(Henri René Albert) Guy de Maupassant 1850–1893
French short story writer, novelist, journalist, poet, dramatist, and travel writer.
For further information on Maupassant's complete career, see NCLC, Volume 1; for additional information on Maupassant's novel Pierre and Jean, see NCLC, Volume 42.
Maupassant is generally considered to be one of the masters of the short story and a champion of the realist approach to writing (though he resisted any identification with literary movements). He also authored six novels, a volume of poetry, a number of plays, three travel journals, and several journalistic pieces. Short-story writing, however, was clearly his strength—he produced over three hundred short stories from 1880 to 1890, the decade during which he penned the majority of his other works as well. He would have preferred fame as a novelist and likely would have garnered more critical attention if he had published more novels; critics have tended to regard the short story as a "lesser" form of literature. As a result, at least in part, Maupassant, though widely recognized outside his native country, usually has not been numbered among the most acclaimed of France's nineteenth-century prose writers—Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, and Honoré de Balzac. Maupassant drew upon his own day-to-day life experiences as material for his works, focusing on the peasants native to his homeland, the service of government employees, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and his own private hallucinations and feelings of dread.
Maupassant was born in Normandy, and both the setting and character of his childhood left a distinct impression on his life and work. His childhood home was a wealthy but unhappy one; his mother, though intelligent and educated, was prone to neuroses, and his father turned to other women for comfort. When Maupassant was twelve years old, his parents separated and he lived with his mother, seeing little of his father. The young Maupassant's cynicism regarding marriage seems to have stemmed from these early experiences and is evident in much of his work. His stories often center on the fate of a rejected woman and the children of an ill-fated liaison, exploring the problems of identity and the individual's place in a rigid social structure. In
1863 Maupassant's mother enrolled him in a Catholic boarding school, from which he was later expelled for the nature of the poetry he had written during what he called his "imprisonment." With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Maupassant left his law studies in Paris (which he had begun in 1869) to enlist in the army. His experiences during the war inform some of his finest short stories, expressing his disgust for the degradation and folly of war. After the war, he worked first in the Ministry of the Navy from 1872 to 1878, and then the Ministry of Public Education from 1878 to 1882. This experience provided the setting for many of his stories in which he depicted the hopeless, repetitious life of the civil servant. He regularly escaped the boredom of his work through encounters with women, often prostitutes. One of these encounters would prove fatal, as in 1877 he was diagnosed with syphilis, for which there was no known cure.
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 Flaubert's 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 the Figaro as well, often using the pseudonyms Joseph Prunier, Guy de Valmont, and Maufrigneuse. After he left the ministry, his literary output increased dramatically, especially from 1883 to 1885, 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.
Perhaps the greatest influence on Maupassant's life and career was Flaubert, a childhood friend of his mother, who personally asked Flaubert to take her son under his wing. In the company of Flaubert and his literary friends, which included Ivan Turgenev, Alphonse Daudet, and Emile Zola, Maupassant was truly at the center of European thought, and his work bears its legacy. His first published story, "Boule de suif" (1880) was part of a collaborative effort, Les Soirées de Médan, which includes the work of several young French Naturalists under the influence and direction of Zola. The work proved a minor success for the young Naturalists, but Maupassant's story was so clearly superior to those of his fellow contributors that it established him immediately as a strong young talent in short fiction. He subsequently broke with the Naturalist school, turning instead to the precepts of the Realist school. 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. Indeed, his work met with problems of censorship as early as 1880, and his poem "Au bord de l'eau," whose subject matter was, according to a fellow poet, "a very banal copulation," shocked and offended bourgeois sensibilities. Maupassant's prolific literary output has often been remarked upon, but he constantly reshaped and reworked his material, repeating scenes, descriptions, and vignettes from his journal pieces in his stories and novels.
Throughout Maupassant's lifetime and into the twentieth century, scholars and writers generally have been united in their favorable assessments of his work. Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, and Anatole France all recognized his talent. Critics did, however, have concerns with some aspects of his work. Many early critics faulted his narration, which they found unaffected by emotion. In addition, they expressed ethical concerns with what appeared to be the erotic nature of his writing, and they disliked the way in which he presented human beings as being motivated by the basest instincts. Readers, however, have consistently found Maupassant's stories fascinating, and his works have been widely translated.
The novels Maupassant wrote are generally considered less consistently successful than his short stories, which in their diversity and quality mark him as one of the finest exponents of the genre. These stories are characterized by both the clarity of their prose and the objective irony of their presentation. To the realists' ideal of scrupulous diction Maupassant added an economy of language and created a narrative style outstanding in its austere power and simplicity. Many modern critics have found rich material for study in the women characters in his tales. Noting that fewer than sixty of Maupassant's stories have minor female characters or no female characters at all, critic Mary Donaldson-Evans (1986) concentrated on the connection between the role of women in the tales and the author's clear "contempt for the concept of God." Other critics have pointed out Maupassant's generally cynical view of women. Mary L. Poteau-Tralie (1995), for example, traced Maupassant's increasingly pessimistic portrayal of mothers, in particular; whereas his early tales contain a primarily idealistic vision of motherhood—referring to the role as "a unique and privileged position"—his later tales focus on horrific versions of motherhood, involving infanticide, sexual promiscuity, and madness. According to Poteau-Tralie, this increasingly negative characterization was directly related to Maupassant's deteriorating mental and physical health and his growing pessimistic view of the world in general. Studying the relationship between prostitutes and their primarily middle-class male clientele in Maupassant's tales, critic Charles J. Stivale (1994) argued that Maupassant subverted traditional social and gender hierarchies, as the women characters typically proved more powerful than the bond "between men."
Other twentieth-century critics have covered such subjects as the structure of Maupassant's stories and the erotic nature of Maupassant's tales. Angela S. Moger (1985), studying Maupassant's use of "framed" stories—a story within another story—contended that this embedded tale is actually the primary tale and maintained that Maupassant used this form to further influence the readers' response to the stories, equating the narrator of the embedded story with the external audience. Looking at the censorship issue relative to Maupassant's tales, P. W. M. Cogman (1997) pointed out that Maupassant's writings often mock those of his fellow writers who refused to refer to explicit matters—especially sexual ones. To create tension as well as amusement, Maupassant used both inhibited narrators who were hesitant to tell the tales, as well as narratees who expressed shock at the nature of the stories.