Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Like many great literary works, “Boule de Suif” succeeds by in integration of method with subject matter. Though Maupassant is often classified as a naturalistic writer, that is, as an artist who records events with relentless objectivity, “Boule de Suif” is marked by subtle ironies of tone and detail that shrewdly comment on the action while seemingly only recording it. Though the authorial voice seems never to judge the characters or the action, narrating events swiftly and precisely, such basic narrative techniques as description of setting and the use of metaphor often amplify and deepen the meaning of the simple prose.
Maupassant takes great care in presenting the chaos of the French countryside during the Franco-Prussian War, delaying the introduction of the characters until the details of violence have established a tension that effectively prepares the reader for the real conflict between private and public virtue. The setting serves as a correlative to the battle that the coach party will wage against the principles of Boule de Suif. The season is winter, and the French are losing the war, just as the coach party coldly lays its trap, having already lost its virtue.
Even the metaphors support the idea of warfare. As the characters plot against Boule de Suif, Maupassant describes their machinations in terms of infantry besieging a “human citadel” which must “receive the enemy within its walls.” Each agrees on the...
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The Franco–Prussian War
The Franco–Prussian War raged between 1870 and 1871. The war was essentially fought between France and Germany, although Germany was unified under Prussian control. France eventually lost the war to Germany. The underlying cause of the conflict was Prussian statesman Otto Edward Leopold von Bismarck’s desire to unify Germany under Prussian control and eliminate France’s power over Germany. On the other side, Napoleon III, emperor of France from 1852 to 1870, wanted to regain national and international status lost as a result of various diplomatic setbacks, most notably those suffered at the hands of the Prussians during the Austro–Prussian War of 1866. Lastly, the military strength of Prussia, as was revealed in Austria, added to France’s desire to dominate the European continent.
The war was precipitated by a series of featherruffling events that would eventually lead to Germany unifying itself under Prussian leadership to wage war against the French. The prince of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Leopold, was pressured by Bismarck to accept candidacy for the vacant Spanish throne. This move alarmed the French, as they were wary of a Prusso–Spanish alliance. The French sent an ambassador to speak with William I, the king of Prussia, demanding that Leopold withdraw his candidacy. Although angered, William I agreed to their demands.
Unfortunately for the French, Napoleon III was not content and was...
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The Prostitute as an Antihero
The antihero is a central character who lacks traditional heroic qualities. Antiheros are not strong or physically powerful. Rarely do they muster up great courage to defeat a monster. Antiheros are usually outside the social norm, and they appreciate their position. Antiheros are usually distrustful of conventional values and are plagued with an inability to commit to any one set of ideals. The title character in Maupassant’s ‘‘Boule de Suif’’ is no different. She is an exceptional antihero. She is not physically powerful. In fact, she is quite short, fat, and soft. She is certainly outside the social norm, as she is a prostitute—a profession not only considered fringe, but immoral. She is incredibly distrustful of the aristocratic government and often makes her opinions on such matters heard. On a final and most potent note, Maupassant’s Boule de Suif cannot commit to one set of ethics. She waffles between categorical imperatives and a flexibility that is loosely bound to utilitarian principles. Boule de Suif holds to her moral rules only to be convinced that there is a better set of ideals. Nonetheless, her actions are heroic because she does them for the benefit of others. In the end, Boule de Suif saves her companions, entitling her to her antihero status.
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Compare and Contrast
• 1870–1880: In 1870, Germany invades France after France declares war on Germany, which starts the Franco–Prussian War and signals a rise in German military power and imperialism.
Today: Following many decades of war and upheaval, Germany and France have made amends and have united under peace as two of the strongest and most prosperous European nations.
• 1870–1880: In 1877, Queen Victoria is named the empress of India, illustrating a rise in European and, most notably, British imperialism.
Today: India is a free country and, although overpopulated and struggling, it has become a powerful nation through its contributions to progressive politics and technology.
• 1870–1880: In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone, sparking a new dawn in communication.
Today: A large percentage of the developed nations’ populations carry a cellular telephone with them at all times. Communication has been established via satellite, cable, digital, and wireless networks, linking the world together.
• 1870–1880: In 1871, Charles Darwin publishes The Descent of Man, challenging creationism and putting into use the term evolution for the first time.
Today: The battle over creationism and evolution rages on, with one side defending evolution on the basis of scientific knowledge and the other side defending...
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Topics for Further Study
• The title character, Boule de Suif, is unwilling to do something that is against her own understanding of right and wrong—sleeping with the Prussian commandant—to appease her companions. However, she is pressured to do so by her companions, who push utilitarian principles upon her, stressing that sometimes one is forced to do wrong to produce a good end. Explore this situation, and try to come up with at least three examples, either personal, historical, or literary, in which you may or may not believe that the ends justify the means.
• Morality is at stake in Maupassant’s tale. The prostitute seems to be the noblest character in that she has a code of ethics and makes the greatest sacrifice for others. But after they get her to do what they want, her companions shun her and draw back to their supposedly more respectable morality. Choose a historical event, such as a presidential election or a modern war, and evaluate how morality is applied, abused, or assessed in these historical events as compared to ‘‘Boule de Suif.’’ Present a comparison to the class of the morality invoked by these historical events alongside the morality of the characters in the short story. Defend your own ethical position in light of your research.
• Other authors writing in Maupassant’s era were also exploring unscrupulous characters. Take, for example, Gustave Flaubert or Emile Zola. Look into the publishing history of these authors. Were...
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• ‘‘Boule de Suif’’ was adapted as a film by Christian-Jacque in 1945, starring Micheline Presle, Berthe Bovy, and Louis Salou. It was released in the United States as Angel and Sinner and Grease Ball.
• The Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, Volume I was published as an audio-book recording through Audio Connoisseur in 1999. The recording includes ‘‘Boule de Suif’’ and four other short stories.
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What Do I Read Next?
• A Life: The Humble Truth, by Guy de Maupassant, was originally published in 1883. The book chronicles the life of a Norman woman whose kindliness is both a virtue and a vice.
• Bel-Ami (1885), by Guy de Maupassant, depicts the life of a journalist lacking moral scruples, whose success is built upon hypocrisy, lecherousness, and corruption.
• Pierre et Jean, by Guy de Maupassant, was originally published in 1888. The book is crafted around the psychological study of adultery involving a young wife and two brothers.
• Guy de Maupassant, Mademoiselle Fifi, and Other Short Stories, by Guy de Maupassant, was published as a collection in 1999. This collection contains many short stories that are not available in the Penguin Books collection, Selected Short Stories.
• Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, was originally published in two volumes in 1857. In a depressing, but rich, tale of adultery and love gone amiss, Flaubert has created what is often considered one of the greatest books ever written.
• Nana, by Emile Zola, was originally published in 1880. It is a risqué novel that tells the story of a ruthless prostitute’s rise from poverty to the height of Parisian society.
• First Love and Other Stories, by Ivan Turgenev, was published as a collection in 1999. This book contains the famous title story, plus five other...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Colet, Roger, ‘‘Introduction,’’ in Selected Short Stories, by Guy de Maupassant, edited and translated by Roger Colet, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 7.
De Maupassant, Guy, ‘‘Boule de Suif,’’ in Selected Short Stories, edited and translated by Roger Colet, 1971, Pengiun Books, pp. 19–68.
Kant, Immanuel, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by James W. Ellington, Hackett Publishing, 1993, p. 36.
Rossi, Philip, ‘‘Kant’s Philosophy of Religion,’’ in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2004 ed., edited by Edward N. Zalta, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/ fall2004/entries/kant-religion/ (accessed December 3, 2004).
Russell, Bertrand, A History of Western Philosophy, Simon & Schuster, 1972, p. 628.
Christiansen, Rupert, Paris Babylon: The Story of Paris Commune, Penguin Books, 1996. Christiansen gives a detailed description of Parisian political and social life both before and after the Franco–Prussian War.
Hartig, Rachel M., Struggling under the Destructive Glance: Androgyny in the Novels of Guy de Maupassant, Peter Lang Publishing, 1991. Hartig’s book is a challenge to the prevailing critical analysis of Maupassant’s novels, purporting that his heroines do, in fact, undergo substantial change.
Howard, Michael Eliot, The...
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