Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 955

In his chapter on Mont-Oriol in Maupassant the Novelist, Edward D. Sullivan writes, “In August 1885 Maupassant, visiting Chatel-Guyon in Auvergne, was profoundly impressed by the natural beauty of the region, and determined to use this setting as a background for his next novel.” It is an indication of Guy de Maupassant’s genius that he was confident of his ability to create a cast of believable characters to people an empty landscape. The imagination that was responsible for Maupassant’s fame and fortune tortured him with horrible hallucinations and drove him to attempt suicide before his death in a sanatorium.

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Henry James gives an incisive one-sentence evaluation of Maupassant’s works in an essay on the French author: “M. de Maupassant sees human life as a terribly ugly business relieved by the comical, but even the comedy is for the most part the comedy of misery, of avidity, of ignorance, helplessness, and grossness.” This sentence could serve as a capsule summation of the theme and thesis of Mont-Oriol. Maupassant’s descriptions of the beauty of nature, including those of the pure water gushing from the mountain spring, are contrasted with his depictions of the ugliness of human behavior. He peoples his pristine landscape with fools and hypocrites. Maupassant was a cynic, but always an amusing cynic. His avaricious peasants and hypocritical doctors provide much of the comedy in Mont-Oriol.

It is noteworthy that Christiane Andermatt is the only character who changes, indicating that the novel is her story. She loses the girlish innocence, romanticism, and vulnerability that at first make her so irresistible to the jaded Paul Brétigny. Gontran de Ravenel remains a playboy from beginning to end. William Andermatt remains a greedy businessman. Paul remains an attitudinizing Don Juan. Christiane, however, ends up cynical, cunning, spiteful, and, above all, disillusioned. Her disappointment with human nature reflects Maupassant’s own disappointment.

Biographers of Maupassant frequently remark on the influence on the author of the pessimistic and misanthropic German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who was Maupassant’s contemporary. “I admire Schopenhauer madly,” Maupassant once wrote in a letter. Here is a characteristic passage from one of Schopenhauer’s essays: “how little genuine honesty is to be found in the world and how often injustice and dishonesty sit at the helm, secretly and in the innermost recess, behind all the virtuous outworks, even where we least suspect them.”

One by one, Maupassant’s characters exhibit dishonesty, motivated by greed and selfishness. The marquis, an impecunious aristocrat, is willing to marry his tender young daughter to a much older, temperamentally unsuited man of an inferior social class for the sake of money. William Andermatt does not love Christiane; he has married her for her family name and for the business connections her family can provide. Paul proves to be a faithless lover who not only deceives Christiane’s trusting husband but also betrays Christiane. Christiane’s brother, Gontran, is so dishonest that dishonesty seems as natural to him as breathing. He coldly and deliberately jilts one of Father Oriol’s daughters in favor of the other when he finds out where his financial advantage lies. Andermatt, to whom the wastrel Gontran is heavily in debt, encourages his brother-in-law in this heartless deed without regard for the feelings of the trusting young Charlotte Oriol, who is shamefully betrayed, and without regard for the fate of her sister Louise, who will spend a lifetime married to a faithless husband who never loved her.

Maupassant’s male peasant characters are just as dishonest as his upper-class characters, but they do not pretend to be honorable gentlemen, nor do they expect others to be more honest than themselves. Maupassant liked to write about peasants and prostitutes because they were the only people who did not pretend to be other than what they were. The crafty, tightfisted Father Oriol and the totally unscrupulous poacher and malingerer Clovis are two of the most striking characters in the novel. They are human nature in the raw, undisguised by formal clothes and refined manners.

Even Christiane proves to be capable of the grossest dishonesty. She deceives her husband by carrying on an affair with Paul—right under Andermatt’s nose. Her dishonesty is more shocking than that of any other character in the novel because of her youth, idealism, and innocence. Ultimately she presents Andermatt with a bastard daughter without showing the slightest remorse as she watches the cuckold cooing over the infant nestled in his arms.

As well as being an admirer of Schopenhauer, Maupassant was an admirer of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who acknowledged the genius of the younger writer and published an essay about him in which he deplored Maupassant’s preoccupation with sexual matters. Maupassant’s characterization of Paul and Gontran echoes the negative view of the upper classes that Tolstoy developed in his old age. Tolstoy thought that men and women who do not have to labor for their livelihoods are frustrated and thus exaggerate the importance of love and sex in order to fill their empty lives. Gontran and Paul are examples of leisure-class drones who create tragedy by playing at love.

Maupassant’s cynicism about human nature, which he shared with Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, can be seen echoed in many works of modern fiction, perhaps most strikingly in the hard-boiled novels of the American crime writers Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Jim Thompson. Maupassant may be said to have contributed to this genre in terms of style. He started as a short-story writer and had to learn economy with words. He became expert at selecting the telling detail that could create a scene and the line of dialogue that could bring a character to life.

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