In a discussion of the facade and the reality contained in Maupassant's tightly ironic short story, the reader can point to the contrast in the appearance and bravado of the Prussian officer, who has been in battles, and apparent passivity and non-violence of the Frenchman, Monsieur DuBuis, as well as the contrast of their actions.
With the narrative set during the Franco-Prussian War in which Prussia, aided by Germany, defeated Napoleon III and conquered France in a mere five-month campaign, an arrogant Prussian officer boards the train on which Monsieur DuBuis rides in order to be reunited with his family in Switzerland. As he observes the Prussian soldiers sitting "astride" chairs before the remaining houses, M. DuBuis, who has himself served in the Parisian National Guard and
gone through the terrible events of the past year with sorrowful resignation and bitter complaints at the savagery of men
cautions himself to be prudent. Then, when the train stops, and an arrogant Prussian officer boards the train, M. Dubuis pretends to be engrossed in his newspaper. But, wishing to annoy Dubuis as the train passes a village, the Prussian boasts of having killed a dozen Frenchmen and taken a hundred more as prisoners and turns to Dubuis with great pretension and "laughs into his mustache."
Certainly, the officer's boast of victory in war is in contrast to the efforts of M. Dubuis to avoid conflict. While the Prussian's facade is one of great military prowess, M. Dubuis appears passive. However, when the boastful and cruel officer places his boots against the leg of Dubuis, ordering him to purchase some tobacco for him at the next stop, Dubuis instead dashes from the quay into a different train compartment. As Dubuis tries to recover from his effusive emotion, the officer jumps into the same compartment, accusing the Frenchman,
"You did not want to do what I asked you?"
As the officer threatens to cut off Dubuis's mustache, the merchant knocks the Prussian's arm away and rapidly beats the officer in the face. He then crushes his victim with his massive body, punching him blindly in his rage, knocking out the soldier's teeth.
As abruptly as he has attacked the Prussian, M. Dubuis resumes his seat wordlessly. When the officer recovers himself, he demands a duel; Dubuis fearlessly agrees, "Whenever you like. I'm quite ready." At Strasbourg, the train stops and two officers act as seconds to the officer while the touring Englishmen who have curiously followed DuBuis agree to act as his. Ironically, it is DuBuis who "had never fired a pistol in his life" who wins the duel. The Englishmen who have seem indifferent on the train, cheer and congratulate the Frenchman, an ally. Thus, in the end, all the characters have proven to be the opposite of what they have appeared.