There is always a moment in Balzac's descriptions of the world where the eye's photographic registration of objects yields to the mind's effort to pierce surface, to interrogate appearences. In Le Père Goriot, after a few initial lines of description of Mlle Michonneau, the narrator shifts into the interrogatory: "What acid had stripped this creature of her female forms? She must once have been pretty and well-built: was it vice? sorrow? greed? Had she loved too much, been a go-between or simply a courtesan? Was she expiating the triumphs of an insolent youth?" (2:855) Reality is for Balzac both the scene of drama and mask of the true drama that lies behind, is mysterious, and can only be alluded to, questioned, then gradually elucidated.
Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, p.2.