All about money
Balzac has been called the Shakespeare of the novel
CLASSICS REVISITED BY RAVI VYAS
Old Goriot is one of Balzac's finest novels in The Human Comedy to which it belongs. It draws its characters from every structure of society, and every trade and profession that reflects the whole of life in every aspect and every sphere of human activity. It is a complex work that weaves together three separate tales: the tale of Eugène de Rastignac, the young man starting out in life and learning how to make his way in Parisian society; the tale of Vautrin, a 40-year-old arch criminal, attempting to extend his power from its secret base in the underground to control indirectly the life of a socially respectable man; the tale of the old man, Jean Goriot, dying in poverty, unloved and unaided by his daughters to whom he had given every ounce of love and affection and every franc of his fortune he had made in the flour trade. In 1819, when the action of Old Goriot begins, all three protagonists are lodgers in the boarding house of Madame Vauquer, a shabby and mysterious place located in some dark corner of the Latin Quarter, where nothing is quite what it seems, and certainly not quite what its proprietress, Madam Vauquer, claims it to be.
Nothing is what it seems
Eugène de Rastignac sets out with the best of intentions and aims to make his way to the top through hard work, and to repay his family the sacrifices they had made to support him through his studies for a degree in law. But, little by little, he lets his studies slip up, as he is drawn in his second year by the glamour of the wealthy society of the grande bourgeoise and the aristocracy that flaunts itself in the capital to which he had wormed himself. Rastignac learns that "high" society, like the "low" society of the boarding house, is not what it seems. The wealthy and beautiful Anastasie de Restaud, whom he meets at the first ball he attends, turns out not only to be a commoner by birth, but the daughter of old Goriot who shares his lodgings in the Latin Quarter. Madame de Beauséant is on the brink of despair because she is on the point of being abandoned by her lover for a younger and even wealthier bride. She advises Rastignac to seduce Goriot's other daughter, Delphine, the wife of a bourgeois banker, in order to establish his position in Parisian society. And this is what Rastignac does in the course of the novel. Vautrin, who is lying low in the boarding house because he is on the run from the police, tells Rastignac that what he wants — wealth, position, prominence — couldn't be acquired honestly. "The secret of great wealth with no obvious source is some forgotten crime, forgotten because it was done so neatly."
Balzac has been called the Shakespeare of the novel — never more so than in Old Goriot — and it is part of his greatness that as our culture changes, so more and different meanings become available which suspend our disbelief and convince us of their truthfulness even after 150 years of its publication. What is central to the novel is the role of money in social life, the prominence it gives to material things in everyday life and the way it locates them in a very precise and contemporary setting. In Old Goriot, Balzac assumes that you need money to live on; and that people think about their income, expenditure and balance for much of their waking life.
Thus the way in which Balzac tracks the financial fortunes of Goriot, Anastasie, Delphine and Eugène de Rastignac means simply that money matters more than breeding, faith and monarchy and not to mention it in society was tantamount to running away from the realities of the time. "Money does everything," Goriot declares, placing his emphasis on financial matters. Money thus constitutes a major and quite specific feature of the world depicted in Old Goriot: to understand that world properly, the reader must understand how money functions in the novel.
Old Goriot shows how one man can lose a fortune, and how another, younger man can learn to survive without one. In the early 1800s, Goriot must have made 1,200,000 francs from the grain trade because he had invested in Treasury stock which paid him four to five per cent annual interest to produce an income of 60,000 francs per annum. By 1808 his capital must have been 2,000,000 francs when his daughters marry because he gives each of them a dowry of one million francs, leaving himself 200,000 francs in unlisted government stock which produces — as Madame Vauquer's mental arithmetic reveals — an income of "about eight to ten thousand francs" when he finally retires and comes to live in the boarding house.
But over the next six years to 1819 he loses most of his capital to pay the debts of his daughter's lover. Towards the close of the novel, Goriot is pretty down and out. He is duped by his crooked financier, Nucingen, who invests the money under his wife's name to get round a legal loophole which allows him to spend the money but not own it!
Accent on material culture
The sheer quantity of financial information given about the characters in Old Goriot and the arithmetical and social consistency of most of it (apart from Rastignac's double-dealings) makes it clear that money is treated as the basic constituent of life, as the fundamental element of modern urban life. Balzac's insistence on the details of its accumulation and dispersal gives a vivid social picture of daily life in France in the middle of the 19th Century — which is no different from what it is in the bourgeois world today. Old Goriot shows us people who earn, spend, lose and worry about money; and it shows people living in a world full of things.
No novelist before Balzac had seen quite so many things, or thought it proper to mention the material culture of the real world in quite such lengthy detail. If the details teach anything, they teach us to look, to see with new eyes. Which exposes the superficiality of bourgeois lives that associate the possession of material things with prosperity and good living.
(The Literary Review)
Lastupdate on : Wed, 4 May 2011 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Wed, 4 May 2011 18:30:00 GMT
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