The events of this story unfold in four easily distinguishable scenes. The first scene describes the location and decor of the establishment and introduces the principal characters. The brothel, a small old house, is located in the town of Fecamp; it is situated behind a church, and from its windows the old chapel dedicated to the Virgin is readily visible. The interior consists of two levels, each with its own separate entrance. The downstairs contains a café of sorts in one corner, with old marble tables on which drinks are placed; it is restricted to those frequenters of lower rank who are quite boisterous and crude. The upper level, or salon of Jupiter, is all blue and boasts a large drawing of Leda stretched out under the swan. Above the entrance, a small lamp burns all night, similar to those that keep vigil over the sanctuary in a church. This level is reserved for the gentlemen who are engaged in trading, government work, or other forms of “respectable” employment. Madame Tellier is the patroness of this brothel. She is cheerful, well liked, and virtuous, in spite of her profession. Of her permanent staff, Fernande, Raphaelle, and Rosa the Jade work on the upper level; Louise and Flora work on the ground floor. Each is supposed to represent the incarnation of a particular feminine type, so that every customer may realize the vision of his ideal. This scene concludes as some of the regular patrons find the house closed because Madame Tellier and her employees are journeying to the country town of Virville to attend the confirmation of Madame Tellier’s niece Constance.
The second scene recounts the train journey from Fecamp to Virville and the variety of people Madame Tellier and her entourage encounter along the way. First they share their carriage with a peasant couple who bear a strong resemblance to the three ducks they carry with them; they are awed by the sight of the women dressed in their colorful costumes. Then, a commercial traveler who is well aware of their occupation joins them. He offers free garters to any of the women who will try them on; all of them oblige immediately. They finally arrive in Virville, where they are met by Madame Tellier’s brother, Monsieur Rivet, and escorted to his home.
The events of the third segment unfold in Monsieur Rivet’s home and in the church. When Madame Tellier and her group arrive at her brother’s home, preparations for the confirmation are well under way, and all the women eagerly participate. The next day, dressed in all of their finery, they attend the confirmation ceremony. The religious ambience and the ceremony itself provoke an unexpected display of emotion from the women of Madame Tellier’s establishment. They weep uncontrollably and unashamedly as they are overcome by recollections of their youth, when they, too, participated in this ceremony all dressed in white. After the service, they proceed to Monsieur Rivet’s home for a dinner celebration. He behaves in a most ungentlemanly manner toward some of his sister’s employees, for which he is severely chastised. The events of this segment draw to a close as Monsieur Rivet escorts his guests to the train station for their departure.
The fourth scene unfolds with the return journey to Fecamp. News of their arrival spreads rapidly, and soon the house resounds with activity. It is an unusually festive evening, the highlight of which occurs when Madame Tellier and Monsieur Vassi, her platonic courtier, come to a new understanding. The merriment continues until the early morning hours and concludes as Madame Tellier generously assumes the costs for most of the evening’s entertainment.
“Madame Tellier’s Establishment” (sometimes translated as “Madame Tellier’s House”) is often called Maupassant’s masterpiece, although it is not as...
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