Hautot and his Son (Hautot Père et Fils) by Guy de Maupassant, 1889

views updated

HAUTOT AND HIS SON (Hautot Père et Fils)
by Guy de Maupassant, 1889

Guy de Maupassant was born and educated in Normandy, and though he excelled in the depiction of Parisian life in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and in his evocations of the great horrors of the German invasion of France in 1870, his portrayal of his home region has a strength and insight that has never been surpassed. The provincial Normandy that he presents offers a contrast to the cosmopolitan Paris of so many of his other tales. It is more old-fashioned and slower moving, at the same time that it is full of character, and the careful conservatism of country ways is set off against the extravagance, in more than one sense, of the capital. In "Hautot and His Son" ("Hautot Père et Fils"), which first appeared in the newspaper Echo de Paris on 5 January 1889 and was collected in La main gauche in the same year, Maupassant creates in just a few pages a sense of the slowness of life in his native province. It is a tale that, like so many, leaves us with a conclusion that is not only unexpected and ironic but also puzzling. We may wonder whether the author is not saying something a bit more profound, even something sympathetic about humanity in its loneliness. Tight-lipped as ever, no less in explanations than in his laconic realism, Maupassant declines to give any hint about his attitude, leaving us to respond to the story for ourselves. Like life itself, his tales do not give answers; they confront us with human situations that we must puzzle out for ourselves.

In the story Hautot is a contented man who enjoys the good things of life. He is a successful farmer with a fine old house, and, almost adopting the style of a lord of the manor, he is celebrating the start of the hunting season by inviting a couple of friends for some shooting with himself and his son César. Fate strikes almost at once. Hautot brings down a partridge, dashes into some under-growth to pick up the bird, trips, and is wounded when the other barrel of his gun goes off. His wound is dreadful, and he knows perfectly well that he is dying. Characteristically, he does not let the doctor fool him with talk of recovery, and he has little patience with the clergyman either, but he does want a word in private with his son.

He tells the 24-year-old Césare to stop sniveling and explains what is worrying him. Left a widower seven years ago while still in his late 30s, he had not married again because he had promised his late wife that he would not do so. But he had found that he could not get by without female company, and so he had been in the habit of spending time in the provincial capital, Rouen, with a young woman named Caroline Donet, whose address he keeps repeating. Hautot explains that he had not made a will since he knew that that sort of thing only leads to trouble and disputes, and so he now wants his son to swear that he will see that Mademoiselle Donet will be well provided for. Césare, puzzled by this confession and devastated by his father's dreadful accident, promises that he will do just as he has been asked, and old Hautot dies soon after, not saying another word to anyone.

A few days later Césare dutifully sets forth for Rouen, thinking over the financial arrangements he ought to make. He has difficulty in finding Mademoiselle Donet's flat, and, in a nicely ironic touch, Maupassant has him ask a clergyman the way since he is ashamed what other people might think if he inquired of them. What greets him when he arrives at the flat is a perfect scene of quiet domesticity. In the neat flat the table has already been laid, the red wine is uncorked, warmed and waiting to be poured, and, since old Hautot had trouble with his teeth, the crust has been removed from the bread by one of the plates. Mademoiselle Donet is a calm, pleasant young woman, and she is genuinely upset by the totally unexpected news that Hautot has been killed in an accident. The next surprise in store for Césare is the discovery of the existence of a charming little boy who is, of course, the son of Mademoiselle Donet and of his father; in other words, this is his stepbrother.

A distressing situation is avoided largely because of Mademoiselle Donet's simple good sense. Showing an instinctive concern for Césare's well-being, she insists that he should have something to eat, looks after him well, and lets him enjoy the chance of getting to know her little boy. Césare departs only to return a week later to find a good meal waiting for him, but on this occasion he discovers that the crust has been left on the bread. When he realizes a little later that he has left his pipe at home, Mademoiselle Donet quickly finds him one that his father used to smoke. As he leaves, he readily agrees that he will be back next Thursday. We can easily see what is going to happen, but in this beautifully crafted story it is left to us to decide exactly how to interpret it all.

—Christopher Smith