Guy de Maupassant's “Two Friends” takes place in January 1871, toward the end of the Franco-Prussian (or Franco-German) War. Since the war figures significantly into the story, readers should understand a few basic facts about this historical event. The Franco-Prussian War began on July 19, 1870, when France, which had become nervous about increasing German unification and political influence, declared war on Prussia, the leading German state (Germany was not yet united as a nation). Prussia mobilized its military faster than France did, and the Prussian army proved to be superior.
On September 1, 1871, Prussia defeated France at the Battle of Sedan, captured French emperor Napoleon III, and laid siege to Paris. This is the siege Morissot and Sauvage are experiencing in the story. It is the reason for their hunger—with the Prussians surrounding the city, there was no way to bring in supplies—and for the need for them to obtain a password to exit and enter the city. This is also why the Prussian officer is so intent on obtaining the password. With it, he and his forces could enter the city and end the siege with a Prussian victory.
Further, without their emperor, the French felt free to set up a new government, the Third Republic, on September 4, 1871. This is the Republic mentioned by Sauvage, when he asserts that “The Republic would not have declared war.” Napoleon III had, of course, declared war, and that was why Paris and its people were suffering. The Franco-Prussian war ended not long after this story takes place, for Paris surrendered to the Prussians on January 28, 1871.
With this historical context hovering in the background, the story's plot starts off at a gradual pace with Monsieur Morissot strolling idly down the street, his stomach grumbling from hunger. The narrator then looks back in time to pre-war days with a description of two relaxing fishing trips enjoyed by Morissot and Sauvage. These brief flashbacks gives readers a glimpse of the friendship between the two men, their simple conversations, and their delight in their favorite pastime. They also present a contrast between the pre-war situation (calm, relaxed, and peaceful) and wartime conditions (filled with deprivation, fear, and risk).
The story returns to the present as Morissot and Sauvage resume their conversations of few words yet perfect understanding, and the plot moves slowly through two glasses of absinthe—reflecting, perhaps, the sluggish pace of life in besieged Paris. Then, energized by the alcohol and the fresh breeze, Sauvage has an idea; they should go fishing. The decision is quickly made, for Morissot, like Sauvage, fails to consider possible negative consequences. They are both too excited by the prospect, and having secured the proper password, they set out toward the river.
At this point, the story offers some foreshadowing. As the two friends leave Paris, they look to the heights and remember something important: “The Prussians are up yonder!” For a moment, the men pause as they look out at the “deserted country” before them “with vague misgivings.” The Prussians are dangerous. They have spent months “pillaging, massacring, starving” the people of France. Fear slips into the men's minds, and Morissot wonders, “Suppose we were to meet any of them?” Sauvage jokes that they would “offer them some fish.” Little do they know what meeting the Prussians would actually entail, but they are soon to find out.
More foreshadowing occurs, and the story's tension begins to rise when cannon fire thunders from Mont-Valerien. The two friends have been so intent upon their fishing that, for a while, the war has ceased to be a factor in their lives and has faded from their minds. Now they are vigorously reminded of their situation. As the characters discuss war and politics, the narrator inserts a reflection of his own on the...
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