The first of Guy de Maupassant’s six novels, A Woman’s Life was published in 1883, three years after the death of his teacher, Gustave Flaubert. Maupassant tried and mostly failed to please Flaubert by aspiring to the highest distinction as an artist in poetry and in the theater. With the publication of “Madame Tellier’s Excursion” in 1881, he found a ready market for short stories that were admirably crafted but—judged by Flaubert’s exacting standards—needlessly cynical, inelegant, and often mechanically contrived. Nevertheless, their pungency, realism, and shrewd observation of character attracted many readers who had ignored Des Vers (1880; Romance in Rhyme, 1903), Maupassant’s only volume of poetry. Many of the qualities of the stories also appear in A Woman’s Life, a sustained, psychologically honest study of Jeanne de Lamare from the time she completes her idealistic education at a Rouen convent in 1819 until about 1855, when she is middle-aged, disillusioned, and worn with many sorrows.
Maupassant’s novel has frequently been compared, usually to its disadvantage, with two other novels that examine the fate of disappointed women, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) and Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (1908). For subtlety, richness of characterization, and harmonious prose style, Madame Bovary is assuredly a more profound work of art. Bennett’s novel, which was inspired by A Woman’s Life, is more detailed than its model and has a surer grasp of social history and of specific place and a deeper sense of the poignancy of time passing. Nevertheless, Maupassant’s short novel—half as long as Madame Bovary and less than a third the length of The Old Wives’ Tale—is remarkable in its own right. Compact, unsentimental, and stark, this work is a disturbing but affectionate study taken from human experience. The portrayal of Jeanne is thought to have been drawn, emotionally if not exactly, from Maupassant’s memories of his mother, and his description of The Poplars recalls the setting of the Chateau de Miromesnil in Normandy, where the author spent his early childhood. The book, which was Maupassant’s favorite among his novels, is memorable for its...
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