Animality and Contagion in Balzac’s Père Goriot


In his classic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Erich Auerbach famously cites the opening pages of Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot as emblematic of modern realism. With their minute description of the boardinghouse, where much of the novel’s action takes place, these pages emphasize physical setting, Auerbach argues, in a way new to Western literature. Yet Balzac’s descriptions are driven by something more than an ambition to represent “contemporary life” in scrupulous detail (468). In Auerbach’s view, the characteristic element of Balzac’s realism is an obsession with the reciprocal action of characters and milieu, a scientific or philosophical principle according to which the quality of a given environment may be inferred from a person who inhabits it, and the character of a person may in turn be inferred from their customary environment.

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