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The story is set in the French countryside, near the town of Courbevoie. It is wartime, but the scene is peaceful and idyllic; Luc and Jean, who are soldiers stationed in barracks nearby, come here on Sundays for a quiet meal and to enjoy the area, which reminds them of home. The beauty of the setting is enhanced by the presence of a young village girl, who brings her cow out to pasture every Sunday when the boys are there. The boys begin to engage in "a bit of innocent ogling" of the comely girl, who after awhile begins to talk to them.
The author, Guy de Maupassant, wrote the story to explore the impact of the traditional "love triangle". The central theme he addresses is the conflict between friendship and love. Luc and Jean share a special bond of friendship, especially strong because they are soldiers, lonely and far from home. When the girl enters the picture, both boys are smitten by her, but it is Luc who pursues an actual relationship. For whatever reason, Luc promotes his suit in secret, and when Jean finds out about it, he is surprised and deeply hurt. It is clear that, with the introduction of a romantic aspect into the triangle, the friendship between Jean and Luc will never be the same. Luc has gained a lover, and Jean has lost a friend with whom he once had a close bond.
The author communicates the tragedy of the situation through the simplicity of his story. Jean and Luc's Sunday outings are not elaborate, but from them both boys draw strength and sustenance for the rigors of their week. The ending of the story comes as a shock, because there was little indication that the emotions involved would have been so intense and devastating. Jean and Luc's friendship, while being totally fulfilling, had been simple, the kind of friendship with which readers could easily relate. The universal truth that it could be so quickly and irrevocably impacted by the addition of another to the dynamic is effectively and chillingly illustrated by the author's skillful use of the surprise ending.
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