The Hero Journey in Paris: What Story are You Living?

In 1834 Balzac published the first of his series of novels La Comedie Humaine, portraying life in contemporary France.

Pere Goriot focuses on the rise to fame and fortune of a poor law student Eugene de Rastignac. The ambitious young hero arrives from the provinces in Paris without a penny to his name. The only card in his hand is his distant kinship to ‘one of the queens of fashionable Paris’, the immensely grand Vicomtesse de Beausant. This powerful lady becomes in effect de Rastignac’s ‘fairy godmother’ and determines to use her influence to launch him on a dazzling social career. She first arranges for him to meet a certain rich Countess. But this is no fairy tale ‘Princess’ whom it is intended de Rastignac should marry. The Countess is married already. The aim is simply that he should win social advancement by becoming her lover. When this proposed affair comes to nothing, thans to a social gaffe by de Rastignac, the ‘fairy godmother’ propels him in the direction of the Countess’ sister, an equally rich Baroness. This time the ruse is more successful, not least because de Rastignac has discovered the guilty secret of both the sisters’ wealth. They are being pivily supported by their old father Goriot, a little retired vermicelli manufacturer, who just happens to live in de Rastignac’s humble lodgings; and whom de Rastignac just happens one day to see through the keyhole, melting down the last of the family silver (like some fairy tale gnome in the forest) to provide his daughters with more funds. Goriot and the Baroness combine to set up de Rastignac in a lavish appartment. Having moved in,

“Eugene, completely overcome, lay back on the sofa, unable to utter a word or make sense yet of the way i which the magic wand had been waved yet again for this final transformational scene.”

Balzac in le Musée Rodin

But, again, the fairy-tale happy ending is not to be. Suddenly disaster strikes. The financial affairs of both sisters crash in ruins. Old Goriot himself dies. His heartless, snobbish daughters do not even deign to come to his funeral. De Rastignac, his promised fortune snatched away from him, climbs the hill above Paris, looks down contemptuously on ‘the splendid world he had wished to gain’ and says, in bitter defiance, ‘It’s war between us now’.

Despite its explicit echoes of a Rags to Riches fairy tale, this bleak, two – dimensional story could scarcely be further from the timeless, almost metaphysical realm of the folk tale, where riches, ‘Princesses’ and transformation scenes stand for something altogether more symbolic and psychologically profound than just the amassing of hard cash and a succession of sexual contests. As de Rastignac climbs his way ruthlessly up the social ladder, there are no signs of any inner transformation, any development towards wholeness and maturity: merely the acquisition of new and sharper weapons in the war of social self-aggrandisement, and the general hardening of a once relatively innocent heart.

What we see here is an author defying the archetypal rules by trying to imagine a wholly egocentric pasteboard here going through the pattern of an ascent from Rags to Riches without any of the essential qualities which could allow him to reach a successful resolution: with the result that the story ends on that chilling final image when de Rastignac issues his angry challenge to the ‘hostile’ city of Paris. In bidding defiance to the city, Balzac’s hero is merely reflecting that most ominous psychic split of all: where, far from the conscious ego ending up in harmony with the deeper ‘centre’, the two are left seemingly irretrievably at odds.

When, in Pere Goriot and later novels, Balzac fondly imagines his heroes rising ever more gloriously in Parisian society, it was precisely that aim which, in his fantasy he was pursuing: by dreaming, through the social triumps of de Rastignac and others, his succession of ‘fantasy selves’, of winning all those social and sexual gratifications his ego desired.

What can we learn from Balzac’s stories about our own story? The theme of Pere Goriot is transformation. You will find as you come to understand archetypes that you may have a story that is predominant, but you may also find that there are many subthemes. The major issues underlying the themes often relate to difficult human polarities, such as how we balance connection and control, communion and agency, love and power, realism and optimism, trust and caution, altruism and self-interest and so on. Even beneath these themes are deep needs and desires that motivate us to take journeys i orde to find what we desire.

In this way, archetypal stories provide models of how to move from desire to fulfillment. What makes the plot interesting is the need to do so in ways that respect both sides of a polarity. For example, if you have a need for control and live a Warrior or Ruler story to get it, you may end up forgetting to bond and connect with others. So you may fulfill the desire to your detriment, ending up powerful, but lonely. However, if you can simultaneously also live an affiliative Lover story that allows you to have intimate connections, you may both achieve both power and relationships.

The characters in our story represent parts of ourselves, they are chosen primarily as aspects of twelve common archetypal characters that we imbue with specific traits and ideals based upon our own lives. Each character brings with it a particular set of plots. It is as if your larger self, which encompasses all that you are or potentially may be, as well as your connection with the universe acts as casting director to choose those aspects of yourself most relevant to a particular stage of your journey.

Next stop: Living the Stories in Everyday Life About Peter de KusterPeter de Kuster is the founder of The Hero’s Journey & Heroine’s Journey project,  a storyteller who helps creative professionals to create careers and lives based on whatever story is most integral to their lives and careers (values, traits, skills and experiences). Peter’s approach combines in-depth storytelling and marketing expertise, and for over 20 years clients have found it effective with a wide range of creative business issues.


Peter is writer of the series The Heroine’s Journey and Hero’s Journey books, he has an MBA in Marketing,  MBA in Financial Economics and graduated at university in Sociology and Communication Sciences.