Although he became famous above all for his well-crafted short stories, Guy de Maupassant also wrote poems, plays, and three successful novels: Une Vie (1883; A Woman’s Life, 1888), Bel-Ami (1885; English translation, 1889), and Pierre et Jean (1888; Pierre and Jean, 1890). His preface to Pierre and Jean has attracted a considerable amount of attention over the years because it reveals the profound influence that Gustave Flaubert exerted on Maupassant’s development as a writer. Maupassant was not, however, a major literary theoretician, and many critics have agreed with Henry James’s perceptive comment that Maupassant as a “philosopher in his composition is perceptibly inferior to the story-teller.” Maupassant also wrote several volumes of fascinating letters to such eminent writers as Flaubert, Ivan Turgenev, andÉmile Zola.
Guy de Maupassant is generally considered to be the most significant French short-story writer. Unlike other important nineteenth century French prose writers such as Honoré de Balzac and Flaubert who are better known for their novels than for their short stories, Maupassant created an extensive corpus of short stories that reveals an aesthetically pleasing combination of wit, irony, social criticism, idealism, and psychological depth. Although his short stories deal with readily identifiable situations and character types in France during the 1870’s and 1880’s, they explore universal themes such as the horrors of war and the fear of death, hypocrisy, the search for happiness, the exploitation of women, and contrasts between appearance and reality. His characters illustrate the extraordinary diversity in modern society, from prostitutes to adulterous husbands and wives and from peasants to aristocrats. Even during his lifetime, his short stories were appreciated both within and beyond the borders of France. He had the special ability of conveying to readers the universal elements in everyday situations. He used wit and an understated style in order to create aesthetically pleasing dialogues. His work exerted a profound influence on many major short-story writers, including Thomas Mann, Katherine Mansfield, and Luigi Pirandello.
Between 1880 and 1890, Guy de Maupassant published more than three hundred short stories in a variety of modes, including the supernatural legend, the surprise-ending tale, and the realistic story. Although he is best known for such surprise-ending tales as “La Parue” (“The Necklace”) and is most respected for such affecting realistic stories as “Boule de suif,” literally “ball of fat,” Maupassant also contributed to the sophistication of the traditional horror story by pushing it even further than did Edgar Allan Poe into the modern realm of psychological obsession and madness.
Are the endings of many Guy de Maupassant stories genuine surprises? Should the ending of a short story be a surprise?
Why do Americans have so much more difficulty responding favorably to a story like “Madame Tellier’s House” than do French readers?
What makes the denouement of “The Necklace” anticlimactic?
Is the narrator of “The Horla” unreliable? Is this story told the only way it could be told?
Explain why the short story is or is not “a respectable literary genre.”
The remarks on style quoted earlier reflect the author’s attitude toward his own writing. His story is like an icon painted with perfect phrases.
In describing the stairway of the Bendersky mansion, Babel writes: “On the landings, upon their hind legs, stood plush bears. Crystal lamps burned in their open mouths.” Avoiding all authorial commentary, Babel gives the reader in seventeen words a perfect description of nouveau-riche bad taste. (The word for this in Russian is poshlost’; in German, kitsch.) Babel’s effectiveness as a writer owes much to his laconism and detachment.
The author’s treatment of the sexual theme is enhanced by repetition, until the...
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whole story seems suffused with sexual imagery—as is the inside of the young writer’s head. Three times a Bendersky servant is described as “the high-breasted maid.” “In her open gray eyes,” writes Babel, “one saw a petrified lewdness.” The narrator imagines that she makes love with an “unheard-of agility.” There is often exaggeration, humor, and vivid color in Babel’s images: The narrator and his friends get “as drunk as a flock of drugged geese.” The dinners at the Bendersky house are always noisy: “It was a Jewish noise, rolling and tripping and ending up on a melodious singsong note.”
Maupassant and the narrator’s tale are linked by a motif using images of the sun. In referring to the twenty-nine volumes of Maupassant’s collected works, Babel writes: “The sun with its fingers of melting dissolution touched the morocco backs of the books—the magnificent grave of a human heart.” When the story “The Confession” is retold, Babel informs the reader that “the sun is the hero of this story”: Molten drops of it patter on the red-haired Celeste. When she and Polyte make love, “the gay sun of France pours down on the ancient coach.”
Although the closing summary of Maupassant’s life is both frightening and repellent, one must balance it against a compelling image of the writer’s greatness: Earlier, the narrator refers to the set of Maupassant’s works as “twenty-nine bombs stuffed with pity, genius and passion.”
Artinian, Artine. Maupassant Criticism in France, 1880-1940. New York: Russell and Russell, 1941. Despite its title, this important book explores critical reactions to Maupassant’s works both in France and outside France. Artinian also includes thoughtful comments on Maupassant by some of the most important American and European writers of the 1930’s. An essential work for all critics interested in Maupassant. Contains a very thorough bibliography.
Fusco, Richard. Maupassant and the American Short Story: The Influence of Form at the Turn of the Century. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994. Argues that Maupassant was the most important influence on American short- story writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Focuses on his effect on Kate Chopin, Ambrose Bierce, Henry James, and O. Henry. Arranges Maupassant’s stories into seven categories based on narrative structure.
Harris, Trevor A. Le V. Maupassant in the Hall of Mirrors: Ironies and Repetition in the Work of Guy de Maupassant. Houndmills, England: Macmillan, 1990. A critical evaluation of Maupassant’s use of irony and repetition.
Ignotus, Paul. The Paradox of Maupassant. London: University of London Press, 1966. In this fascinating but subjective interpretation of Maupassant’s genius, Ignotus believes that Maupassant was a paradoxical writer because he was obsessed with sex and was nevertheless a creative genius. At times, Ignotus’s arguments are not terribly convincing, but this book does discuss very well Maupassant’s ambivalent attitudes toward his literary mentor Gustave Flaubert.
Jobst, Jack W., and W. J. Williamson. “Hemingway and Maupassant: More Light on ‘The Light of the World.’” The Hemingway Review 13 (Spring, 1994): 52-61. A comparison between Hemingway’s “The Light of the World” and Maupassant’s “La Maison Tellier.” Discusses how both stories focus on a single prostitute rising above stereotypes.
Lloyd, Christopher, and Robert Lethbridge, eds. Maupassant: Conteur et romancer. Durham, England: University of Durham, 1994. A collection of papers, in both French and English, commemorating the centenary of Maupassant’s death in 1993. Papers in English on Maupassant’s short stories include an essay on “Mademoiselle Fifi,” David Bryant’s paper “Maupassant and the Writing Hand,” and Angela Moger’s essay “Kissing and Telling: Narrative Crimes in Maupassant.”
Steegmuller, Francis. Maupassant: A Lion in the Path. New York: Random House, 1949. In this extremely well- documented biography of Maupassant, Steegmuller describes very well both the nature of Flaubert’s influence on Maupassant and the contacts of Maupassant with such major writers as Émile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, and Henry James.
Sullivan, Edward. Maupassant the Novelist. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1945. This volume is a very thoughtful analysis of Maupassant’s novels. Sullivan argues persuasively that Maupassant’s novels do deserve as much critical attention as his more famous short stories have received over the years. Contains a solid bibliography.
Sullivan, Edward. Maupassant: The Short Stories. Great Neck, N.Y.: Barron’s, 1962. A pamphlet-length introduction to some of Maupassant’s basic themes and story types. Particularly helpful are Sullivan’s attempts to place Maupassant’s short stories within their proper generic tradition.
Wallace, Albert H. Guy de Maupassant. New York: Twayne, 1973. Wallace presents an excellent analysis of recurring themes in Maupassant’s major works. He discusses with much subtlety Maupassant’s representations of war and madness. This well-annotated book is an essential introduction to the thematic study of Maupassant’s major works.