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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

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.

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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.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624


*Paris. Capital of France and the social, political, and cultural center of French life. Georges Duroy’s rise (and there are passages where he literally climbs stairways to one success or another) is reflected in his material and romantic triumphs. The novel’s first chapter shows the beginning of Duroy’s career as a boulevardier, an individual who spends a good deal of time going from café to café to see and be seen. In fact, while strolling some of Paris’s “grands boulevards” and adjacent thoroughfares, Duroy meets magazine editor Forestier, his future boss and the present husband of Duroy’s future wife Madeleine. After realizing that they served in the army together, the two men stroll through Paris, covering quite a bit of territory together.

The opening scenes of the novel are exciting, presenting a kind of panorama of Paris’s Right Bank (the north side of the Seine River). Guy de Maupassant alludes to the Opera and to the Church of the Madeleine, where Georges’s second wedding will take place. There is an interlude at the Folies Bergère, where a prostitute makes overtures toward Georges, and a scene on the Champs Élysées, perhaps Paris’s most famous street. Maupassant creates a powerful sense of the terrain on which Georges will fight for success, from the glamour of this beautiful city’s monuments, to its cafés and bistros, to its seamy underside—all of which prove to Georges that, as his friend tells him, it is primarily through women that a man becomes successful in Paris. Later, Maupassant characterizes Paris as a colossus with a life of its own, a life derived from the collective heat, lust, and activity of its inhabitants.

*Church of the Trinity

*Church of the Trinity. Right Bank church in Paris that is the setting of scenes that characterize Duroy and three of his victims. It serves as a trysting-place for Duroy and Virginie Walter, the wife of his publisher, whom Georges brutally seduces and then discards. This seduction is particularly shocking because Madame Walter takes great pride in her Christian virtue and purity. Maupassant makes Madame Walter’s moral downfall seem all the more terrible by setting its beginning in a church. This scene will remind readers of a similar passage, in Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), by Gustave Flaubert, one of Maupassant’s mentors. In that novel, the heroine’s virtue is assaulted in a cathedral.

*Church of the Madeleine

*Church of the Madeleine. Another prestigious Parisian church, one that provides a stunning irony: It is there that Georges marries the wealthy Suzanne Walter, daughter of Virginie Walter, with the cream of Paris society in attendance. However, even during the wedding reception, Georges is planning a rendezvous with a longtime mistress.


*Normandy. Region of western France in which Maupassant himself was born. After Georges marries Madeleine Forestier, the widow of his boss, they visit his parents in a tiny, primitive village near Rouen. Their short stay here is uncomfortable for all concerned except Georges, who enjoys revisiting his childhood home. This passage emphasizes the contrast between rural France and the glitter of Paris as well as demonstrating the humble background of the soon-to-be powerful Duroy. His mother quickly learns to hate Madeleine as a parasitic city woman; Madeleine is shocked by the crudeness of the villagers and the conditions in which they live. Most of all, however, the visit to Normandy demonstrates the sharp clash between harsh reality (as shown in the presence of factory smokestacks amid the pretty, bucolic landscape) and a kind of poetic naïveté in Madeleine; one evening during the visit, she even experiences a sudden, sharp, spiritual crisis which precipitates the couple’s return to Paris.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 231

Donaldson-Evans, Mary. “The Harlot’s Apprentice: Maupassant’s Bel-Ami.” The French Review: Journal of the American Association of Teachers of French 60, no. 5 (April, 1987): 616-625. An examination of the hero and of sexual identity in Maupassant’s novel. Discusses the novel in the context of nineteenth century naturalistic literature.

Hamilton, James F. “The Impossible Return to Nature in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami or the Intellectual Heroine as Deviant.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 10, no. 3 (Spring/Summer, 1982): 326-339. Considers Maupassant’s novel in terms of his conceptualization of female characters. The examinations of Madeleine Forestier and Clotilde de Marelle are rigorous and insightful. In dealing with the issue of heroine and intellect, the article elucidates Maupassant’s use of naturalistic and realistic literary devices.

Lethbridge, Robert. “Maupassant’s Bel-Ami and the Art of Illusion.” In Studies in French Fiction in Honour of Vivienne Milne, edited by Robert Gibson. London: Grant & Cutler, 1988. Explores duplicity in the novel Bel-Ami. Also considers the work as an example of nineteenth century French literature.

Lloyd, Christopher. Maupassant: “Bel-Ami.” London: Grant & Cutler, 1988. Examines the novel’s philosophy and style and offers a thorough overview of the work as a study of social position and ambition.

Prince, Gerald. “Bel-Ami and Narrative as Antagonist.” French Forum 11, no. 2 (May, 1986): 217-226. A study of the character of Georges Duroy in terms of Maupassant’s development of narrative and of his construction of an antagonist.

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Critical Essays