Lessons From Stories: Unconditional Love Can Be A Bad Thing

Honore de Balzac wrote the novel Old Goriot in 1835, and he explored the social and cultural changes that were taking place in France at the time. There are several themes associated with this novel, but I’d like to focus on one in particular. The theme of parental love and family relationships, specifically the relationship between Goriot and his two daughters, Delphine and Anastasie. The lesson derived from this relationship is that there is such a thing as too much love. That, in fact, a parent’s unconditional love can have negative effects on their children.

(Obvious spoilers ahead)

To set the stage, at this time in France, one’s reputation was everything. This theme is largely explored through the lens of the character Rastignac. He is a young man with dreams of becoming rich and successful. In his story, he interacts with the elites of the Parisian society including both Delphine and Anastasie. The two daughters are married to successful men but the daughters constantly struggle with finances as they attempt to buy rich gowns and wear expensive jewelry in order to keep their high societal image.

It is in this struggle to stay relevant we see how unconditional parental love can be damaging.

But first, we must understand who Goriot is. Goriot is portrayed as the ideal father. He embodies the parenting view that it is the parent’s responsibility to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of their children. We meet Goriot living in an old boarding house along with several other characters. Soon after that, we are given background information about how once upon a time Goriot was a rich merchant and the reason why he went from living comfortably to now having to spend his old age by himself in a small room was because he gave his wealth to his two daughters in order to maintain their image of wealthy Parisian women so they can keep getting invitations to dinner parties and get-togethers.

This idea of Keeping Up with the Joneses is as relevant today as it was in that time period. As people attain more wealth they upgrade their living situations trying to maintain a certain image that they believe is associated with their income level. Goriot’s two daughters are no different than the people we see walking around now. Both of them find themselves in this rich sphere of influence and both constantly struggle to stay in that sphere. When our self-worth and our identity comes to be tied with our reputation and image, we can fail to see what really matters. Such as the love and care of people around us.

The daughters fall into this trap as well. They care little of how their father has downgraded in his living conditions over the years and how he’s had to sell what is precious to him in order to raise enough money to keep a steady flow of income which the daughters can use for material possessions. The daughters are too self-absorbed and here is where too much love and care can be a bad thing.

The overwhelming love Goriot had for his daughters stopped him from thinking rationally. Instead of teaching his daughters about self-worth or raising them to make their own wealth, he kept on feeding their addiction. Love clouded his logic to the point he was essentially causing self-harm in order to keep his daughters happy. His love for his daughters stopped him from putting proper boundaries which would allow the daughters to take on responsibility for themselves. He wasn’t able to raise independent human beings. Instead, even as adults his daughters relied on him to help them and because his love was boundless, he kept on loving and sacrificing until his final breath. Worse of all, the tragedy of the story, the father dies without either one of his daughters there to comfort him and even at his funeral, the daughters don’t come.

Often we hear how moderation in all things is the key to a successful life. When I think of moderation my mind automatically goes to bad habits and vices that we can practice and how we must be aware of such things in order to keep ourselves from overindulging in the bad. Old Goriot opened my eyes to a new perspective. Overindulgence in the good can also be harmful. Too much love, comfort, and support can rob someone’s possibility of being their own individual. The daughters never had to stand on their own two feet because Goriot was there to support and guide them the whole time. It is easy to identify when we are imbalanced due to our bad actions but much harder to pinpoint the imbalance when we are acting out of love and care. This story is a good reminder of the latter. Even our love and care must be disciplined and moderated. Especially if we are to raise proper human beings.

Montaigne on The Importance of Emotional Moderation

On sadness, Montaigne notes the following:

The force of extreme sadness inevitably stuns the whole of our soul, impeding her freedom of action. It happens to use when we are suddenly struck with alarm by some really bad news: we are enraptured, seized, paralyzed in all our movements in such a way that, afterward, when the soul lets herself go with tears and lamentations, she seems to have struggled loose, disentangled herself and become free to range about as she wishes.

An individual can be petrified by extreme sadness. Such a notion was immortalized by Ovid who tells a story of a mother turned into a rock once she finds out that all seven of her sons have been killed in battle. Unprepared for the worst possible outcome, one leaves themselves open to such consequences. Here, the Stoic wisdom plays a role which states that you should always contemplate and reflect on the worst possible outcome whenever you act. In this manner, if that outcome comes about, you have a plan of action and can face the problem head-on.

On love, Montaigne has the following to say:

This is a source of the occasional impotence which sometimes comes so unseasonably upon men when making love, and of that chill produced, in the very lap of their delight by excessive ardor.

Excessive ardor. The excess of happiness. The excess of love, it all can be overwhelming just as an excess of sadness is. Virgil speaks of a woman dying when she faces a joy that she had thought to be unattainable, this unhoped joy overwhelms her.

The reason Montaigne speaks on these emotions is to further his point that in order to taste and digest pleasure, one must live moderately. Never too high, never too low and one way to accomplish such moderation is to understand the alternative possibilities, whether those possibilities are good or bad just so one is not shocked or taken aback when a different reality comes true.

Furthermore, moderation can be achieved through practice. Montaigne believed that through arguments one can practice daily toughness, to thicken one’s skin and prepare them for what life throws at them. These arguments being those that result in questioning one’s beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. Reflecting upon your action and noting the pros and cons on how to behave. Having a skeptical approach where one is always questioning and arguing, trying to get to the truth. In this manner, one is neither elated or depressed, for the search continues, always.