Guy de Maupassant 1850–-1893
(Full name Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant; also wrote under the pseudonyms of Joseph Prunier, Guy de Valmont, and Maufrigneuse) French short story writer, novelist, journalist, poet, dramatist, and travel writer.
The following entry presents criticism of Maupassant's short fiction from 1989 to 2002. See also Guy de Maupassant Literary Criticism.
Maupassant is considered one of the finest short story writers of all time and a champion of the realist approach to writing. His short stories, noted for their diversity and quality, are characterized by the clarity of their prose and the objective irony of their presentation, as well as their keen evocation of the physical world. To the realist's ideal of scrupulous diction, Maupassant added an economy of language and created a narrative style outstanding in its austere power, simplicity, and vivid sensuousness.
Maupassant was born in Normandy, France, in 1850. His father and mother separated when he was eleven years old, and Maupassant was raised under the influence of his strong, domineering mother. The young Maupassant's cynical view of marriage seems to have stemmed from these early experiences and is evident in much of his work. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, he left his law studies in Paris, which he had begun the prior year, to enlist in the army. His experiences as a soldier inform some of his finest stories. After the war, due to financial problems, the author was forced to accept a position as a clerk in the Naval Office. In 1877 he was diagnosed with syphilis, for which there was no known cure. In 1878 he accepted a position in the Ministry of Public Education. Maupassant devoted a great deal of time to writing during his tenure as a civil servant, writing plays, poetry, and narrative prose. Gustave Flaubert became his friend and mentor, helping him with his writing and introducing him to prestigious literary circles. After Flaubert's death, Maupassant became a regular contributor to Le Gaulois, a respected Paris newspaper, and eventually wrote for the periodicals Gil Blas and Figaro, often under pseudonyms. After he left the ministry, his literary output increased dramatically and he enjoyed much success. The syphilis he had contracted as a young man led to recurrent problems with his eyesight and eventually to a complete physical and emotional collapse. Struggling with bouts of a debilitating mental disorder, Maupassant attempted suicide in 1892 and was subsequently confined to a sanatorium in Passy until his death.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Maupassant's stories are often autobiographical in nature. For example, several of his stories are drawn from his difficult childhood and focus on the dilemma of a rejected woman and the children of an ill-fated liaison, and explore the problems of identity and the individual's place in a rigid social structure. In addition, Maupassant's experiences as a soldier in the Franco-Prussian War inform some of his best stories, such as his masterpiece “Boule de suif,” which expresses the author's disgust for the degradation and folly of war. His boredom and frustration with his career as a government clerk provided the setting for such stories as “L'heritage,” in which he depicted the hopeless, tedious existence of a civil servant. In the company of Flaubert and his circle, which included Ivan Turgenev, Alphonse Daudet, and Émile Zola, Maupassant was truly at the center of European thought, and his work bears its legacy. At first associated with the naturalist movement, Maupassant eventually turned to realism. These principles, forged by Flaubert, called for a scrupulous concern with form and a dedication to precision of detail and exact description. Maupassant also shared with his mentor a severe pessimism toward life, as well as a disdain for bourgeois values, both of which are reflected throughout his short fiction. From 1880 to 1890 he published nearly 300 short stories, a prodigious literary feat, although he made full use of his material by constantly reshaping and reworking existing stories and duplicating scenes, descriptions, and vignettes from his newspaper pieces in his stories.
Throughout Maupassant's lifetime and into the twentieth century, scholars generally have been united in their favorable assessments of his work. Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, and Anatole France all recognized his talent. The critical reception of stories has focused on several major areas, among them his morality, the nature of his realism, the influence of Flaubert on his work, and the autobiographical aspects of his fiction. Recent commentators have noted Maupassant's influence on other important writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, and Henry James. Readers have consistently found Maupassant's stories fascinating, and his works have been widely translated. For their variety, concision, clarity of prose style, and realistic approach, Maupassant's short stories have earned him a place among the finest exponents of the genre.