Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Here are the Young Men (Père Goriot part 3)

For all my blabbing about bourgeoisie and aristocracy during the French Restoration, Balzac conception of social class is remarkably fluid. Both Andrew and I have written a lot already about status and comportment. We both see Rastignac, the young law student from the ‘south', as a figure whose downfall is legendary. Andrew has punctuated this by putting more weight on his provincialism:
He's a young law student from the south, the son of a prominent provincial family which enables him to begin circulating in an elevated Parisian milieu. What's striking about him, in addition to his overt social ambitions, is how he's just wrong about everything.

Rastignac is not destined for greatness in Paris. His parents did not send him there to further their name and enhance their stature. But rather to be rid of him. They did not endow him with the knowledge necessary to adequately function in the big city and such knowledge does not come easily for a provincial young man. Even the cab driver, supposedly Rastignac's social better, understand how Paris functions.

The man from the provinces and the two Frances were not just themes of Balzac's work, they were part of his own experiences. Balzac had made his way to Paris in his youth, and his fiction often drew from his own struggles to achieve literary success. Balzac, however, rarely expressed sympathy for ambitious writers who followed in his footsteps, portraying them as adventurers who gave up their art as soon as they tasted luxury.

Rastignac was but part of the slow growing mobility of early 19th century France that was geographic as well as social. French universities did not keep apace with universities in other nations, and centralization (as in all things) was strong. Most French universities supported one or two faculties, usually reflecting the particular needs of the region. Only two cities in France had full university faculties, Paris and Strasbourg. Since the latter operated more within the German education system, Paris was the logical destination for ambitious Frenchmen. And, receiving their pedigrees in Paris, they resented having to leave (especially true for the public officials.)

Getting back to social fluidity: Balzac recognizes categories like ‘bourgeoisie' and ‘aristocracy', but they seem less important to him than generations. Indeed, the novel could be interpreted as a battle between three generations that have passed through revolution in different ways. First, the generation of 1789, the Goriots, who made their name participating in the changes that would make the nation. Goriot's wealth was made serving the revolutionary government, and there is a sense that his wealth (and by extension, the accomplishments of the Revolution) that the Restoration drained away. Their bourgeois values are unassailable, but their dedication to family makes him vulnerable.

Second, the generation of 1815, who turned the balance achieved during the Napoleonic era into a return of court culture. In the novel, this generation is highly feminized: its faces are all women—Goriot's daughters (de Nuncingen and de Restaud) and de Beauséant. Men are present, but they seem to orbit around these women, trying to possess them. This generation ‘restored' clientelism in which the drives of the Revolution serve their needs.

Finally, the youth of France—Rastignac's generation, who would become the generation of the July Revolution. Eventually, they would pick up the torch of 1789 rather than just feed off its accomplishments. At this stage, Balzac saw the youth of France with immeasurable potential, but he had misgivings about their impressionability: they were too carefree and given to fashion and luxury. They wallowed in the wealth of the elite, believing that it was there own, dissipating their talent on gambling and affairs and abandoning the ideals that brought them to Paris in the first place.
All young men seem to be subject to an inexorable law, though they are driven by their youth and the wild fury with which they fling themselves into pleasure. Whether poor or rich, they never have enough fir life's necessities, though they can always find enough for any whim that strikes them.

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