In ‘‘Boule de Suif,’’ Guy de Maupassant tells the tale of Boule de Suif, a short, plump, inviting French prostitute, who is fleeing the advancing Germans during the Franco–Prussian War. Although seemingly immoral by profession, Boule de Suif actually adheres to a code of ethics. By the very nature of her profession, Boule de Suif feels as though she is spreading happiness through her service: Her clientele leaves with a greater level of satisfaction, thus adding to the greater good. In addition, Boule de Suif has several imperatives that she makes her best attempt to stand behind. Boule de Suif believes that these axioms should never be broken, namely that there should always be a different means to achieve the same end that would not require doing acts in opposition to her imperatives. Unfortunately, Boule de Suif, by following two codes of ethics—one utilitarian, the other ontological— lands herself in the ethically uncertain apex between these two opposed moral philosophies.
Utilitarianism is probably the most famous normative ethical dogma in the English-speaking history of moral philosophy. The doctrine’s purpose is to explain why some actions are right and others are wrong. Although it had roots in philosophical history and although it is still widely appealed to by many modern philosophers, utilitarianism reached its peak in the late eighteenth century and the first twenty-five years of the nineteenth century. The leading philosophers in this school of thought were Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. In its earliest formulation, utilitarianism was simplistic. It was hinged to an idea called The Greatest Happiness Principle. This basic tenet of utilitarianism purports that the ultimate good is simply the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Happiness is seen as the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain. Thus, utilitarianism judges all consequences by the amount of pleasure derived from each consequence. This, of course, leaves no concern for the means to the end of the consequence: No examination is given to duty or to what is right or good; the aim is purely targeted on the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
Utilitarianism, if strictly followed, leaves little room for any sort of law, let alone ethical categorical imperatives. Bertrand Russell writes in A History of Western Philosophy, ‘‘In its absolute form, the doctrine that an individual has certain inalienable rights is incompatible with utilitarianism, i.e., with the doctrine that right acts are those that do most to promote the general happiness.’’ Russell is summarizing one of the greatest difficulties with utilitarianism, not only in relation to governmental law but also to any law in general. Utilitarianism has a democratic feel, in that a majority of people feeling happiness is similar to a majority of people approving of initiative, thus making it a law. However, as this statement implies, and with the definition of utilitarianism, a law would be considered inconsequential if breaking the law—something wholly undemocratic—created greater happiness than not. Herein lies the paradoxical problem inherit in both utilitarianism and Maupassant’s character, Boule de Suif.
Yet neither Boule de Suif nor utilitarianism can be wholly scrutinized without a keen examination of the ontological code of ethics described by Immanuel Kant. Kant is a nineteenth-century philosophical giant. Kant cannot be contained by any one distinct ism because his philosophy is incredibly profound and complex. His theories arose out of the stagnating doctrines of two of the most important philosophic theories: rationalism and empiricism. Kantian ethics were grounded in his definition of pure practical reason. For Kant, pure practical reason is concerned with the a priori grounds for action and, most important to his ethics, moral action. For Kant, this implies that there is an a priori moral law—a dogma that is already grounded and indisputable— with which all people should act in accordance. From this law springs moral maxims. Kant calls these laws categorical imperatives, which define morality through objective requirements, independent of individual desires. Kant states in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals:
The practical [application of the categorical] imperative will therefore be the following: Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply...
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The protagonist of Guy de Maupassant’s ‘‘Boule de Suif’’ learns that virtuous acts do not always reap rewards. In fact, her altruism or self-sacrifice jeopardizes, rather than improves, her own life. Boule de Suif is a victim of her own good nature. In her acts of charity she refuses to see how others have treated her. Such acts only win her even more disdain or hatred from the group.
Much of the interaction among the group of travelers in Maupassant’s story revolves around the character nicknamed Boule de Suif. Throughout the narrative, she is put in a self-sacrificing position by a group of strangers who barely recognize or appreciate her generosity. First, because she is a prostitute, Boule de Suif receives the group’s disdain. However, when she is the only traveler to produce a basket of food, it is the hungry travelers who eventually dine with her, albeit reluctantly. And, when captured by German and Prussian officers, these same travelers turn to Boule de Suif, insisting she respond to the Prussian soldier’s demands to see her despite her resistance to the idea. Ultimately she does accept, exclaiming, ‘‘All right . . . but I’m only doing it for your sakes.’’ Finally, when Boule de Suif learns that the enemy wants to sleep with her, she is appalled, as is the group; yet the group thinks nothing of exploiting her to that end, pressuring her to comply for their sakes.
Generosity in the narrative is not a two-way street. The ladies in the coach react with a ferocious contempt at the sight of Boule de Suif’s basket of food, for instance, misinterpreting her generosity as an affront to their pride. This reaction to their traveling companion is one of many indications that the group, with the exception of Boule de Suif, is driven largely by selfish motivations rather than self-sacrifice. After their capture, several members of the party could have easily negotiated their release. Yet they respond not out of generosity, but of greed. Says the narrator: ‘‘The richer members of the party were the most terrified, already seeing themselves forced to pour out sackfuls of gold in the hands of the insolent soldiers in order to save their lives.’’ However, rather than resorting to bribery to put an end to the group’s captivity, they spend considerable time concocting or thinking of ways ‘‘to conceal their wealth and enable them to pass themselves off as the poorest of poor.’’
Interestingly, these same group members think nothing of sacrificing Boule de Suif to their own advantage. They put a considerable amount of energy in winning the prostitute over, of convincing her that she comply with the Prussian’s demands for sex for the sake of the group. They feel ‘‘almost annoyed’’ with Boule de Suif ‘‘for not having gone to the Prussian on the sly so as to provide her fellow travelers with a pleasant surprise in the morning,’’ despite the fact that her self-sacrifice in this situation is fraught or filled with dangerous implications. In surrendering herself physically to the Prussian, she could subject herself to violence, even death at the hands of the enemy—indicated when the travelers themselves engage in moments of worried silence for the prostitute. Expecting Boule de Suif to sacrifice her person in the name of the group is hardly given a second thought. When it comes to reaching down into their pockets, however, the group is reluctant to part with even a handful of coins to quickly resolve their situation, nor do they feel obligated to do so.
Ironic too is the method that Boule de Suif’s companions use to persuade her to sacrifice herself to the Prussian. The group engages in a general theological or religious argument, based on their interpretation of the will of God, to manipulate her, an activity one could hardly regard as being the least bit noble or pious. Beginning with a vague conversation on self-sacrifice, the discussion emphasizes the idea that ‘‘a woman’s only duty on earth was perpetual sacrifice of her person.’’ When Boule de Suif is not convinced, the group engages the elder nuns in a conversation about the nature of one’s deeds in life, and the ability of the church to grant absolution for those deeds ‘‘committed for the glory of God or the benefit of one’s neighbor.’’ The Comtesse makes the most of this argument, asserting that no action ‘‘could be displeasing to the Lord if...
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As can be discerned from this outline, ‘‘Boule de suif’’ is constructed upon the interplay of three thematic ‘‘sub-codes’’—the nutritional, the politicoeconomic and the military—with the main code which is sexual. To understand the way in which these codes function, it is necessary to consider the text in both its diachronic and synchronic dimensions. It is also useful, although not essential, to place ‘‘Boule de suif’’ in the context of Maupassant’s war stories, on the one hand, and his ‘‘whore’’ stories, on the other. It is not by chance that the two themes frequently collide, and that his most unforgettable prostitutes are war heroes as well.
Let us begin, then, with the sexual...
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I The Growth of a Favoring Prejudice
Maupassant was not showing us a Romantic ‘‘femme fatale’’ when he repeatedly told tales in which the woman gained ascendancy over the man. His admiration for woman grew out of personal contact and observation, not from fear inspired by a superstitious cult. Among the strangely few men who enjoyed Maupassant’s unstinting admiration, most had chosen celibacy and so were relatively safe from acts of weakness that so often characterize a husband’s behavior and which would have lowered them in his esteem. Flaubert, of course, was so far in the vanguard of this select few as to be the god of the microcosm.
To Maupassant, marriage was a form of servitude which the...
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De Maupassant was, of course, a born writer. Observe, writer. No one ever said what he wanted to say with a nicer exactitude or a more certain effectiveness than did de Maupassant. The sentence was a marvellous tool in his hands. But, having admitted that, one has the right to inquire: what did he want to say? What of importance had he seen? We cannot believe, for ourselves, that de Maupassant’s imagination and insight were of the first order, or even of the second order. His philosophy was a Parisian cynicism. His spirit was happy in that world of sense which the greatest writers have either ignored or assumed. Animalism is good, but it is not the best. There are writers who might have taken a story of de Maupassant’s...
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All that is revolting in [Zola’s ‘physiological school’]—its suffocating atmosphere and cold analysis, —might be illustrated from ‘Boule de Suif.’ But there was something more in it than Zolaesque brutality, or the tedious yet impressive collocation of details with which Flaubert’s name is inseparably associated. There was humour, pathos, strong character-drawing, and the most deceptive air, not merely of Realism but of real life. . . . ‘Boule de Suif,’ who gives her name, or rather her nickname, to the story, —how can we praise her sufficiently? Describe her, indeed, we cannot, except by a circumlocution, yet in her degraded but still womanly nature, the oddest notions lurk of the base and the honourable,...
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