illustrated portrait of French author Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant

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In "A Dead Woman's Secret," how is the concept of identity created or destroyed?

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In the short story "A Dead Woman's Secret" by Guy de Maupassant, the concept of the old woman's identity is first created by her children's impressions of her and then destroyed by something about her past that her children accidentally discover.

In the beginning of the story, we understand that the old woman's son and daughter have created an image of her based upon her example and the way she has brought them up. To them she appears to be a pious woman, a "sweet soul" who "armed them with a strict moral code, teaching them religion, without weakness, and duty, without compromise." As a result of their mother's influence, the children have formed their own identities based upon the instruction she has imparted to them. The son "had become a judge and handled the law as a weapon with which he smote the weak ones without pity." In other words, he had no compassion or mercy, but instead harshly judged those he perceived to be weak. The daughter has become a nun not because of a spiritual calling and love of God, but rather because of "her loathing for men." Both of them credit the identities they have assumed to their mother, who is "the connecting link with their forefathers which they would thenceforth miss."

However, in going through their mother's papers they come across letters from a lover with whom she had an affair. He writes of kissing her, embracing her, caressing her, and loving her madly. Suddenly her children realize that their mother was not as righteous and sanctimonious as they had supposed. This discovery destroys the identity of purity and holiness that they had built up in their minds about their mother. They no longer feel the same way about her as before. They become cold and distant. Her daughter, the nun, stops crying, and "her eyes dry." Her son, the judge, no longer feels close to "the mother on whom he had passed sentence." Both of them reject their mother when the identity they had created for her is destroyed.

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