Maupassant, Guy de
Guy de Maupassant 1850–-1893
(Full name Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant; also wrote under the pseudonyms of Joseph Prunier, Guy de Valmont, and Maufrigneuse) French short story writer, novelist, journalist, poet, dramatist, and travel writer.
The following entry presents criticism of Maupassant's short fiction from 1989 to 2002. See also Guy de Maupassant Literary Criticism.
Maupassant is considered one of the finest short story writers of all time and a champion of the realist approach to writing. His short stories, noted for their diversity and quality, are characterized by the clarity of their prose and the objective irony of their presentation, as well as their keen evocation of the physical world. To the realist's ideal of scrupulous diction, Maupassant added an economy of language and created a narrative style outstanding in its austere power, simplicity, and vivid sensuousness.
Maupassant was born in Normandy, France, in 1850. His father and mother separated when he was eleven years old, and Maupassant was raised under the influence of his strong, domineering mother. The young Maupassant's cynical view of marriage seems to have stemmed from these early experiences and is evident in much of his work. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, he left his law studies in Paris, which he had begun the prior year, to enlist in the army. His experiences as a soldier inform some of his finest stories. After the war, due to financial problems, the author was forced to accept a position as a clerk in the Naval Office. In 1877 he was diagnosed with syphilis, for which there was no known cure. In 1878 he accepted a position in the Ministry of Public Education. Maupassant devoted a great deal of time to writing during his tenure as a civil servant, writing plays, poetry, and narrative prose. Gustave Flaubert became his friend and mentor, helping him with his writing and introducing him to prestigious literary circles. After Flaubert's death, Maupassant became a regular contributor to Le Gaulois, a respected Paris newspaper, and eventually wrote for the periodicals Gil Blas and Figaro, often under pseudonyms. After he left the ministry, his literary output increased dramatically and he enjoyed much success. The syphilis he had contracted as a young man led to recurrent problems with his eyesight and eventually to a complete physical and emotional collapse. Struggling with bouts of a debilitating mental disorder, Maupassant attempted suicide in 1892 and was subsequently confined to a sanatorium in Passy until his death.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Maupassant's stories are often autobiographical in nature. For example, several of his stories are drawn from his difficult childhood and focus on the dilemma of a rejected woman and the children of an ill-fated liaison, and explore the problems of identity and the individual's place in a rigid social structure. In addition, Maupassant's experiences as a soldier in the Franco-Prussian War inform some of his best stories, such as his masterpiece “Boule de suif,” which expresses the author's disgust for the degradation and folly of war. His boredom and frustration with his career as a government clerk provided the setting for such stories as “L'heritage,” in which he depicted the hopeless, tedious existence of a civil servant. In the company of Flaubert and his circle, which included Ivan Turgenev, Alphonse Daudet, and Émile Zola, Maupassant was truly at the center of European thought, and his work bears its legacy. At first associated with the naturalist movement, Maupassant eventually turned to realism. These principles, forged by Flaubert, called for a scrupulous concern with form and a dedication to precision of detail and exact description. Maupassant also shared with his mentor a severe pessimism toward life, as well as a disdain for bourgeois values, both of which are reflected throughout his short fiction. From 1880 to 1890 he published nearly 300 short stories, a prodigious literary feat, although he made full use of his material by constantly reshaping and reworking existing stories and duplicating scenes, descriptions, and vignettes from his newspaper pieces in his stories.
Throughout Maupassant's lifetime and into the twentieth century, scholars generally have been united in their favorable assessments of his work. Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, and Anatole France all recognized his talent. The critical reception of stories has focused on several major areas, among them his morality, the nature of his realism, the influence of Flaubert on his work, and the autobiographical aspects of his fiction. Recent commentators have noted Maupassant's influence on other important writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, and Henry James. Readers have consistently found Maupassant's stories fascinating, and his works have been widely translated. For their variety, concision, clarity of prose style, and realistic approach, Maupassant's short stories have earned him a place among the finest exponents of the genre.
La Maison Tellier 1881
Mademoiselle Fifi 1882
Contes de la bécasse 1883
Miss Harriet 1884
Contes et nouvelles 1885
Monsieur Parent 1886
La petite roque 1886
Le Horla 1887
L'inutile beauté 1890
The Life Work of Henri René Guy de Maupassant, Embracing Romance, Travel, Comedy and Verse, for the First Time Complete in English (short stories, novels, plays, poetry, travel sketches) 1903
The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant 1955
Une vie [A Woman's Life] (novel) 1883
Bel-Ami [Bel-Ami: A Novel] (novel) 1885
Mont-Oriol [Mont-Oriol: A Novel] (novel) 1887
Pierre et Jean [Pierre et Jean: The Two Brothers] (novel) 1888
Sur l'eau [Afloat] (travel sketches) 1888
Fort comme la mort [Strong as Death: A Novel] (novel) 1889
Notre coeur [The Human Heart] (novel) 1890
Le vie errante [In Vagabondia] (travel sketches) 1890
Musotte (drama) 1891
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SOURCE: Mortimer, Armine Kotin. “Second Stories.” In Short Story: Theory at a Crossroads, edited by Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey, pp. 276-98. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Mortimer analyzes Maupassant's use of second-story construction in several of his stories.]
It is the excess of the suggested meaning—it is the rendering this the upper instead of the undercurrent of the theme—which turns into prose … the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.
—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition”
Poetry is not alone in having an undercurrent of suggested meaning that risks platitudes as soon as it is exposed. I have been collecting examples of short stories that owe their “wow” to the careful embedding of a second story in the first.1 Indeed, the action of these stories on the reader is such that the reader is actively solicited to recognize that undercurrent, encoded in diverse ways, and in so doing to create a second story that is not told outright. The second story may be in addition to the first, occurring after it; it may be prior or simultaneous; it may remain quite hidden or erupt full-blown into the first story (Katherine Mansfield's “Bliss” or Edith Wharton's “Roman Fever”). In the most frustrating examples, it...
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SOURCE: Stivale, Charles J. “Duty, Desire, and Dream: Maupassant's ‘La Petite Roque.’” Journal of Narrative Technique 20, no. 2 (spring 1990): 120-33.
[In the following essay, Stivale explores the role and function of narrative desire in “La Petite Roque.”]
A widower overcome by a maddening passion that results in the rape and murder of an innocent adolescent; the power and connivance of local officials who unwittingly succeed in thwarting apprehension of the criminal; the victim's phantasmic “return,” the murderer's remorseful will-to-confess, and a rural functionary's stubborn efficiency that forces the killer's ultimate demise—such are the essential elements that constitute the narrative matrix of Guy de Maupassant's short story, “La Petite Roque” (translated as “Little Louise Roque”). Produced midway through Maupassant's prodigious career (in November-December 1885), this tale stands as an exemplary synthesis of the problems of reading inherent to the concept of narrative desire in Maupassant's fiction. In this essay, I wish to consider the question of how the variable attraction aroused and maintained between an author and the reader—narrative desire—is determined on several levels: as story, within the plot and as the elaboration of diverse themes; as discourse, by narrative techniques through which the authorial desire, usually implicit, is communicated to and draws...
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SOURCE: Prince, Gerald. “‘Le Horla,’ Sex, and Colonization.” In Alteratives, edited by Warren Motte and Gerald Prince, pp. 181-88. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum Publishers, 1993.
[In the following essay, Prince perceives “Le Horla” as a story about sexual desire, transgression, and colonization.]
The protagonist of Maupassant's second version of “Le Horla” resides in a white house on the banks of the Seine, not far from the forest of Roumare and the capital of Normandy, Rouen.1 His name is unknown to us and so is his age.2 As for his physical appearance, we learn only that he is very tall (48) and that he wears a mustache and a beard (28, 31). He must be rich. At any rate, though he does not work, he employs no fewer than four servants (two men and two women: a valet, a driver, a cook, a wardrobe woman). He has no wife, no parents and no children, no relatives who live nearby, no friends or acquaintances to speak of. He is very much an homme seul, a man alone. But perhaps not sufficiently so.
The protagonist keeps a diary and, as early as the second entry, notes that he feels nervous, scared, depressed. His doctor prescribes showers and potassium bromide but the nervousness, the fear, and the depression worsen. Particularly disturbing and debilitating are his nightmares: someone gets into his bed, touches him, kneels on him, like a leech...
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SOURCE: Orlich, Ileana Alexandra. “Tracking the Missing Link: Maupassant's ‘Promenade’ and James's The Beast in the Jungle.” The Comparatist 18 (May 1994): 71-89.
[In the following essay, Orlich probes links between “Promenade” and Henry James's novella The Beast in the Jungle.]
… An achievement in art or in letters grows more interesting when we begin to perceive its corrections … works of art become still more interesting as we note their coincidences and relations with other works, for then they begin to illustrate other talents and other characters as well: the plot thickens, the whole spectacle expands.”
—Henry James, “Essays in London and Elsewhere”
As a tale of its protagonist's lonely and melancholy walk through life, Henry James's novella, The Beast in the Jungle,1 echoes a story of Maupassant whose very title, “Promenade,” suggests a possible link casually mentioned by Edel (The Master 134). According to Edel, James singled out “A Little Walk”2 when he read it in 1880. Although more than twenty years separate James's reading of Maupassant's “Promenade” and the composition of James's The Beast in the Jungle, the link between them is much stronger than such a gap would suggest. In his 1888 essay on Maupassant published in the March issue of...
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SOURCE: Hottell, Ruth A. “The Delusory Denouement and Other Strategies in Maupassant's Fantastic Tales.” The Romanic Review 85, no. 4 (November 1994): 573-86.
[In the following essay, Hottell examines the function of the ambiguous denouement of several of Maupassant's fantastic stories.]
Tzvetan Todorov's seminal work, Introduction a la litterature fantastique, establishes the fantastic as a genre, defining it as a hesitation between the supernatural and the uncanny. The supernatural, like fantasy, deals with an “unreal” world, a world not defined in terms of the laws we know. In the world of the supernatural, frogs can turn into princes at the touch of the beautiful princess, and princesses can be awakened by the kiss of a heroic prince. The domain of the supernatural, then, is the realm of the fairy tale, of fantasy literature, in which the author's creative imagination knows no ground rules, no restraints in spinning the tale for the reader's delectation.1
On the other hand, the uncanny abides by the rules and laws of the order we know. It is firmly rooted in phenomena which could actually occur, representing an event which is strange, yet plausible. The word Todorov uses for the uncanny is l'etrange, which is literally translated as strange. The uncanny is just that, strange yet plausible. It could occur although it is a phenomenon which should not...
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SOURCE: MacLachlan, Gale, and Ian Reid. “Framing the Frame: Maupassant's ‘La Chevelure.’” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 22, no. 2 (June 1995): 287-99.
[In the following essay, MacLachlan and Reid provide a stylistic analysis of “La Chevelure,” focusing on the frame narrative of the story.]
Much of the work of Ross Chambers comprises a serial meditation on the subtle ways in which texts—in particular “readerly” fictions of the nineteenth century—attempt, as he puts it in Story and Situation, “both to produce and to limit meaningfulness” (1984, 35). In his view, various figures and strategies embedded within a narrative may inscribe communicative relationships that serve implicitly as exemplary models or cautionary antimodels of the reading process. Such self-referential models highlight the mixture of freedom and constraint encountered by readers in their dealings with texts. The embedding of a model “allows for relatively intense interpretive involvement on the part of the reader” and yet, on the other hand, “limits the reader's options in approaching the text, and does so in a way that is more precise and explicit, more directive of a specific reading, than say dialogic interplay between segments of the text” (35).
That formulation is accurate and useful, though (as Ross Chambers would no doubt agree) it does not cover all the...
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SOURCE: Mead, Gerald. “Social Commentary and Sexuality in Maupassant's ‘La Maison Tellier.’” Nineteenth Century French Studies 24, nos. 1-2 (fall-winter 1995-1996): 162-69.
[In the following essay, Mead investigates Maupassant's broad social vision in his story “La Maison Tellier.”]
To most readers, Maupassant offers two faces. On the one hand, he is widely read as a lucid and ironic observer of the petty vices, crude passions and stupidities of otherwise unremarkable individuals populating the peasant and urban classes of nineteenth-century French society. More intriguing to current criticism is a face that appeared later in Maupassant's work, that of the sick, tormented schizophrenic, haunted literally to death by the frightening and inescapable “other” of “Le Horla” and “Lui.” Maupassant the realist or Maupassant the psychotic. Relatively scant attention, though, has been given to his work as representing broader historical, social, and cultural problems. While it is true that his vision, particularly in his short stories, tends to focus on the anecdotal and the particular rather than the general—as many of his titles indicate: “La Parure,” “Le Lit,” “Le papa de Simon,” and so forth—and seems more interested in “human nature” than social changes and conditions, it can reasonably be argued that many of his stories directly invoke broader and more fundamental...
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SOURCE: Leabhart, Sally. “No Free Rides: Descriptive Frame as Ideology in Maupassant's ‘L'Aveu.’” Symposium 50, no. 1 (spring 1996): 40-9.
[In the following essay, Leabhart offers a structural examination of Maupassant's “L'Aveu.”]
Guy de Maupassant's short story “L'Aveu” is, on several counts, about being taken for a ride. Whereas Céleste is the only passenger in the literal sense, those being transported unwittingly and idiomatically include, in different ways and according to different points of view, not only Céleste, her mother, and Polyte, but the implied reader as well. The text itself has in common with Céleste that both carry an unseen baggage that cannot be checked. In this tale of transport and baggage, the introductory descriptive frame has a problematic relationship with the narrative proper. The borders collapse when one observes that the frame, like the narrative, tells a story just as the narrative, in addition to telling the story, also sets the ideological scene. In the end, telling a story and setting a scene are not so easily distinguished. What is more, the setting—the fixing—that would inhabit Realist telling is inhabited, at the same time, by an unsettling excess.
The myth of Realism and Naturalism, according to which Truth follows quite naturally and simply from careful, “scientific” observation to/through words on the...
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SOURCE: Millstone, Amy B. “Maupassant's ‘Bed 29,’ or the Case of the Tainted Patriot.” Romance Language Annual 8 (1997): 59-65.
[In the following essay, Millstone explores the figure of the prostitute in “Le Lit 29” and reflects “on the ways in which the very structure of Maupassant's tale supports his unorthodox definition of service to country.”]
Ne prostituez pas ces mots de patrie et de patriotisme
From Geneviève, patron saint of Paris, to Joan of Arc, the virgin warrior martyred by the English and finally canonized in 1920,1 to Marianne, allegorical incarnation of the Republic since 1792, women have long enjoyed pride of place in the French psyche as symbols or emblems of patriotism.2 Similarly, there exists in France a rich tradition of women warriors associated with almost every instance of violent political upheaval since the childhood of Louis XIV, from the original frondeuses, the Great Mademoiselle and the Duchess of Longueville,3 to Théroigne de Méricourt and Olympe de Gouges during the Revolution of 1789,4 from the Vésuviennes who (in period caricatures) donned male attire and flocked to the barricades of 18485 to the “Red Virgin” Louise Michel and her legendary cohorts, the pétroleuses of the Paris...
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SOURCE: Thomas, Shelley. “The Prostitute/Mother in Maupassant's ‘Yvette.’” Esprit Createur 39, no. 2 (summer 1999): 74-84.
[In the following essay, Thomas considers Maupassant's portrayal of woman as virgin/mother/whore in “Yvette.”]
Nineteenth-century French literature was particularly prolific in fostering the notion of the dichotomized female: on the one hand a whore, on the other, a Madonna. Included in the term Madonna is both the virgin and the mother, for she was both pure and a maternal figure. When an author focuses on one element or another, he fragments womankind, denying, in effect, the possibility of integration and wholeness. In addition, he may validate one fragment over another, creating a hierarchy that further destroys the notion of an integral wholeness and results in marginalizing the female. A tripartite hierarchy of virgin/mother/whore is very clearly exemplified in Maupassant's “Yvette.” Recent criticism that deals with women in literature has sought to unveil the techniques of marginalization by treating differing aspects of fragmentation, most notably those which pertain to the female body.1 In this study, however, I am particularly interested in how the female is fragmented through language, that is, how an author depicts the female voice and her relationship to language. By so doing, I hope to add to the body of works which seek to clarify the role...
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SOURCE: Stadt, Janneke van de. “Seeing ‘Amiss’ or Misreading ‘A Miss’: Imperfect Vision in Maupassant's ‘Les Tombales.’” Dalhousie French Studies 51 (summer 2000): 37-44.
[In the following essay, Stadt asserts that “Les Tombales” “reveals itself to be a metacritical tale whose principal theses are misinterpretation and narrative autonomy.”]
By the time Guy de Maupassant published “Les Tombales” in 1891 it was becoming increasingly clear that he was losing his prolonged battle with syphilis. Eleven years earlier a syphilitic lesion had been diagnosed in the nerve of his right eye which caused excruciating migraines and resulted in a progressive loss of sight (Borel 1951:132). In February of the same year Maupassant wrote to Flaubert: “Je n'y vois presque plus de l'œil droit,” and an acquaintance recalls that already in 1883, “se regardant dans la glace: le verre ne lui rendait pas sa propre image” (Borel 1929:109). For an author whose work was so intimately tied to attentive observation, the threat of being disabled by failing eyesight must have been particularly distressing.
And it is the very notion of “imperfect vision” that concerns the author of “Les Tombales,” a tale that takes mistaken identity as its plot premise. In fact, the history behind the narrative's own identity is mystifying in itself. André Vial remarks in a note that it is...
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SOURCE: Hadlock, Philip G. “(Per)versions of Masculinity in Maupassant's ‘La Mère aux monstres.’” French Forum 27, no. 1 (winter 2002): 59-79.
[In the following essay, Hadlock discusses the function of the monster in “La Mère aux monsters.”]
Few subjects seem to have intrigued Guy de Maupassant as much as monsters. His short stories are replete with deformed and disfigured beings whose presence conditions the trajectory of the narrative as well as the relationship between the narrator and the reader. It is perhaps not surprising that Maupassant would so heavily populate his tales with monsters. As he suggests in his chronicles, the male author himself is “un monstre autant par ses qualités que par ses défauts, car, en lui, aucun sentiment simple n'existe plus” (“La Femme de lettres.” II, 430), and thus, Maupassant's very identity as an homme de lettres is entwined in the plight of the monster. Nor is it incidental that Maupassant links monstrousness to the male experience. Monstrousness, as Barbara Johnson remarks in her study of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, has always been much more consonant with masculinity than with femininity (151). Maupassant's seemingly inordinate interest in monsters might best be attributed, then, to the specific esthetic and representational problems posed by the (male) monster's body. One of the monster's most salient features is, of...
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Betts, Christopher J. “Surface Structure and Symmetry in Maupassant: An Alternative View of ‘Deux Amis.’” The Romanic Review 88, no. 2 (March 1997): 251-67.
Offers a stylistic analysis of “Deux amis.”
Calder, Martin. “Something in the Water: Self as Other in Guy de Maupassant's “Le Horla”: A Barthesian Reading.” French Studies 52, no. 1 (January 1998): 42-57.
Explores the theme of language in the diary version of Maupassant's “Le Horla.”
Cogman, P. W. M. “Maupassant's Unacknowledgeable Puns.” French Studies Bulletin, no. 53 (winter 1994): 8-11.
Briefly discusses the nature of Maupassant's use of “oblique” puns—words or expressions with obscene undertones likely grasped only by careful readers.
Donaldson-Evans, Mary. “Doctoring History: Maupassant's ‘Un Coup D'Etat.’” Nineteenth Century French Studies 16, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 1988): 351-60.
Places “Un Coup D'Etat” within its political, cultural, and literary context.
Fusco, Richard. Maupassant and the American Short Story: The Influence of Form at the Turn of the Century, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994, 230 p.
Traces Maupassant's development as a short story writer....
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