The Piece of String by Guy de Maupassant

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What happens in The Piece of String?

In "The Piece of String," crafty old Maitre Hauchecorne is falsely accused of having stolen a man's pocketbook. He explains that he merely bent down to pick up a piece of string, but no one believes him—not even after the pocketbook is found and returned.

  • One day, Hauchecorne bends down to pick up a piece of string. His enemy, Malandain, sees him do this. When a peasant claims to have been robbed, Malandain accuses Hauchecorne.

  • Hauchecorne proclaims his innocence. In the morning, the pocketbook is found on the side of the road. Hauchecorne points to this as proof of his innocence, but the villagers still think he was the culprit.

  • Hauchecorne realizes that his reputation as a crafty old man has turned the villagers against him. He can't convince them of his innocence. He dies repeating, "A little bit of string."

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(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Set in a little Norman village, “The Piece of String” concerns several months in the life of Maitre Hauchecorne, an old peasant. On an autumn market-day in Goderville, Hauchecorne is about to enter the square when he sees a piece of string on the ground and, being of the saving kind, retrieves it. As he does so, he becomes aware that an enemy of his, M. Malandain, the local harness maker, is watching. Ashamed to be seen picking up a remnant of string, the protagonist furtively hides it in his clothing and then pretends to be looking for something of value on the ground. With his head bent over in his intent search, he moves on toward the market.

A few hours later, Hauchecorne is having his noon meal at the local tavern, Jordain’s, which is filled with local peasants, their gossipy chatter, and the powerful odor of food cooking. Twice the meal and the chatter are interrupted: first, by the voice of the town crier, who gravely announces the loss by M. Houlbreque of a pocketbook containing five hundred francs; second, by the appearance of the chief of gendarmes, who summons Hauchecorne to see the mayor on village business.

Leaving his meal, the protagonist hurries to the mayor’s office, where he is unofficially confronted with the charge of having found Houlbreque’s pocketbook and of keeping it. The sole witness to the incident is Malandain, says the mayor. Hauchecorne sputters in rage at the accusation coming from his enemy. His defense—one that he shouts over and over—is that no one could seriously mistake a pocketbook for a piece of string. Those present do not believe him, and they say so, which enrages Hauchecorne even more. Malandain appears, and his reiterating of the charge against the protagonist leads to a lengthy and bitter exchange between them. To prove his innocence, Hauchecorne insists on being searched. He is, but no pocketbook or large sum of money is found on him. The mayor dismisses him with the warning that as mayor he will consult a higher authority in the matter.

Out in the village again, old Hauchecorne finds that many of the peasants have already heard of the event, and to set the record straight Hauchecorne begins to restate what he told the mayor and the others: He found a piece of string and saw no pocketbook; to dramatize those points he turns his pockets inside out. Both his friends and strangers boldly tell him that they place no faith in his story, that he is indeed an old rascal and a rogue.

On the way home that night, and after his evening meal, he again stops neighbors and strangers and again goes over his litany of facts relative to the string and the pocketbook and the mayor’s false accusation. Once more, no single peasant will step forward to support his claim of innocence.

The day’s events have made him ill. The next day, however, the pocketbook and its contents have been found on the road and returned to their rightful owner. In his hour of triumph, Hauchecorne goes into the village and endlessly recounts the charge made against him the previous day and then the good news that fully exonerates him. Indeed, he spends the rest of the day on...

(The entire section is 1,082 words.)