Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (BOLLI)

Balzac's Old Man Goriot and the Development of the 19th Century Novel

Course Number


Study Group Leader (SGL)

Hollie Harder


This course will take place virtually on Zoom. Participation requires a device (ideally a computer or tablet, rather than a cell phone) with a camera and microphone in good working order and basic familiarity with using Zoom and accessing email.

5-Week Course

Feb. 26 - March 25.


Juxtaposing the trials of a dedicated father abandoned by his socialite daughters and the struggles of an ambitious young man hoping to succeed in Paris, Old Man Goriot, a quintessentially Balzacian novel, vividly paints the social, economic, and moral evolutions of a post-revolutionary France in 1819. Each week, we will focus on new topics and follow up on themes discussed in previous sessions including Paris during the restoration of the monarchy, and the condition of women at this time in French history. We will look at the obsessions of each of the characters that signal their perspective on life, and examine the structure and composition of the novel, the title, the stark contrasts to find surprising similarities among characters. In this novel, the elements of Balzac's mature writing come together to form the groundwork for his vast literary monument, The Human Comedy. Here recurring characters populate his work for the first time, dialogue moves the plot forward rather than description and narration, and everyone has a secret to protect, which transforms this tale of love and loss of illusions into a classic page-turner.  

Group Leadership Style

More facilitated discussion than lecture.

Course Materials

Old Man Goriot by Honoré de Balzac Translated by Olivia McCannon; Introduction by Graham Robb Penguin Classics, 2011 ISBN 9780140449723 $15.00 at Harvard Bookstore and on Additional materials will be provided on a class website and through email.   

Preparation Time

Participants will read approximately 50 pages for each session. Additional background materials will be sent before the start of the class so that readers will have some social and cultural points of reference when they begin this novel.  


Hollie Harder is Professor of French and Francophone Studies and Director of the language programs in French and Italian in the Department of Romance Studies at Brandeis University. In addition to teaching courses on French language, culture, and literature at Brandeis, she leads a Proust discussion group at the Boston Athenaeum, and she has published articles on works by Marcel Proust, Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, and Michel Houellebecq.