Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “The Piece of String,” Maupassant is dramatizing at least two of his more familiar themes: his intense dislike of the peasantry and the peasants’ abiding distrust of one another. Although Maupassant came from a well-to-do Norman background, his disillusioning experiences as a private in the Franco-Prussian War served to harden his soul against the lower class. In addition, his years of sharp scrutiny of their Norman ways and mores—their everyday habits—strengthened his cynical attitude toward them. It is generally agreed that he was misanthropic, but never more so than when he set his sights on those Norman men and women. Their hardiness and endurance notwithstanding, Maupassant’s composite portrait of them is almost without qualification unflattering, and often sardonic. So he often enumerates their failings: They are greedy and deceitful, and they can be very treacherous.

Early in “The Piece of String,” he sets the tone for their behavior that will follow. Gathered in the Goderville marketplace, they are ever trying to discover “the tricks of the man and the defect in the beast.” Those two phrases, “the tricks of the man” and “the defect in the beast,” say it all. Indeed, the trick in Hauchecorne is that he surely had a hand in the loss of the pocketbook; the defect in him is that he foolishly and vainly persists in voicing his innocence long after anyone has even thought him to be innocent, if ever anyone did.

Maupassant was no sociologist, and he did not expand on the fact that hundreds of years of debasement caused the peasants to see themselves as individuals who, by their intrinsic nature, were both unworthy and untrustworthy. Ironically, when Hauchecorne goes home after being mocked out of town, he arrives at the same conclusion that Maupassant had held for years. That is, Hauchecorne’s Norman simplicity readily understands that there is considerable justice in the peasants’ disbelief of his story. The peasants’ ingrained suspiciousness has singled out this old man as a thief, even disregarding the fact that the pocketbook had been recovered a day later; this, too, is how Maupassant treats his peasant: as a man not to be trusted.