We learn from the very start that Paris is not in good shape. There is a famine going on, and de Maupassant gives a clear indication of how severe things are by explaining that sparrows and rats were becoming few and far between, with Parisians eating “anything they could get.”
We are also soon told that Paris is in the midst of a war. Monsieur Morissot reminisces about the fishing trips that he used to take every Sunday before the war when he would meet Monsieur Sauvage, who he runs into at the beginning of our story. Sauvage comments that these are “sad times” in spite of the beautiful weather.
The story tells us that Paris is under siege by the Prussians, who have, for many months, been “pillaging, massacring, starving them.” It has become a city of much hatred, with the Parisians loathing and fearing the Prussians in seemingly equal measure.
The fact that the two friends are taken captive while minding their own business and fishing tells us that the plight of Paris means a serious loss of freedom for its civilians. They are assumed to be spies rather than mere fishermen. The fact that both are murdered for not divulging a password for their return through the outpost tells us that the plight of Paris—and Parisians— is deadly dangerous. Freedoms that had previously been taken for granted no longer exist.