Two Little Soldiers

by Guy de Maupassant

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Last Updated March 7, 2024.

Introduction

“Two Little Soldiers” is a tragic short story by French author Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893). Published in the newspaper Le Figaro in April of 1885, this story, titled “Petit soldat” in its original French, is one of de Maupassant’s many realistic tales that delve deeply into the emotions, motivations, relationships, choices, and actions of human beings. 

The story is set in France in the town of Courbevoie, just northwest of Paris, but the two main characters come from the much more rural Brittany on France’s west coast. The two little soldiers, then, are very far from home. While no war is mentioned in the story, their military service seems to be weighing down their spirits, perhaps by its monotony and perhaps by the soldiers’ separation from their familiar way of life in their own place.

Plot Summary

As the story begins, “two little soldiers,” Jean Kerderen and Luc le Ganidec, embark on their Sunday walk. They leave Courbevoie and head out into the countryside. They are young men, “small and thin,” and their uniforms, which are too big for them, hang awkwardly. Both soldiers have “poor, sallow Breton faces” and “gentle and quiet blue eyes.”

The soldiers always stop at the Bezons bridge, where they gaze upon the river, recalling home. Then they buy sausage, bread, and wine and go into a little wood to cook and eat breakfast. The two say little except when they recognize things that remind them of home, but their imaginations travel back to their own country. They are both “content and sad,” and after they eat, they lie back and remember.

As the young men rest each Sunday, they see a girl coming toward them to milk and pasture her cow. One day, she stops to speak to them, teasing them about watching the grass grow. She gives them milk as the visits continue because “It will taste like home.” One Sunday, the soldiers present the girl with candies, which she enjoys.

That week, the two young men think about the girl often and even talk about her, and when they see her again, she consents to share their simple meal. The girl’s presence brings the two soldiers to life. They chatter “like two birds” when she is around.

These shared moments continue until one week when something different happens. Luc takes a leave on a Tuesday without Jean and returns late in the evening. Then, on Thursday, Luc borrows some money and leaves the barracks again. He says nothing to Jean, who is confused and uneasy.

The next Sunday, the two soldiers follow their usual routine, but Jean is nervous. He suspects something, but he does not know exactly what. When the girl arrives, Luc jumps to his feet, and the girl throws her arms around his neck. They kiss. Jean is stunned and feels “within himself a burning grief, a kind of wound, that sense of rending which is caused by treason.”

Luc and the girl leave alone while Jean sits still, “stupefied by astonishment and suffering.” When Luc and the girl return, and after she leaves with another kiss for Luc, the two soldiers remain in place for a while. Then, they start walking back to the barracks.

At the bridge over the river, Jean leans over the railing so far that Luc asks if he wants a drink. Then suddenly, Jean falls into the river. Luc can do nothing to save his friend; he can only watch in horror as Jean disappears into the current. Luc runs back to the barracks and stammers out his story, filled with emotion. The tale ends with “If he had only known!”

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