Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Guy de Maupassant uses Georges Duroy’s rise to power as the vehicle to excoriate French society for what he sees as its many shortcomings. Georges, who hails from provincial northern France, is a cruel, selfish, manipulative man who craves respectability—or at least its appearance—along with the rewards of a higher station in life. As his star rises, his behavior is so despicable that the reader comes to expect a spectacular fall that does not come. The author more effectively proves his point by showing unscrupulous behavior does yield positive results and that, at least in the short term, the wicked may go unpunished. But because Georges shows no pity or sympathy for those he takes down on his way, we can anticipate that a younger version of himself may be plotting his future demise.
De Maupassant unsparingly lambasts men and women alike. Monsieur Forestier is presented as a benevolent and innocuous, but controlling. Whether unobservant or uncaring, he ignores Duroy’s growing influence on his wife, who basically writes his articles, which help him get promoted at the newspaper. Madame Forestier is complicit in helping Duroy find an influential mistress; his lavish attentions to her earn him the sarcastic sobriquet “Bel-Ami,” “good friend.” Not content just to have a mistress, Duroy accepts gifts from her, spending much of his time and even taking other women to an apartment she keeps for their trusts.
The way Duroy repays Forestier’s kindness is to marry his widow, proposing to her before her husband is even buried. And, because one mistress was not enough, Duroy must have two. A middle-aged wife will not do; he wants a younger one. He begins an affair with Madame Walter, the wife of his boss at the newspaper, all the while having designs on marrying her lovely young daughter.
At this point, the full malice of Georges’s machinations becomes apparent as he develops a plan to gain everything he wants and, at the same time, show the wealthy people he surrounds himself with just what he thinks of them. Here the plot grows intricate, rather incredibly, with a series of coincidences that place Duroy in a privileged position. Cleverly revealing secret financial information to some but withholding it from others, he helps his associates become filthy rich. Suddenly realizing the vast discrepancy between his financial gain and theirs, Duroy plots revenge against those who benefited more than he did.
At last, the author’s true craftsmanship is revealed. Monsieur Walter, apparently not overly concerned that his subordinate was sleeping with his wife, callously turns over his daughter in marriage to him and gives him a promotion. It is finally apparent that the powers that be remain in control, and it is primarily himself Georges has fooled.