illustrated portrait of French author Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant

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Guy de Maupassant Short Fiction Analysis

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Although his active literary career began in 1880 and lasted only ten years, Guy de Maupassant was nevertheless an extraordinarily productive writer whose short stories dealt with such diverse themes as war, prostitution, marital infidelity, religion, madness, cultural misunderstanding between the French and the English, and life in the French provinces, especially his native Normandy. His short stories varied greatly in length from only a few pages to more than forty pages. His stories are extremely well organized, and there is much psychological depth in his insights into the complex motivations for his characters’ behavior. His work explores the full spectrum of French society. He describes characters from various professions and social classes with sensitivity and humor. Although Maupassant was himself very pessimistic, rather chauvinistic, and also distrustful of organized religions, his characters do not simply mirror his own philosophy. He wrote about topics of interest to his French readers in the 1880’s, but he also enriched his short stories with psychological and moral insights, which continue to fascinate readers born several generations after his death. Maupassant examined how ordinary Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, with whom readers can readily identify, reacted to unexpected social, historical, moral, and business situations. His short stories mirror life because in fiction, as in life, things never turn out exactly as one thinks they will.

Although Maupassant wrote on a wide variety of topics, the major recurring themes in his short stories are war, prostitution, and madness. Why Maupassant explored these themes instead of others is problematic. In their excellent biographies of Maupassant, Paul Ignotus and Francis Steegmuller showed that the Prussian occupation of France had been a trumatic experience for him. Even his mentor Flaubert realized that Maupassant was promiscuous, and he warned his disciple of the physical consequences of sleeping with prostitutes. By the middle of the 1880’s, Maupassant began to write very frequently about characters who fear losing their minds. This would, in fact, happen to Maupassant himself, but not until late 1891. Although it is tempting to interpret Maupassant’s short stories in the light of his personal experiences, such an approach is not very useful for literary criticism. Other Frenchmen of his day were scarred by the Prussian occupation of France or frequented houses of prostitution, but they did not possess his literary talents. His biography may well explain his preference for certain themes, but it does not enable readers to appreciate the true value of his short stories.

Maupassant wrote more than two hundred short stories. Even in a relatively long essay, it would be impossible to do justice to all of his major works. This article will examine four representative short stories in order to give readers a sense of Maupassant’s refined artistry. These works are “La Folle” (“The Madwoman”), “Boule de Suif,” “La Maison Tellier” (“Madame Tellier’s Establishment”), and “Le Horla” (“The Horla”).

“The Madwoman”

“The Madwoman” and “Boule de Suif” both describe personal tragedies that can result from war and military occupation. These two short stories are significantly different in length. In Albert-Marie Schmidt’s 1973 edition of Maupassant’s short stories, “The Madwoman” is four pages long, whereas “Boule de Suif” fills forty pages. Both, however, describe women who are victimized by the arbitrary abuse of power during the Prussian occupation of France. The structure of “The Madwoman” consists of a story within a story. The narrator is an unnamed man from Normandy. He tells his listener, Mathieu d’Endolin, that hearing woodcocks reminds him of a terrible injustice that took place during the Prussian occupation of Normandy. This odd reference to woodcocks is explained only at the end of...

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this short story. The narrator speaks of a woman who went mad from grief after her father, husband, and baby had all died within a month of one another in 1855. She went to bed, became delirious, and screamed whenever anyone tried to take her out of her bed. The narrator is a sensitive man who feels pity for this woman. He wonders if she still thinks about the dead or if her mind is now “motionless.” Her isolation from the world is absolute. She knows nothing about the world outside her room. During the Prussian occupation of the town in which the narrator and this madwoman live, German soldiers were assigned to the various houses. The madwoman and her maid had to receive twelve soldiers.

For reasons that are totally incomprehensible to the narrator, the German officer in charge of the soldiers in this house convinces himself that the madwoman will not talk to him because she holds Germans in contempt. He orders her to come downstairs, but the madwoman cannot understand his demand. He interprets her silence as a personal insult, and he orders his soldiers to carry the woman in her bed toward a nearby forest. For nine months, the narrator learns nothing about the fate of this woman. During the fall hunting season, he goes to the forest and shoots a few woodcocks. When he goes to retrieve these woodcocks, he finds a human skeleton on a bed. The awful truth is revealed to him. The madwoman had died from exposure to the cold, and “the wolves had devoured her.” The narrator does not end this tale by denouncing the Germans but rather by praying that “our sons will never again see war” lest other innocent victims suffer similar tragedies. Readers from any country or generation can identify with the hopes of this narrator. Readers and the narrator know all too well that many innocent victims have been killed in war. “The Madwoman” is a powerful short story that expresses one’s revulsion over the death of any innocent victim of war.

“Boule de Suif”

Although his most famous short story, “Boule de Suif,” also deals with the horrors of war, “Boule de Suif” is a much more complicated tale, and it has eleven major characters. At the beginning of “Boule de Suif,” Maupassant evokes the terror felt by many French citizens who came to fear the abuse of power by the occupying soldiers. This short story begins in the Norman city of Rouen. The Prussian general in Rouen grants ten inhabitants of this city special permission to travel by coach from Rouen to Dieppe. Their intention is to reach the port of Le Havre from which they can leave France for safety in England. Their motivaton is clear. They hope to lead better lives in a free country.

The ten travelers are from different social classes. There are three married couples. Mr. and Mrs. Loiseau are wine merchants whose integrity has been questioned by many of their customers. Mr. and Mrs. Carré-Lamodon are well-to-do owners of cotton mills, but Maupassant describes Mr. Carré-Lamodon as a hypocritical politician. The Count and Countess of Bréville are very rich, but their noble title is of questionable value. Rumor has it that King Henry IV of France had impregnated an ancestor of the Brévilles. In order to avoid an unpleasant situation, he made the lady’s husband a count and appointed him as the governor of Normandy. This placated the husband. In the coach, there are also two nuns, an inoffensive leftist named Cornudet who is more interested in drinking beer than in reforming society, and finally a prostitute named Boule de Suif. Her name, which means “ball of tallow,” evokes her rotund figure. Although the three respectable couples feel superior to Boule de Suif, they do not hesitate to accept food from her once they realize that she alone has brought food for this trip.

When their coach stops in the village of Tôtes, a German officer orders the ten passengers to stay in the local inn until Boule de Suif agrees to sleep with him. As a patriotic Frenchwoman, she refuses to yield to this blackmail. The next day she goes to church and asks God to grant her the strength to remain faithful to her moral principles and to France. She assumes that the other passengers will support her, but she is wrong. The married couples and the two nuns conspire to put pressure on Boule de Suif. The elder of the two nuns is especially reprehensible because she distorts the clear meaning of several biblical passages in order to convince Boule de Suif that it would be praiseworthy for her to sleep with the Prussian officer. Boule de Suif feels abandoned by her fellow citizens and by two representatives of her church. In despair, she yields to the Prussian’s ultimatum. The three married couples and the two nuns celebrate this action by drinking champagne. Their insensitivity and general boorishness are obvious to the reader, who feels much sympathy for the victim. As they are traveling from Tôtes to Dieppe, Boule de Suif begins to weep, and the others take out their newly purchased picnic baskets filled with cheese, sausage, and bread, but they do not offer to share their food with Boule de Suif, who had been so generous during the earlier trip. A silent rage builds within her, but the proud Boule de Suif says nothing. She realizes that they are unworthy of her.

Ever since its publication in 1880, “Boule de Suif” has been considered Maupassant’s masterpiece. Its structure is admirable, and the parallel scenes of eating in the coach serve to reinforce in the reader’s mind Boule de Suif’s alienation from the other passengers. Her patriotism causes her to sacrifice herself for them, but now they want nothing to do with her. Both “Boule de Suif” and “The Madwoman” reveal Maupassant’s artistry in describing the unpredictable and destructive effect of war and occupation on innocent victims.

“Madame Tellier’s Establishment”

Although the title character in “Boule de Suif” is a prostitute, the story’s main theme is war and not prostitution. In Maupassant’s equally celebrated short story “Madame Tellier’s Establishment,” the principal theme is prostitution, but Maupassant develops this theme with much sensitivity and wit. Madame Tellier runs a bordello, but she is a shrewd businesswoman who does a fine job in marketing. She hires prostitutes representing the different types of feminine beauty “so that each customer could find there the satisfaction” of his sexual fantasies. The men in her town feel very much at ease in her bordello, and she treats her prostitutes and clients as members of her extended family. One Friday evening, however, the routine is disrupted when her customers see a sign with the words “Closed Because of First Communion” at the entrance of her business. Madame Tellier has decided to close her bordello for a day so that she and her five employees can attend the First Communion of her niece, who lives in the rural community of Virville.

The train ride to Virville contains a marvelously comic scene. Seated with Madame Tellier and her five prostitutes are a traveling salesman and an elderly peasant couple, who are transporting three ducks not in cages. The husband and wife watch with disbelief as the five prostitutes take turns sitting on the salesman’s lap while playing with the ducks. The salesman then takes out brightly colored garters, and he cajoles the prostitutes and even Madame Tellier into allowing him to place the garters on their legs. All of this is accompanied by much laughter. The peasants cannot believe their eyes. As they get off the train with their ducks, the wife tells her husband: “They are sluts on their way to the wicked city of Paris.” She is partially correct, but their actual destination is the nearby village of Virville.

After they have breakfast on her brother’s farm, Madame Tellier leads her prostitutes into the local church for the First Communion services. The parishioners have never before seen such gaudily dressed women. The worshipers find it difficult to concentrate on the Mass. The prostitute named Rosa thinks of her First Communion; she begins to cry, and her tears become contagious. First the other prostitutes, then Madame Tellier, and finally all the adults in the church begin to weep uncontrollably, and the tears do not end until the elderly priest has distributed Communion to the last child. He is so moved by their tears, which he interprets as the expression of profound religious emotion, that he decides to give a sermon. For him, this is “a sublime miracle” that has made him the “happiest priest in the diocese.” He speaks of the “visible faith” and “profound piety” of the out-of-town visitors. Although this priest would most probably have expressed himself differently had he known of their profession, readers cannot question his sincerity or the reality of the religious emotions experienced by the worshipers in this small church.

After the Mass, life returns quickly to normal for the ever-practical Madame Tellier. She tells her brother that they must take the midafternoon train so that she can reopen her business within a few hours. That evening, there is a festive atmosphere in her bordello. Much champagne is drunk, and Madame Tellier is unusually generous. She charges her customers only six francs for a bottle of champagne instead of the normal rate of ten francs. This is a well-structured short story in which scenes in the bordello precede and follow the First Communion sequence. Maupassant describes characters from widely different professions and social classes in a nonjudgmental manner. The refined artistry and style of “Madame Tellier’s Establishment” may explain why Thomas Mann, who was himself renowned for his short prose works, concluded that Maupassant “would be regarded for centuries as one of the greatest masters of the short story.”

“The Horla”

“The Madwoman,” “Boule de Suif,” and “Madame Tellier’s Establishment” are all effective third-person narratives, but Maupassant also experimented with other narrative techniques. In 1886, he wrote two versions of a short story that he entitled “The Horla.” Both versions describe the mental illness of a Frenchman who believes that an invisible being called “the Horla” has taken possession of his mind. In the first version, a psychiatrist named Dr. Marrande asks seven colleagues to listen to a patient who is sure that the Horla entered his locked bedroom, drank milk and water, and then took over his personality. The psychiatric patient assures his listeners that he “saw” the Horla: He looked in a mirror but did not see his own image. After the patient stops talking, Dr. Marrande makes a very strange remark for a psychiatrist: “I do not know if this man is mad or if we are both mad or if our successor has actually arrived.” The first version of “The Horla” is ineffective for several reasons. First, it lacks a clear focus because both Dr. Marrande and his patient speak of their reactions to the Horla. Second, Dr. Marrande’s comment that he may have gone mad does not inspire much confidence in him. Third, the very nature of this narration does not enable readers to experience the gradual development of the patient’s psychiatric problems.

Maupassant wisely decided to revise this short story into a first-person narrative presented in the forms of diary entries written by the patient himself. In his first entry, dated May 8, the diarist seems to be a calm individual who mentions in passing that a Brazilian boat has just passed by his house, which overlooks the Seine. He soon develops a fever, has trouble sleeping, and writes of a recurring nightmare. He dreams that a being is on his bed and is trying to strangle him. This nightmare returns several nights in a row. For the month of June, he is on an extended vacation, and he considers himself cured. When he returns home, however, he has new nightmares. This time, a being is trying to stab him. Although he keeps his bedroom locked at night, a spirit always drinks the water and the milk left in carafes by his bed. Gradually, he comes to accept the presence of this thirsty spirit. By mid-August, however, he concludes that a spirit has taken over his mind. The spirit orders him to read a book and an article on invisible spirits from Brazil that like to drink water and milk. In a desperate effort to free himself from the Horla, he traps the Horla in his bedroom and then burns down his house. It does not occur to him to think of his servants, who are asleep in his house. They die in the fire, and the diary does not indicate what happened to the diarist. Has he been arrested for murder or has he been committed to an insane asylum? In his very last entry, the diarist assures the reader that if the Horla is still alive, he will have to commit suicide. The second version of “The Horla” is very effective because it enables the reader to experience the gradual transformation of the diarist from a sensible person into a terrified and self-destructive individual who no longer appreciates the value of human life.

Although some critics have hypothesized that the second version of “The Horla” somehow prefigures the serious psychological problems that Maupassant himself would develop five years later, this is a fanciful interpretation. Maupassant did not try to kill himself until January, 1892, and he was still perfectly lucid when he wrote “The Horla” in 1886. This first-person narrative is a powerful short story that enables readers to experience the process by which a person can develop a serious mental illness. “The Horla” had a profound effect on generations of readers. In 1938, Arnold Zweig wrote of his recollection of this short story, which he had read years earlier:I still remember my emotion and admiration. I do not even need to close my eyes to see the white ship passing his country-house from which the strange guest, the split ego, invaded the life of the sick person.

Maupassant is still admired for his well-structured and beautifully written short stories. He is generally considered to be the best French short-story writer, although since the early years of the twentieth century, his works have been held in much higher esteem outside France (especially in England, the United States, and Germany) than in his homeland. It is not clear why so many French critics have been less than enthusiastic in their assessment of his short stories. Perhaps the critical standing of Maupassant would be higher than it is among modern French critics if he had explored a wider variety of themes. Readers should not forget that Maupassant died at the relatively young age of forty-two. His short literary career of only ten years did not give him sufficient time to develop the extraordinary breadth and diversity of a writer such as Victor Hugo, whose literary career spanned more than six decades. Despite the relatively limited number of themes that he explored in his short stories, Maupassant wrote short stories of such stylistic beauty and psychological depth that they still continue to please readers and to inspire creativity in short-story writers from many different countries.


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