Is self-reliance missing in the prose "The Piece of String"? Can we connect the text of "Self-Reliance" by Emerson to this prose?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In "Self-Reliance" Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that society is in conspiracy against individualism; Guy de Maupassant's "The Piece of String" is likewise a social criticism of the petty society of the judgmental Normans whose actions are motivated by how they will be accepted by others.

In his essay which has become a lesson in trusting oneself, Emerson writes,

Society everywhere is a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of...bread to each sharehold, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater....Who would be a man must be a nonconformist.

In other words, public opinion should not matter to anyone who is "a man"; that is an individual who thinks for him/herself.

In Maupassant's setting of the villages of Normandy, in the northwest of France, the society that is described is one with which Guy de Maupassant was well acquainted as he had worked as a civil servant in this province. While working there, Maupassant found the people very petty and envious of one another. It is this society that he satirizes in "The Piece of String."

Maupassant's social criticism extends to the frugal Maitre Hauchecorne, who bends to pick up a mere piece of string simply because it may be useful to him one day. Just as he starts to wind it around his fingers, he catches sight of this foe, Maitre Malandain, "eyeing him from his doorway." Because he is on "bad terms" with Maladain, with whom he has previously had an argument over the price of a harness, and he does not want to be thought of as being so low as to pick up a mere piece of string, Maitre Hauchecorne quickly shoves this string into his pocket. But, when Maitre Maladain sees this action, he quickly rushes to judgment since he already harbors bad feelings toward the other man. And, it is this prejudice which against Hauchecorne that causes the harness-maker to quickly implicate the "thrifty Norman" of the theft of a lost wallet.

Then, because Maitre Hauchecorne has "surrendered his liberty" to his anxiety about his reputation with the society, after released by the authorities who have arrested him for the theft, he spends the day speaking of his experience in order to cast aspersions upon his foe, Maladain, who implicated him in the theft. But, as Emerson notes, the society is "in conspiracy" against the man whom they do not favor, and the farmer understands "[P]eople were accusing him of having gotten an accomplice to return the pocketbook" because they were naturally suspicious of him as petty Norman peasants and because of his reputation for being crafty. At any rate, Maitre Hauchecorne's lack of self-reliance leads to his nemesis as he futilely tries to convince others of his innocence, protesting so much that the others become a "joint-stock company," as Emerson writes, against him.

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