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 “plan of attack,” and it is the women who begin, quoting ancient examples of self-sacrifice during wartime, from Judith and Holofernes to the Roman matrons and Hannibal. Moreover, the weather grows worse as the characters hatch their scheme. Each day of their detainment, the cold grows more intense, more painful, so that their assault on Boule de Suif takes place during a time of numbing cold, again paralleling their own heartlessness.
Finally, there is irony even in the song Cornudet sings at the close of the story. “The love of country is sacred,” he sings. “Liberty, dear liberty, fight with her defenders.” The true defenders of liberty are not the passengers and their bourgeois values but the country courtesan, Boule de Suif. Thus, Maupassant reinforces a swiftly moving, simple narrative with equally simple technical devices and rhetorical descriptions to make “Boule de Suif” a masterpiece of irony.