Bel-Ami is the story of an intriguer who climbs to a position of wealth and power by publishing the story of his first wife’s disgrace and later cheating her of part of her fortune. The unscrupulous parvenu and the women he dupes are among the masterpieces of characterization produced by the French realistic school to which Guy de Maupassant belongs.
In the novel, Georges Duroy, who might be considered the male counterpart of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, represents the restlessness of a certain class at a time when the once-frozen class system slowly begins to thaw. He illustrates the morally debilitating nature of poverty. Although Maupassant scrupulously avoids comment, he seems to be suggesting that while it is easy enough to be moral with enough money in one’s pocket, society should hesitate to condemn those who must use their wits to survive (and are not too particular about how they do it). Duroy automatically looks for prey (as he did when stationed in Africa) to help him get ahead, and if confronted he would respond, what else could a man in his position do?
Duroy’s essential laziness prevents him from taking advantage of all the opportunities that open before him, but a natural shrewdness and ruthlessness carry him along far enough to be within sight of his goal. He is a man who never can be satisfied. Neither his background nor his instincts have given him a moral base on which to conduct his life; to him, “honor” is a catchword, not a code that touches him to the core. In fact, nothing touches him deeply. Pleasure, for him, equals happiness.
Ambition and death alternate as themes in the novel, the latter showing the ultimate futility of the former. The long and painful death of Charles Forestier provides Duroy with a greater opportunity for advancing in the world with the aid of Madeleine Forestier, but it also foreshadows the end that awaits Duroy and everyone else. A sense of terror crushes Duroy when he sits by the body of Forestier, and he wonders what the difference is between flies who live a few hours and men who live a few years. He has no ideals, no purpose to his life other than temporary physical sensations, and he can even see how meaningless they are. He is not, however, a profound enough thinker to pursue this train of thought. Soon, he is back at his usual scheming and plotting. With superb understatement, Maupassant says at this point: “Duroy returned to all his old habits.”
The young Maupassant considered himself a disciple of Gustave Flaubert. Certainly, the supple prose and carefully selected details, as well as the understated irony of the novel, are true to Flaubert’s literary teachings. Maupassant also belonged to the circle of realists that included Émile Zola and Ivan Turgenev. He presents his characters in Bel-Ami with strict objectivity, noting always the word or gesture that betrays the essential personality of each one. Conciseness and a rigorous economy of words and images underlie the art of the novel. He gives in Bel-Ami a true picture of the society of his time. Every detail is precise and factual, yet the view of humankind is powerfully universal.