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The Boardinghouse as a House of Mirrors in Balzac’s Le Père Goriot
Realism is the “art of representing actuality” (Preston Dargan 72), which Honoré de Balzac successfully exploits in his novel Le Père Goriot. A keen observer of the “language, errors, opinions of the Parisian bourgeois” (Mortimer 84), Balzac creates a narrative that owes its verisimilitude to minute and vivid descriptions of the human experience. Moreover, he builds a peculiar kind of realism in which the architecture is imbued with human character. A small-scale model of Paris, the boardinghouse emulates a house of mirrors, symbolizing not only entrapment (Tadié 35) and corruption, but also the ability to shift between multifarious traits and identities which ultimately lead to the degradation of the human condition.
Firstly, Mme Vauquer’s pension bourgeoise represents a metropolis in miniature (Tadié 31), where the unseen forces of greed, lust, and confusion work to the detriment of the characters. The boardinghouse foreshadows destruction: “it has a stuffy, musty, and rancid quality” (Balzac 5). It is a mixture of old but likable: “floor is sufficiently uneven,” (6) “this apartment is in all its glory at seven o’clock in the morning,” (7) it is decrepit yet charming: “nothing can be more depressing than the sight of that sitting-room […] yet, [it] is as charming and as delicately perfumed as a boudoir” (7). The boardinghouse entraps its inhabitants after they have been rejected by society (Tadié 36). Such is the case of Father Goriot, who has been left to wither away after investing his entire fortune in his daughters’ matrimonial affairs.
Secondly, Balzac uses the mirroring effect of the boarding house to create a myriad of unusual and confusing reflections. The characters project themselves upon the house: Mme Vauquer is “the embodiment and interpretation of her lodging-house” (Balzac 7), Rastignac undergoes great character development, exhibiting everything from childish naïveté and devotion to violence, compromise, and deception, while the arch-criminal and insouciant Vautrin is “the Mephistopheles to Rastignac’s Faust” (Tadié 35). Vautrin is an elaborate phony with multiple identities, while Poiret and Michonneau turn out to be informers for the police. Goriot’s title, père, could mean both “old” and “father,” pointing to his physical and moral downfall in contrast to his paternal love and sacrifice for his daughters.
In conclusion, the boardinghouse in Balzac’s Le Père Goriot typifies a “strikingly organized metaphorical description” of a heightened reality (Farrant 123), a house of mirrors where characters are faced with what they are, what they ought to be, and what they unfortunately become.
Balzac, Honoré de. “Father Goriot”. Translated by Ellen Marriage. Anconna Media, 2014.
Farrant, Tim. “An Introduction to Nineteenth-century French Literature”. London, 2007.
Mortimer, Armine Kotin. “For Love or for Money: Balzac’s Rhetorical Realism”. Columbus Ohio State University Press, 2011.
Preston Dargan, Edwin. “Studies in Balzac II. Critical Analysis of Realism”. Modern Philology, Vol. 16, No. 7. The University of Chicago Press, 1918, pp. 351-370.
Tadié, Benoit. “Balzacian Ghosts in ‘The Boarding House’. European Joyce Studies (19). 2011, pp. 31-41.