Ball of Fat (Boule de Suif) by Guy de Maupassant, 1880

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BALL OF FAT (Boule de Suif)
by Guy de Maupassant, 1880

When the war between Prussia and France broke out in 1870, 19-year-old law student Guy de Maupassant enlisted as a private in the French army. He served in Normandy with a regiment that was badly equipped and rather futile. The regiment retreated in disarray, and Maupassant was almost taken prisoner. In less than a year the French lost the war. But Maupassant's brief army service provided him with the background material for "Ball of Fat" ("Boule de Suif").

When peace returned to France Maupassant settled in Paris. He went to work for the Ministry of the Navy and began to write fiction. His writing mentor was the great novelist Gustave Flaubert, a close friend of his mother. Through Flaubert, Maupassant came to associate with some of the great writers of the day—Zola, Daudet, Edmond de Goncourt, and Turgenev. Along with other writers, Maupassant regularly visited Zola at his home in Medan. In 1880 a book of short stories, Les Soirées de Medán ("Evenings at Medan"), resulted from these gatherings. The book contains six stories by six different writers on the subject of the Franco-Prussian War. Maupassant's contribution was "Ball of Fat," his first published story—a story that Flaubert called a masterpiece.

What makes this story a masterpiece is its symmetrical structure, its descriptions, its characterizations, and the power of its irony and satire. Maupassant brings together on a winter morning in Rouen ten travelers who represent easily distinguishable types in French society. There are the count and countess, the cotton magnate Carré-Lamadon and his wife, the wine merchant Loiseau and his wife. Here we have "the strong, established society of good people with religion and principle." They, of course, are the chief targets of the young Maupassant's satire. On the journey to Dieppe he shows that what these pillars of society have most in common is their hypocrisy.

From these "good people with religion and principle" we would expect to see such qualities as compassion and generosity, loyalty and patriotism, gratitude; Maupassant shows that under the surface these qualities are completely lacking. Among the ten are two nuns; for them as well, convenience takes precedence over principle. Two of the great achievements of this story are the characters of Cornudet the democrat, and the woman after whom the story is titled. Relentlessly Maupassant reveals Cornudet, the supposed defender of the common people, to be nothing more than an artful posturer. And the "Ball of Fat" who sells herself is shown to be the most genuine person among the ten.

On the first day of the journey Maupassant begins the process of stripping away respect for the respectable people and building admiration for the prostitute. Ball of Fat is the only traveler who has had the foresight to bring along food and drink. Despite their scornful manner towards her, she offers to share her provisions with the others. She does not, however, win their gratitude. Indeed, the ladies become even more scornful: "They would have liked to kill her, or throw her and her drinking cup, her basket, and her provisions out of the coach into the snow of the road below."

At the Commercial Hotel in Tôtes where the travelers are to spend the night, an unexpected problem develops. The Prussian officer who lives at the hotel wants Ball of Fat to go to bed with him. Surprisingly, she refuses. Out of her love for France she will have nothing to do with an officer of the enemy. Ball of Fat refuses to go to bed with the Prussian officer, and he in turn refuses to let the travelers proceed with their trip. What was to be an overnight stop could turn into an indefinite stay. Her fellow travelers are being inconvenienced, and they become angry. Why must she be so stubborn? What has she to lose? All the pillars of society, their wives, and one of the nuns attempt to break her resolve. On the third day it is the count who takes her for a walk, determined to wear down her resistance with kindness, logic, guilt, flattery—in short with whatever it takes. And finally he succeeds. It is the aristocrat—one of the best—who persuades Ball of Fat to abandon her principles and not be so patriotic.

When the journey is resumed the pillars of society cannot allow themselves to be grateful to the prostitute; instead their scorn is greater than ever. In the haste and confusion of the departure from Tôtes, Ball of Fat did not bring provisions for the rest of the trip. The others have. But they do not share with Ball of Fat, for after all she has shamed herself by going to bed with the Prussian. Cornudet, with four hard-boiled eggs, does not offer one to Ball of Fat; instead he taunts her by humming the Marseillaise. That, we realize, is Cornudet's purpose in life—to taunt. With this contrast to the earlier scene in which Ball of Fat gladly shared her food and drink, Maupassant achieves a most pleasing symmetry.

He also achieves a pleasing effect through the narrowing of the focus from beginning to end. The story begins with the brilliantly described scenes of the bedraggled French army in retreat and the city of Rouen under enemy occupation. At the end of the story the scene is the narrow confines of the coach. Within that small space, the pillars of society finally are able to cast out and exile the prostitute. But by that point only she has the reader's sympathy. And of the three men who would regard themselves as pillars of Rouen society, it is the coarse and vulgar wine merchant who is the least unlikable, for he is the least hypocritical. While Maupassant is at times heavy-handed in his satire, at other times he is quite subtle, as with the characterizations of the nun, Mme. Carré-Lamadon, and Cornudet. Most modern critics agree that Flaubert was right. "Ball of Fat" is a masterpiece of the short story.

—Paul Marx