Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Guy de Maupassant is best known for his brief, realistic tales of Norman peasantry, of Paris life, and of the insignificant bourgeoisie. Often his stories are notable for their speed, drama, climax, and surprise endings. Moreover, he is usually admired for his shrewd deployment of a persistent irony. All these qualities figure prominently in “A Family Affair.” Together with several other stories, such as “The Piece of String,” “The Necklace,” “The False Gems,” and “The Umbrella,” “A Family Affair” is one of his best-known pieces.

Unlike some, however, this tale does not feature cool authorial detachment. Rather, it is a scathing frontal assault, sketched with roller-coaster rapidity and acid commentary, depicting a typically trite, rapacious, empty-headed suburban family. Indeed, it provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of terrible mediocrity; the phrase en famille usually indicates domestic privacy and bliss, a cozy being “at home.” Perhaps a modern translation of the title might coyly be “All in the Family.” Clearly, the title is employed, as is virtually all else in this story, with raw sarcasm.

In such a satire, it is difficult to imagine who is not intended as a target. With widening inclusiveness, everyone and anything is indicted: commuters, doctors, bureaucrats, suburban housewives, mothers-in-law, gluttony, avarice, politics, antiques, children, and death. The very breadth and diffuseness of this list renders the story something of a circus, with various dumb animals performing simultaneously in every ring. Just such overcrowding and excess give the story its absurdity, vitality, and grim farcical humor.