What is the symbolism of Guy de Maupassant's "Two Friends"?
Fishing is a fine-weather sport, a leisure activity, and in this story by Guy de Maupassant, a hobby shared by two friends. Before the war Mssrs. Morissot and Sauvage went to the river regularly; now the area is dangerous, the days are literally not so bright, and they must refrain. The weather itself is here a symbol of war and deprivation, Morissot noting mournfully at the beginning that the day he chances upon his friend on the boulevard “is the first fine day of the year!” Maupassant notes as well that the sky is “a bright, cloudless blue.” The story takes place in early spring – for months to have gone by in the year without a beautiful day is telling, for during these same months France has been subject to Prussian occupation. This also represents the happiness and relief of the friends to run into each other – the only beautiful day of the year is also the first day they will spend together since the beginning of the war. The day they pretend nothing is wrong.
The description of the day as being a “cloudless blue” is noteworthy, for when the friends embark upon their hopeful fishing trip on this fine day, cannons erupt on Mont Valerien, visible from their perch on the riverbank. These cannons emit smoke, which hovers in the still, clear air around the mountain, and by the end of the story, the “summit [is]…enshrouded in smoke,” an evolution that parallels the two friends’ horrifying transition from carefree fishing to facing a firing squad. Even on a fine day during wartime, clouds creep in.
Before the friends are taken by the Prussians and assumed to be spies, and shown no mercy, they catch a large sack full of gudgeons that the Prussians capture along with the Frenchmen. These fish – caught unassumingly, unceremoniously, swept from their rightful home for the sport and social morale of men – can be said to symbolize the two friends themselves, who also are caught unassumingly, unceremoniously, swept from their homeland by invaders and killed for the good of their enemies. The lack of remorse shown by the Prussian officer toward the Frenchmen is summed up in the very last lines of the story, concerning the fish:
“’Have these fish fried for me at once, while they are still alive. They will make a tasty dish.’
Then he resumed his pipe.”
From these lines we can see how stoic and heedless the officer is to the innocent lives he just took, the innocent fish he is frying – indirectly; he is not performing the tasks but he bears the full responsibility nonetheless – and we can see that the Frenchmen mean no more to the Prussians than the fish they had caught. These fish are food, as well, representing the supplies and aid and hope being withheld from the French people by the Prussians, by the evils of war – for all over Paris people were starving.
In the first part of the story,"Two Friends," Maupassant describes how the two men often meet each other and sit side by side with their feet dangling over the side of the embankment as they fish, content in each other's company and in the joy of what they do. Later on in the year,
In the autumn, toward the close of day, when the setting sun shed a blood-red glow over the western sky, and the reflection of the crimson clouds tinged the whole river with red....
they would remark upon the beauty of nature. This red imagery, especially the "blood-red glow," is symbolic of what becomes of the two friends after they are captured by the Prussians. For, as they fall, murdered, into the water, "A few streaks of blood flecked the surface of the river."
Other symbols are the fishing rods belonging to the friends, rods that fall into the water:
The rods slipped from their owners' grasp and floated away down the river.
These rods represent what eventually happens to the two friends: They are shot and their bodies fall into the river, as well, cast out as though they are as insignificant as two fishing rods, lost and not to be retrieved.
Well, there are a few different symbols in "Two Friends." One is the rumbling in the background from the cannon's firing, which is also Mount Valerien erupting. This continuous "eruption" helps to build the rising action and symbolizes the doom that is ahead (foreshadowing). In addition, the fish that is caught by the two friends and then essentially becomes similar to their own fate is also symbolic. The two men end up floating dead in the water while the Prussian soldiers consume the fish that kept and brought the two friends together in the first place. A bit ironic.