In Guy de Maupassant’ story, “Bel-Ami,” literally “good friend,” is a nickname bestowed on Georges Duroy to describe his relationship with his married lover. The author chronicles his rise through Parisian society, within the niche of journalism. The primary theme is the changing class composition of late 19th century France. This is played out through conflictual attitudes toward climbing the social ladder and resentment of the class structure, perfectly embodied in the unscrupulous Duroy. De Maupassant also reminds the reader, however, of the transitory nature of success and power, which Duroy gains at the expense of others’ falls and, the author implies, is destined to lose as well.
Duroy ascends through the ranks of society, acquiring better positions in the newspaper business by using a woman to help him write his stories and, even more, by acquiring wealth through affairs with and marriage to her and other wealthy women. Although he also builds on his connections with influential men, it is his appeal to women and total lack of principles that enable his rapid ascent. Early in the novel, Duroy draws on the affection and loyalty of a former military comrade, Monsieur Forestier. After his death, Duroy marries his widow—all the while conducting not one but several affairs. This socially and financially favorable match also initiates a name change, to du Roy de Chantel.
While the reader knows that Georges left the army flat broke, later in the novel, when he takes his wife to Normandy to meet his family, we learn that he hails from very modest origins. This context helps explain his near desperation to escape his rural background and enjoy a luxurious Parisian lifestyle. After he and the members of his new crowd engage in what amounts to insider trading, he realizes that the others have profited far more than he from advance knowledge of official French financial dealings. His resentment prompts him to divorce his wife and ruin one of competitors. Cementing his rise to power by marrying a rich, lovely young woman who is the daughter of another rival and makes him an editor so he can keep an eye on him, Georges convinces himself that he has outsmarted his social superiors.