friendships, associations, groups, gangs, families (and pseudofamilies, such as the boarders at the Maison Vauquer). Although he is known as the creator of some of the most compelling characters of nineteenth-century fiction (including Rastignac and Vautrin from Goriot), and in spite of the fact that he wrote in an era of unprecedented individualism—the era of individual rights and bourgeois liberalism that came fast upon the revolutionary turmoil of the late eighteenth century—one could perhaps argue that Balzac’s work demonstrates that there is no such entity as the individual; there is only the collective, shared existence of humanity (the boardinghouse in Père Goriot is a fine example of this commonality), along with a thoroughly modern sense of the precariousness of the very categories of individual, self, and identity, which Balzac approaches with skepticism. The method of recurring characters is designed precisely to allow for the representation of a vast social panorama in all its multiplicity as well as the successive and different selves (or “incarnations,” as he liked to say; see La Dernière incarnation de Vautrin [1847; The Last Incarnation of Vautrin]) for a single character who is anything but an individual.
“From being individual,” wrote writer and critic Barbey d’Aurevilly of Balzac’s fiction, “the novel became social. Where there had been a man, there was a whole society.” In order to represent the whole of society—“the whole hotchpotch of civilization,” as he writes in his second preface to Père Goriot—Balzac needed a more elastic form than the novel as it was then conceived. For if the novel at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century excelled in depicting the psychology of an individual character (classic examples would be Étienne Pivert de Senancour’s Oberman or Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe), it was not capacious enough to inscribe the social heterogeneity—the multiple and increasingly interconnected strata of society—that for Balzac formed the essence of the modern, post-Revolutionary experience. Balzac’s method freed him from the formal limitations of the novel and allowed him to represent the vicissitudes of a large group of characters considered over a long period of time. The technique could moreover be applied retrospectively, as it were, since with each new edition of his works, Balzac had the opportunity to alter the names of characters, selecting a known name from the ever-expanding community of La Comédie humaine. Hence, in the original edition of La Comédie humaine there are twenty-three recurring characters; in subsequent editions, there are as many as fifty.1 The vastness of the scale on which he was working (there are upwards of 2,500 characters) led him into numerous errors, confusions, and contradictions among the novels: contradictions in physical appearance; inconsistencies in civil status, character traits, or behavior (the cynical gambler Rastignac of The Wild Ass’s Skin is for some readers difficult to reconcile with the Rastignac of Père Goriot, who in the manuscript is named Massiac until his meeting with Madame de Beauséant and the Duchesse de Langeais; uncertainty of place or date of birth (Rastignac is from Gascony in The Wild Ass’s Skin and from the Charente in Père Goriot and Lost Illusions); differences in the spelling of proper names; characters who come back from the dead; posthumous children, etc. (Lotte, “Le ‘retour des personnages’ dans La Comédie humaine”; see “For Further Reading”).