In this story, Guy de Maupassant explores the intimate dimensions of wartime through the degradation of one woman. A Prussian officer's sexual abuse of a French woman is combined with the bullying of her compatriots who place their own selfish interests above human decency.
The story features a group of ten travelers in a coach making its way across occupied territory, from Rouen to LeHavre, where they can flee to England. The author emphasizes the class differences between the well-off majority, two nuns, and two lower-class people. The last are Cornudet, a radical, and Boule de Suif (nickname), a prostitute. Most of them are underprepared, but she has food which she shares with them.
When they stop overnight in an inn, a Prussian officer decides he wants to have sex with Boule, who refuses. He extorts the whole group by making her consent the price for all their safe passage, they berate her until she very reluctantly agrees. The next day when they all resume their journey, she cries and they ignore her.
The woman's seemingly offensive but possibly humorous nickname is Boule de Suif, which means "ball of fat," because she is overweight. But the author may have been making a thinly veiled commentary about the reason for the others' mistreatment as anti-Semitism, as the French "suif" is very close to "juif," or Jew.