Books That Endure: Classic Studies of Human Relationships

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Père Goriot


  • Born of peasant stock in Tours, France; later added the "de" to his name.
  • Studied law in Paris from 1818-1821, at his father assistance; licensed to practice, but instead chose a literary career.
  • Went from one speculation to another throughout his life, all of them ending disastrously-- an early speculation in a printing firm accumulated enough debt to plague him the rest of his life; later wild ventures included digging in abandoned Sardinian mines and traffic with the Great Mogul.
  • Three important women in his life: (1) Mme. de Berny, who was much older than he and the mother of nine; (2) the Marquise de Castries, the model for his less moral ladies of society; and (3) most important, Polish Countess Eveline Hanska, who began writing to him in 1832 and finally married him a few months before his death.
  • Died at 51, apparently of complete exhaustion and enervation (see below).


  • Lived a life of unending literary composition, typically from 2 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
  • Earliest plays and novels showed little promise; first important novel (and first to be published under his own name), The Chouans (1829, originally Le Dernier Chouan), followed quickly by The Physiology of Marriage (1829).  Signaled the advent of his maturity as a writer and initiated two incredibly productive decades in which he produced 95 novels as well as stories, plays, and journalistic pieces.
  • In the early 1830s, conceived the idea of a vast interlocking design for his novels old and new, entitled La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy), intended eventually to contain nearly 150 works and to create a panoramic view of French society. Issued a "Plan" of the series in 1842. Had completed more than 90 novels and novellas at his death.
  • Le Père Goriot, one of his most devastatingly pathetic works, often compared to King Lear.

The Best of the Novels and Stories

The Chouans (1829)
The Wild Ass's Skin (1830)
A Passion in the Desert (1830)
The Unknown Masterpiece (1831)
Colonel Chabert
Eugénie Grandet (1833)
Droll Stories (1833)
The Search for the Absolute (1834)
The Duchess of Langeais (1834)
Old Goriot (1834)
Séraphita (1835)
César Biratteau (1837)
Lost Illusions (1839)
The Village Curé (1839)
A Secret Affair (1841)
Ursule Mirouet (1841)
Modest Mignon (1844)
Béatrix (1844)
Cousin Bette (1846)
Cousin Pons (1847)

Biographical and Critical Information

  • Balzac online
    Britannica site for Balzac
    Detailed "catalogue" of The Human Comedy, compiled by Project Gutenberg
    English-language Balzac site (pictures)
    Books and Writers site: Honoré de Balzac
    Old Goriot site (, contains links to criticism)
    Biographies: Classical Fiction Writers
  • Selected print resources
    Approaches to Teaching Balzac's Old Goriot, ed. Michal Pedel Ginsburg, 2001.
    Père Goriot: A New Translation, Responses, Contemporaries and Other Novelists, Twentieth-Century Criticism, Norton Critical Editions, ed Peter Brooks, 1997.
    Balzac: A Biography, Graham Robb, 1996.
    The Realists: Eight Portraits
    , C. P. Snow.
    Honoré de Balzac, E. S. Oliver.
    Honoré de Balzac: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom.

Retired Discussion Series

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