The character of Mme Vauquer

A) Personal description

B) Mme Vauquer’s boarding house reflects her person

C) The character of Mme Vauquer

  1. She has no feeling for people close to her
    1. She has difficulty relating to and feeling affection for people close to her.
    2. She is extremely vindictive towards Goriot
    3. Her callous treatment of a dying man
    4. We see the insensitivity in her theft of Goriot’s locket
    5. Her only consolationis she can sack her faithful servant to save money
  2. She is filled with a sense of self pity.
  3. She is avaricious and mercenary
    1. She prioritises the attentions she gives in proportion to what she is paid
    2. She empties the dregs of all the bottles into one to make a full bottle
    3. She charges for the sheets and every other item for Goriot’s deathbed
  4. She has a strong sexual appetite
    1. She thought Goriot’s passionate nature promised satisfaction for her sensual appetite
    2. She strongly fancied Rastignac in his smart new clothes
    3. She is hopeful that Vautrin might seduce her
    4. She interprets the behaviour of others in the light of her own sexual longings


The character of Mme Vauquer
A) Her personal description
Madame Vauquer is aged about 50 and has run the boarding house for 40 years

On pages 12- 13, there is a very full and vivid picture Mme Vauquer. She is stout and full bosomed, and Balzac  piles on the detail with relish –the shuffle of her walk: “elle marche en traînassant ses pantoufles grimaces”   - her chubby face with a nose like a parrot’s beak: “Sa face vieillotte, grassouillette, du milieu de laquelle sort un nez de perroquet”  her little podgy hands-“ses petites mains potelées”.  These details combine to evoke the physical appearance of this plump middle-aged woman, whom the author sums up with an unglamorous comparison- “sa personne dodue comme un rat d’église”.   

Many tubby people are perfectly charming and Mme Vauquer had a semi-permanent smile on her face.  However hers was the set smile of a professional dancer, whose artificiality could easily change to a money lender's scowl-Page 13:
ses yeux ridés dont l’expression passe du sourire prescrit aux danseuses à l’amer renfrognement de l’escompteur

A further comic description comes later in the book. When Goriot first came to her house, he was rich and smart.  Mme Vauquer decided to scheme to become his wife. She began to take pride in her appearance and to smarten up the boarding house.  Balzac makes a cruel joke about the result of her efforts.  He says that dolled up for battle, Mme. Vauquer looked like a famous butcher’s shop sign in Paris -a bull dressed in fashionable clothes. Page 31.
Quand ces munitions furent employées, et que la veuve fut sous les armes, elle ressembla parfaitement à l'enseigne du Bœuf à la Mode.

B) Mme Vauquer’s boarding house reflects her person
She makes the boarding house what it is and the boarding house makes her what she is. Page 13.
…..enfin toute sa personne explique la pension, comme la pension implique sa personne:
The same shabbiness is seen in her dress as in the state of her house- eg the sitting room is described with its odeur de pension. Page 11. 
(The room) Elle sent le renfermé, le moisi, le rance; elle donne froid, elle est humide au nez, elle pénètre les vêtements; elle a le goût d'une salle où l'on a dîné; elle pue le service,- l'office, l'hospice.  Enfin, là règne la misère sans poésie; une misère économe, concentrée, râpée. Si elle n'a pas de fange encore, elle a des taches; si elle n'a ni trous ni haillons, elle va tomber en pourriture.

C) The character of Mme Vauquer

1) She has no feeling for people close to her
a)  She finds it impossible to relate to and feel affection for people close to her.
The people with whom she is in close contact are aware of the emptiness of her character and she is not at ease with them, feeling judged by them.  As a result she can totally unwind only with strangers.  This explained her false confidence in the pretended Comtesse d’Ambersnil, who cheated her.   Balzac makes a perceptive analysis of this facet of Mme Vauquer’s personality- Page 32:
Enfin il est des individus nés mercenaires qui ne font aucun bien à leurs amis ou à leurs proches, parce qu'ils le doivent; tandis qu'en rendant  service à des inconnus, ils en recueillent un gain d'amour-propre: plus le cercle de leurs affections est près d'eux, moins ils aiment; plus il s'étend, plus serviables ils sont. Madame Vauquer tenait sans doute de ces deux natures, essentiellement mesquines, fausses, exécrables.

b) She is extremely vindictive towards Goriot
 Later when Mme. de l'Ambersnil failed in her devious mission, she went off with her rent unpaid. She was proved to be an imposter.  After this Mme. Vauquer blamed Goriot for this unfortunate incident, even though it was of her own making. Her animosity towards Goriot now surpassed her previous affection.  She cut down on the extras for him; but he, being a frugal man, was unaware of it.  Therefore she began to treat him with contempt and her boarders joined in.
We see the meanness of her spite on the morning when she gets up to find that the cat has drunk out of one of the bowls of milk set out for breakfast. -She tells the servants to top it up with water and give it to Goriot.

c) Her callous treatment of a dying man
When Goriot is dying she wants him to be taken away from her house; Page 300: 
Ca frappe mes pensionnaires. Pour un rien, je le ferais porter à l'hôpital.  Enfin, mettez-vous à ma place. Mon établissement avant tout, c'est ma vie, à moi.

d) We see the insensitivity of her theft of Goriot’s locket. Mme Vauquer steals from Goriot’s corpse the gold framed locket with his daughters’ hair.  Eugène is shocked: Page 307:
Comment avez-vous osé prendre ça ? lui dit-il.    Very indignant he demands that Goriot is allowed to take away with him the only thing that can represent his daughters
e) On the day that she finds herself losing all of her boarders, her only consolation is that she can economise by sacking her simple, faithful servant, Christophe.

2) She is filled with a sense of self pity.  
Little is known of her dead husband but that he had behaved badly to her.  Through his treatment of her, he had dispensed her of the need ever to feel sorry for anyone else’s misery and he had endowed her with this dispensation for life. Page 14.
Il s'était mal conduit envers elle, ne lui avait laissé que les yeux pour pleurer, cette maison pour vivre, et le droit de ne compatir à aucune infortune, parce que, disait-elle, elle avait souffert tout ce qu'il est possible de souffrir 
Her self-pity is displayed in its most dramatic force on the day when Mme Vauquer loses one paying guest after another in quick succession.  Her star guest has been dragged off to prison; her two ladies have left because the young lady’s brother has been murdered.  However for Mme. Vauquer she is only one victim that matters and the pain she feels is financial - Page 231:
Quatre appartements vacants, cinq pensionnaires de moins! Elle s'assit et parut près de pleurer. Le malheur est entré chez moi, s'écria-­t-elle.

3) She is avaricious and mercenary
a) She prioritises the attentions she gives in proportion to what she is paid
The people who mattered to her were the seven boarders who were Mme. Vauquer's specials, treated with respect which was proportional to the rent they paid  Page 17.
Ces sept pensionnaires étaient les enfants gâtés de madame Vauquer, qui leur mesurait avec une précision d'astronome les soins et les égards, d'après le chiffre de leurs pensions.
b) After the guests leave the table after the evening meal, Mme Vauquer empties the dregs of all the bottles into one to make a full bottle
c) Rastignac and Bianchon wish to change the bed linen to make Goriot’s death decent. Mme. Vauquer charges for the sheets and every other item.
5) She has a strong sensual appetite
a) Reading Goriot’s physiognomy, Mme. Vauquer recognised his highly emotional nature, which promised satisfaction for her sensual appetite. When Goriot arrived, she went to bed that night and sizzled with passion at the thought of becoming his wife Page 28:
….le jour où monsieur Goriot s'installa chez elle, madame Vauquer se coucha le soir en rôtissant, comme une perdrix dans sa barde, au feu du désir qui la saisit de quitter le suaire de Vauquer pour renaître en Goriot. Se marier  …., 
b) When Rastignac appears in the smart clothes of a society dandy, there is an outburst of mockery from the men but Mme Vauquer is filled with lust.

c) She is hopeful that Vautrin might seduce her.  When he teases Mme. Vauquer saying her corsets are so tight that if she laughs she will burst - but he will pick up the pieces. Mme. Vauquer is delighted.- Page 209:
Il connaît le langage de la galanterie française dit la veuve en se penchant à l'oreille de madame Couture.  
After he leaves Mme. Vauquer asks the others hopefully whether they think he has designs on her person.

d) She interprets the behaviour of others in the light of her own sexual longings.  When Goriot was visited by two beautiful women, Mme Vauquer assumed that they were Goriot’s kept women.  When the story begins to unfold that Goriot has given up his most prized possession to pay off the debts of Anastasie, with whom he has some unknown association, Mme Vauquer comes to the most sordid conclusion.  She detects a guilty manner in Goriot and, after he leaves the room, tells the others, - Page 58
En bien! L’avez-vous vu……Il est clair qu’il s’est ruiné pour ces femmes là
She has the bitter realisation that she had tried to seduce Goriot, to get her hands on the same fortune and had failed.

Conclusion.  She is a very vivid character.  Most likely Balzac knew a Mme Vauquer, who is an archetypal landlady, in his student days in Paris.  Possibly his portrait of her has been enhanced by the exaggerated folklore passed on with interest in the table gossip of other student boarders.  Balzac is sometimes accused of exaggerating his characters to the point that they become caricatures.   Mme Vauquer could be used to illustrate this criticism.   Whether we make this judgement or not we acknowledge that she is an entertaining character, who adds to the richness of the novel.

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