What is the theme of "The Adopted Son"?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The theme of “The Adopted Son” is that money is the most important thing in life. With it, people can be happy, comfortable and respected; without it, they will be miserable, anxious, hungry and overworked.

Maupassant was a realist, a pessimist and a cynic. His story is intended to show that the Tuvaches were not only foolish in refusing to part with their little boy. but that they were not really motivated by parental love

The two mothers could hardly distinguish their own offspring among the lot, and as for the fathers, they were altogether at sea.

Maupassant uses some splendid descriptions to highlight the wretchedness of poverty. For example:

They all subsisted frugally on soup, potatoes and fresh air.

The Tuvaches were motivated by pride, concern for their neighbors’ opinions, and perhaps by religious convictions. Charlot’s mother does not display love but anger and pride when she rejects the  offer to adopt him.

“You want us to sell you Charlot? Oh, no, that’s not the sort of thing to ask of a mother! Oh, no! That would be an abomination!”

The mother of the other boy, a typical Maupassant female peasant, is more realistic. She tells Madame d’Hubieres:

“A hundred francs a month is not enough to pay for depriving us of the child. That child could be working in a few years; we must have a hundred and twenty francs.”

Of course, there is one important difference between the two peasant families. The Tuvaches have three girls and one boy, while the Vallins have one girl and three boys. The boys were naturally valued higher because they could do more productive farm labor.  Perhaps the Tuvaches might have been persuaded to part with Charlot if he had not been their only son.

After his uncle, Gustave Flaubert, the most important influence on Maupassant’s thinking and writing was Arthur Schopenhauer. According to Roger Colet:

Maupassant saw avarice and lechery, cruelty and greed, selfishness and hatred at work wherever he turned.

In one of the most enthusiastic tributes ever paid to Schopenhauer, he declared that the German philosopher had “stamped mankind with the seal of his disdain and disenchantment,” and continued: “He has upset belief, hope, poetry, fantasy, destroyed aspirations, ravaged confidence, killed love, overthrown the idealistic cult of womanhood, murdered the illusions of the heart, and altogether performed the most gigantic sceptical operation ever carried out. He has riddled everything with his mockery, and drained everything dry.”

And according to Harold Bloom:

A remarkable number of the greatest novelists have found Schopenhauer more than congenial: one thinks of Turgenev, Tolstoy, Zola, Hardy, Conrad, Thomas Mann, even of Proust. . . . A philosopher who so deeply affected Wagner, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and (despite his denials) Freud, hardly can be regarded only as a convenient aid to storytellers and storytelling.

The Vallins not only live comfortably on their pension for the next twenty-one years, but their son Jean receives special attention and becomes a distinguished and wealthy gentleman who is capable of providing for his parents in their old age; while the illiterate, overworked Charlot Tuvache is so angry at his old parents for refusing to sell him to the Hubieres when he was their first choice that he berates his mother and father severely and leaves home for good.