Rastignac is a young student living at a pension (an apartment complex) owned by Madame Vauqeur in the cheap part of Paris. He is the son of an impoverished noble family and wants desperately to make his way in the world. His introduction to a distant aunt, Madame de Beauseant, who is a prominent member of the nobility and social figure, helps him enter into the world of the elite upper-class.
Living at the pension are two men whose interactions with Rastignac reveal two paths for his future; the world-wise Vautrin, secretly a notorious criminal living under an alias, warns Rastignac that unless he is willing to be underhanded, scheming, and immoral he will never make his fortune and rise up in the world, and then there is Pere Goriot, a formerly rich pasta-maker who has given away his fortune to the greediness of his spoiled daughters. Vautrin tries to conspire with Rastignac to seduce Victorine Taillefer, a disowned daughter of a millionaire, also living at the pension who secretly likes him; Vautrin arranges for the millionaire’s son, the current heir, to be killed during a duel so Victorine will be adopted by the father and inherit all his money. This would allow Rastignac to marry Victorine who already loves him and thus make his way in the world with his newly acquired fortune, that he would also share with Vautrin. Before this can happen Vautrin is arrested when one of the other tenants drugs him and reveals his identify to the police as an infamous criminal in exchange for a cash reward.
Meanwhile, Rastignac falls in love with Pere Goriot’s youngest daughter; for all his pretension of rising up in the world, it is his innocence and virtue, his genuineness, in contrast to the seedy world of the upper-class that makes her fall for him. As the story progresses, Pere Goriot sells everything he has left to pay off his daughter’s debts and the emotional toll causes him to have a stroke. His daughters’ husbands now control the fortune of Goriot’s two daughters and won’t even spare a cent for his funeral. Rastignac pays for the funeral with his limited funds, then promises to take on the world of Paris, shedding the last bits of his morality so he can make it in the world.
The novel opens with a long and boring description of Madame Vauquer’s pension. The squalor and hinted penny-pinching in this long-winded description sets up the tone for the rest of the novel. The pension serves as a symbol for the world at large; as we soon see once Rastignac enters the rooms of upper-class society, the surface appearance might seem opulent, but it is just as seedy and morally squalid as Madame Vauquer’s pension. It is all surface appearance, but grimy and nasty when you look too closely.
This is an extremely cynical novel where most characters care only about money and climbing the social ladder. Rastignac’s major struggle throughout the novel is to maintain his ideals of right and wrong, while making his way in the world, which the novel suggests is impossible. Goriot is a King Lear figure who gives everything to his spoiled daughters, but gets nothing but grief in return. It is a warning against spoiling your children. Raise your children wrong and it will come back to haunt you in your old age. It is also a warning against refusing to see the world as it actually is. As the novel implies the world is mud, it’s a cess pool. Goriot offers Rastignac a vision of virtue, the paternal father figure who will do anything for his children, but sees where such virtuous behavior bordering on madness leads; it leads to poverty, lack of appreciation, and death in an ignoble grave. Once Goriot dies, Rastignac finally understands that Vautrin was right about the nature of the world. Vautrin warns Rastignac that if you want to rise in the world, you need to be willing to cast aside moral scruples. This is a hard moral to swallow for the average reader.
This behavior isn’t reserved for the upper-class only. Madame Vauquer pinches pennies at every turn and her every thought seems to be geared towards how she can milk the most money out of her tenants. Indeed, when Goriot first moves into the pension and she realizes he is rich, she hopes to seduce him and rise in social status as a respectable middle-class woman. Goriot shows no interest in her, which leads her from sycophantically catering to his every need to mocking Goriot behind his back when she realizes a marriage between them is never going to happen. When Goriot is dying she doesn’t care or have any “Christian” feeling for his suffering, but it is all about money and cents for her. She provides him with the worst blankets to comfort him in his death and requires payment up front to even provide him with that. This theme of greediness is explored further in the scene where her two tenants sell out Vautrin to the police in order to make extra money, incurring the disgust of the other tenants.
In Goriot’s daughters we see their desire to be rich and part of the nobility costs them their virtue, it costs them their father, and their freedom. This last factor is particularly interesting. For all their high social status, Goriot’s daughters are more miserable than ever and lack the freedom to do as they please, especially once their husbands control their money. They have become horrible selfish human beings, and still aren’t happy. On the other hand, Goriot’s “virtue” of extreme self-sacrifice ruins his life as well. Meanwhile, characters like Rastignac’s friends, Bianchon, a doctor, who consciously understands that he will never be an important big shot in society and is content being a small country doctor with a modest income. Likewise, Victorine Traillefer seems happy in her poverty before Vautrin’s insidious plan leaves her with a huge inheritance. The novel tells us explicitly that she would never wish any harm on her brother even if it meant losing her fair share of their father’s fortune. Rastignac fails to learn from these experiences, ultimately choosing the path of a social climber.
This is perhaps why it is a cynical novel. Rastignac resists Vautrin’s plans and philosophy, standing firm to his ideals, only to succumb to the corruption of society in the end, realizing that if he wants to get anywhere he has no choice. You can be virtuous or you can be rich and important, but you cannot be both, suggests the novel.