Boule de Suif appears to focus mainly on the interactions between Boule de Suif (Ball of Fat or Butterball) and her bourgeoisie fellow travelers. The series of interactions between the parties highlight French attitudes towards men's oldest profession in the 19th century; the class divide between rich and poor is the central focus of the story.
Boule de Suif is set against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian War; soldiers advance into Rouen just as we meet the ten travelers who are about to leave for Havre. Maupassant points out that the travelers have secured safe passage into Havre because of 'the influence of the German officers whose acquaintance they had made...' Most are wealthy: Monsieur and Madame Loiseau are wine merchants; Monsieur Carre-Lamadon owns three cotton mills, is an officer in the Legion of Honor, a member of the General Council, and husband to the beauteous Madame Carre-Lamadon; the Comte and Comtesse Hubert de Breville are Normandy aristocrats. Two nuns, a political agitator, Cornudet, and Boule de Suif make up the rest of the contingent.
The prevailing disdain the travelers exhibit towards Boule de Suif is heart-breaking but very much the epitome of Maupassant's realist type of fiction. In the 19th century, prostitutes were shunned and avoided by the larger public; they were not to be seen in the company of 'decent' folk. The French government oppressed this group of working-class women horrendously. Street women had to register with the French government and were subjected to pervasive and demoralizing health evaluations on a frequent basis. Failure to register and to submit to these invasive tests was considered a crime. Due to economic necessity, working class prostitutes often had to work through menstrual cycles and during outbreaks of venereal disease.
On the other hand, Boule de Suif belonged to an elite class of prostitutes, the courtesan class, and was not subject to government regulation; her influential lovers would likely have fought any attempts to regulate her existence. The courtesans often had their own lavish apartments and jewels to flaunt while living bourgeoisie lifestyles. Boule de Suif must have secured passage in a four-horse drawn carriage due to her connections.
Despite this, the six wealthiest travelers refused to acknowledge her during the first part of their journey. The courtesan class, despite their finesse and delicate manners, still represented a despised social category of French citizenry. Respectable French men and women often vilified the audacity of courtesans in aspiring to bourgeoisie pretensions.
These six people occupied the farther end of the coach, and represented Society - with an income - the strong, established society of good people with religion and principle.
They decided that they ought to combine, as it were, in their dignity as wives in face of this shameless hussy; for legitimized love always despises its easygoing brother.
The fact that the wealthier travelers saw themselves as set apart from Boule de Suif is a great indictment of prevailing, bourgeoisie attitudes about the working class. For his part, Maupassant, who had his share of street women during his life, used the central focus of the story to provide a rare glimpse into a microcosm of French society long neglected by serious historians.
The travelers did not warm to Boule de Suif until she shared her bountiful food basket with them. However, their capitulation was temporary and purely self-serving. Later in the story, they collectively pressured Boule de Suif to give herself to the Prussian officer's sexual demands because they reasoned that 'such a step would be of so little consequence to her.' Taking turns, they patronized and goaded Boule de Suif into humiliating acquiescence. The unkindest cut of all occurred after Boule de Suif's sacrifice: the self-absorbed travelers, now satisfied that they may resume their journey, proceeded to lay bare their atrocious hypocrisy. They collectively reverted back to type and ostracized Boule de Suif, offering her no food or comfort during the last leg of the journey to Havre.
In this story, Maupassant indeed uses the central focus on the divide between the classes to cleverly highlight hypocritical bourgeoisie attitudes. This short story is realist fiction that attempts to capture the cruelty of life without embellishment or evasion.