Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In Maupassant’s most famous story, “The Necklace,” he makes a summary statement that in a sense stands for what much of his fiction is about: “How small a thing is needed to make or ruin us!” Apropos of that, it seems safe to say that rarely, if ever, does one find his works reaching the high tragic intensity of the ancient Greek dramatists or of William Shakespeare; Maupassant’s emotional compass is so often much more modest and confined. Many of his more than three hundred short stories treat his favorite subject: the Norman countryside and its inhabitants, meaning—almost always—the peasants. It surely does not take much to undo them, or to ruin them, insists Maupassant.

His technique in “The Piece of String” is to prove that fact to the reader. At no point in the tale is the Hauchecorne-Houlbreque incident worth much more than a quick retelling or a passing remark. It is anecdotal at best. After all, no cataclysmic tragedy has taken place: A purse is lost, and is found—and an old man has been accused of finding and keeping it. To be sure, it is a trivial incident among modest lives, lives that do not count for very much in the more significant scheme of things, a cynic might say. To reinforce aesthetically the smallness of the incident’s dimension, Maupassant uses several devices. One is to employ relatively short paragraphs (relative to the generally longer ones he had been using) once the corporal of gendarmes calls...

(The entire section is 444 words.)