Themes and Meanings
The ending of “Guy de Maupassant” is significant for several reasons. First, it marks the transition of the young writer from a state of cockiness and overconfidence (recall his disdain as a “young genius” for Tolstoy) to one of doubt and anxiety. The author writes, “My heart contracted as the foreboding of some essential truth touched me with fight fingers.” This truth includes the understanding that great art is seldom achieved without great suffering: The young man now realizes the full implication of his choice of writing as a career.
In general, the story treats the theme of illusion seen against the truth of life. The narrator’s roommate, Kazantsev, lives in an imaginary Spain—his permanent escape from the St. Petersburg snows. Raisa’s one passion is Maupassant. Though Babel “forgives” Raisa this, he has little use for the whole Bendersky clan, who have deceived themselves into believing that by worshiping Jesus they will escape Russian anti-Semitism and get to keep their money, too. Babel’s disdain for such converted Jews is nicely contained in the narrator’s remark about Raisa after she has pressed herself against the wall and “stretched out her arms”: “Of all the gods ever put on the crucifix, this was the most ravishing.”
The theme of illusion contrasted with truth also occurs in the dream of the young writer about Katya, the washerwoman: In the dream they do “godawful things together” and almost “destroyed each other with kisses.” In the morning, however, he sees a “wan woman” with “ash-gray hair” and “laborworn” hands. The young man also has sexual fantasies about Raisa’s maid. Probably the treatment of sex in this story is meant to be positive: Sex, passion, and love are essential to life and must be seized with zest and joy. This is not all of life, however: hence, the somber ending. However, the ending should not be read as a puritanical, Tolstoyan castigation of Maupassant (or the narrator) for sexual promiscuity.
“Guy de Maupassant” is famous for its observations on literary style. The narrator (clearly speaking for the mature Babel) declares: “A phrase is born into the world both good and bad at the same time. The secret lies in a slight, an almost invisible twist. The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm, and you can only turn it once, not twice.” Then, in speaking of style to Raisa, the young writer asserts, “No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.”