Boule de Suif
Boule de Suif
"Boule de Suif" was first published in 1880 in the anthology Les Soirées de Medan. Often considered his greatest work, "Boule de Suif" was published the same year that Guy de Maupassant made his poetic debut with Des Vers. The theme of the anthology of short stories was the Franco–Prussian War from a decade earlier. Other writers contributed, including Émile Zola and J. K. Huysmans, but it was Maupassant's short story, often considered the best example of naturalism, that has reigned as the most famous.
Maupassant is known for his insightful descriptions of characters and their actions and dialogues. His ability to capture a scene and recreate it in literary form has earned him a notable place in the history of naturalists. Maupassant's "Boule de Suif" is not only a sound reflection of retreating France during the Franco–Prussian War, but a resounding exploration of morality and ethics in a divided society. The title character is caught in a repetitious cycle of self-examination that has forced her into a circular ethical conundrum. All the while, her position is created not on her own accord, but through the manipulation of spiteful members of the respectable social order. The complexity that lies beneath Maupassant's imagery, his representation of humanity, and his ability to convey vibrant humor separates him from his contemporaries, placing him in a class only matched by Gustave Flaubert.
Guy de Maupassant, a nineteenth-century naturalist author, is one of France's most distinguished and celebrated writers of short stories. An incredibly productive writer, Maupassant achieved recognition quickly in France, and the amazing bulk and quality of his work left an impressive and permanent mark on the literary world of short fiction.
It is believed that Maupassant was born at Château de Miromesniel on August 5, 1850, although it is speculated that his parents moved him from their humble house in Fécamp to the imposing Miromesniel mansion to give their first-born child a high-sounding birthplace. Château de Miromesniel is located in a small village outside of Dieppe, called Tourville-sur-Arques. His parents separated when he was eleven years old, and he lived all of his early years in his native Normandy. Maupassant was born with the gift of a photographic memory, and this innate talent helped him to remember the nuances of Norman people that later made his stories so descriptive.
In 1869, Maupassant moved to Paris to study law, but by the age of twenty he volunteered to serve in the army during the Franco–Prussian War. After the war he joined the literary circle headed by Gustave Flaubert. The famous writer was a friend of Maupassant's mother. Flaubert introduced his new protégé to other writers, including Émile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, and Henry James. Flaubert was wholly impressed with Maupassant and became obsessed with teaching the young Maupassant the art of seeing. Although the young author was grateful for Flaubert's instruction and doting, he was much more lighthearted and cynical than his mentor.
During the years between 1872 and 1880, Maupassant spent much of his time hating his work as a civil servant and all of his free time writing and chasing women. He made his literary mark in 1880 with the publication of his greatest masterpiece, "Boule de Suif." The title translates as "Ball of Fat," but in most English translations the title is left in Maupassant's native tongue. During the 1880s, Maupassant penned over three hundred short stories, six novels, three travelogues, and one volume of verse. From this incredible body of work, Maupassant created many remarkable stories, including the novels Une Vie in 1883, and Pierre et Jean in 1888.
Although many of his stories were considered immoral—his subject matter was frequently centered on sex, adultery, prostitutes, and food and drink—a small portion of his corpus was dedicated to short horror stories. From this smaller, later, body of his work, no story was more terrifying than his harrowing tale of madness, "Le Horla," published in 1887. Many of his horror stories spawned from the impact of a syphilitic infection he contracted during his raucous twenties. From the course of the infection, Maupassant began to lose his sanity. The infection and madness eventually took permanent hold of Maupassant's mind, and on January 2, 1892, he attempted to slit his own throat. Following his attempted suicide, Maupassant was committed to an asylum in Paris, where he died a year later. Due to his "immoral" subject matter, Maupassant did not receive adequate praise from English-speaking literary circles until the latter half of the twentieth century, yet it cannot be denied that his work influenced, and has been imitated by, countless authors across the globe.
"Boule de Suif" opens with a description of French soldiers retreating from the advancing Prussian army. They are fleeing through Rouen as the Prussians begin to take hold of the city. Many Prussians are boarding up with townspeople and, in general, acting quite respectable in the townspeople's homes. Outside in the streets, they are gruffer and carry themselves with a stronger, more ostentatious air. Many who attempt to flee the city are held captive or turned back. However, some individuals are given permits to leave Rouen. Ten such individuals have gathered together in the courtyard of a hotel to ready themselves for their trip out of Rouen to Le Havre. From Le Havre the travelers will cross to England if the Prussian army continues to advance. Gathered together at the coach are the driver and ten passengers: Comte and Comtesse Hubert de Bréville, Monsieur and Madame Loiseau, Monsieur and Madame Carré-Lamadon, Cornudet, Boule de Suif, and two nuns. The first six are of a higher social class, either extremely wealthy or members of the government or both. The man traveling alone, Cornudet, is a democrat and a political leftist opposed to the aristocratic government. The woman traveling alone, Boule de Suif, is a fat, appealing prostitute. The two nuns are simple and spend most of the time praying.
The passengers board a chilly train, the floor of which is covered with straw, and begin their long journey through the night and cold to Tôtes. Everyone begins to reach a point of breaking, as the trip is painstakingly slow and they are filled with discomfort from hunger and thirst. Unfortunately, no one but Boule de Suif has brought provisions for the trip, and since the wealthy, respectable travelers have deemed her immoral and cast insults at her, they are hesitant to ask for food or wine. Eventually, Monsieur Loiseau breaks the silence and asks for some food. Boule de Suif swiftly and happily complies, eventually feeding everyone in the coach. The respectable individuals have a change of heart in regard to Boule de Suif. Now, after being fed, the higher social class is happy to pay respect to the plump prostitute.
Eventually the coach arrives in Tôtes. In Tôtes, Prussian soldiers greet the passengers at their coach, an event that makes everyone quite nervous. Luckily, their documents appear to be sufficient to allow them to continue their travels. The passengers and the driver intend to stay in Tôtes one night and depart for Le Havre in the morning. While having dinner at the inn, Boule de Suif is called up to talk to the Prussian commandant. He propositions her, which she angrily and gallantly refuses. All of the other passengers are outraged by the commandant's indecent proposal. The next day, the passengers rise to see that their coach has not been harnessed. It soon becomes apparent that they will not be able to depart Tôtes until Boule de Suif has sex with the Prussian commandant. At first, all of the other passengers support her decision, as it would be morally unjust and unethical to support forcing a woman into such a painful sacrifice. However, as the days go by, her fellow passengers begin to scheme a way to coerce Boule de Suif into sleeping with the commandant. The only person still opposed is the democrat, Cornudet.
After keenly manipulative speeches at dinner and final monologues from Comte Hubert and the Old Nun, Boule de Suif caves to the Prussian commandant's proposal and the other passengers' coercion, and on the fifth night in Tôtes she sleeps with the enemy. The following morning, nine passengers rise early to pack and collect provisions. Yet given her long evening of pleasing the Prussian commandant and saving her fellow passengers, Boule de Suif has been left with no time to pack food or drink. She is forced to hurriedly board the coach. With the coach safely back on the road heading toward Le Havre, no one has the decency to thank Boule de Suif for her sacrifice. In fact, they scorn her and call her shameful. No one extends the courtesy she offered to the other passengers on the road to Tôtes. Boule de Suif is left to cry in hunger and thirst, while the others feast and insult her. Pained from the previous night's events and the cruelty of her fellow passengers, Boule de Suif is reduced to tears, sobbing into the night as the coach creeps along to Le Havre.
Boule de Suif
Boule de Suif is the title character of Maupassant's short story. She is one of ten passengers in a coach, bound for Le Havre, which is leaving Rouen to flee from the advancing German army. She is traveling alone. Her birth name is Mademoiselle Élisabeth Rousset; however, it is her appearance that has earned her the nickname, Boule de Suif, or in English "Ball of Fat." Boule de Suif is a short, perfectly round, fat little woman with plump, sausage-like fingers, shiny skin, and enormous breasts. Her face is reddish and round with black eyes and large lashes, a small mouth with nice lips, and tiny teeth. Boule de Suif carries herself with dignity and a freshness that makes her attractive and desirable. It is well known that she is a prostitute, and although she is sought after, her seemingly honorable travel companions deem her an immoral woman, even though she helps them on several occasions. Without Boule de Suif as their companion, the entourage would have suffered greatly, as they all forgot to bring provisions for the long trip. During the first leg of the journey, the sophisticated prostitute provided her condescending companions with food and drink when the group was near fainting from hunger. Next, in Tôtes, which was already occupied by Germans, Boule de Suif compromised her own categorical imperative—not to have sex with a man against her own wishes—and slept with the Prussian commandant to free herself and her companions. If she had not made such a utilitarian sacrifice or, even worse, if she had not been on the coach at all, then there was a chance that the German officers would have kept them indefinitely in Tôtes or possibly even raped the female travelers. Boule de Suif is emotionally damaged from the event that saved her companions, but she is even more deeply hurt when they turn against her, once again regarding her and her actions as immoral: On the trip out of Tôtes, Boule de Suif is hurried and does not have time to pack provisions, but none of the other passengers will share food with her, speak with her, or thank her in any way.
Madame Carré-Lamadon is one of the ten travelers aboard the coach bound for Le Havre. Her husband and companion is Monsieur Carré-Lamadon. Madame Carré-Lamadon is a small, dainty, pretty woman who is much younger than her husband. The officers in Rouen were comforted by her beauty and presence. In the coach, dressed in furs, the young wife faints from hunger, only to be rescued by the two nuns and a glass of Boule de Suif's claret.
Monsieur Carré-Lamadon is one of the ten travelers in the coach bound for Le Havre. He is traveling with his wife, Madame Carré-Lamadon. He, like the Comte, is a member of the superior social class. Monsieur Carré-Lamadon holds a substantial position in the cotton business, owning three spinning-mills. In addition, he is a member of the Legion of Honour and the General Council, where he serves with Comte Hubert.
The coachman is the driver of the coach containing the ten passengers leaving from Rouen for Le Havre. The driver does little besides navigate the coach to Tôtes. After they spend one night in Tôtes, the Prussian commandant tells the coachman that the travelers are not allowed to leave. The travelers are disturbed by this news and the coachman tells them that he has been instructed to stay in Tôtes until the commandant says otherwise. After this, the coachman is nonexistent until the travelers are granted leave from Tôtes four days later.
- "Boule de Suif" was adapted as a film by Christian-Jacque in 1945, starring Micheline Presle, Berthe Bovy, and Louis Salou. It was released in the United States as Angel and Sinner and Grease Ball.
- The Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, Volume I was published as an audio-book recording through Audio Connoisseur in 1999. The recording includes "Boule de Suif" and four other short stories.
Cornudet is one of the ten travelers aboard the coach bound for Le Havre. He is traveling alone. He is a well-known democrat, and thus his liberal and social beliefs are a threat to all respectable people, such as the Carré-Lamadons, Hubert de Brévilles, and the Loiseaus. He has a long red beard and loves to drink beer. Cornudet has spent a good portion of his fortune inherited from his father, a retired confectioner. Although he is a democrat who professes to be eagerly awaiting the coming republic, Cornudet is quite lazy, politically active only in that he frequents democratic bars. For some unknown reason, he believed that he had been recently appointed prefect. Yet when he tried to take up duties, no one recognized his position, and he was forced out of the office. Cornudet is generally quite harmless and accommodating and is a thoroughly kindhearted man. In Rouen he worked to organize the fortification of the town, and upon leaving he hopes his skills can be used in Le Havre. Throughout the story, Cornudet is in verbal opposition with the respectable men and women with whom he is traveling. He disagrees with their politics and their social views. During the first night in Tôtes, Cornudet tries to persuade Boule de Suif to sleep with him. She refuses his advances because she believes it would be shameful with all the Prussians about. Given this patriotic spin, Cornudet complies, kisses Boule de Suif on the cheek, and returns to his room. Cornudet is the only one of all the travelers that is unflinchingly outspoken about the shameful act of coercion the travelers impose on Boule de Suif in forcing her to have sex with the commandant to benefit their own desires. Yet, in the end, even Cornudet, like the others, denies Boule de Suif food, sympathy, and appreciation as they leave Tôtes.
Madame Follenvie is the innkeeper in Tôtes. She and her husband, Monsieur Follenvie, run the inn, which has been taken over by Prussians. The ten travelers stay at their inn with the German soldiers. Madame Follenvie does not appreciate the German soldiers, first of all because they have cost her so much money and second because she has two sons in the army. She is a pacifist at heart, not appreciating any killing whatsoever. However, Cornudet challenges her, stating that killing in defense is sacred. Madame Follenvie responds stating that it would be much easier to kill all the kings, as she believes that would end all war. Cornudet is impressed with the peasant innkeeper's comment, as he, too, is opposed to the aristocracy.
Monsieur Follenvie is the innkeeper in Tôtes who hosts the ten travelers. He runs the inn with his wife, Madame Follenvie. He is the only direct link between the Prussian commandant and the ten travelers. No other civilians are allowed contact with the officer, unless otherwise specified by the commandant. Monsieur Follenvie is a fat, wheezy man who has asthma. He has so much trouble breathing that he cannot talk while he eats. Also, when he sleeps, he snores at a tremendous volume and rises no earlier than ten o'clock. He is kind but sluggish and oaf-like.
Comte Hubert de Bréville
Comte Hubert de Bréville bears one of the oldest names in all of Normandy. Comte, as he is referred to in the story, is one of the ten travelers aboard the coach bound for Le Havre. He is traveling with his wife, the Comtesse. He dresses like Henry IV, hoping to accentuate a resemblance to the king, because it is a family legend that King Henry IV impregnated a de Bréville and gave her husband a governmental position, accelerating their family's standing in the social classes. Comte Hubert serves with Monsier Carré-Lamadon on the General Council, representing the Orleanist party. His fortune, all in landed property, produces an annual income of over half a million francs. The Comte Hubert is the most distinguished and gentlemanly of all the men. When Boule de Suif first tells her companions of the commandant's offensive, immoral proposition, Comte Hubert is the most disturbed and outspoken—even as the others begin to wish Boule de Suif would sleep with the commandant—stating that no woman should be called upon to make such a painful sacrifice. Oddly enough, it is his final prodding that convinces Boule de Suif that she should, for the good of the others, sleep with the Prussian commandant. Although he carries himself with an air of chivalry, Comte Hubert is just as self-centered and self-righteous as the other, despicable, passengers.
Comtesse Hubert de Bréville
Comtesse Hubert de Bréville is one of the ten travelers bound for Le Havre. Her husband and companion is Comte Hubert. The Comtesse is the daughter of a small Nantes ship-owner. She has very distinguished manners, is an impressive hostess and entertainer, and is believed to have been a mistress to one of Louis-Philippe's sons. Thus, she was familiar with the local aristocracy, and they often frequented her salon.
Madame Loiseau is one of the ten travelers aboard the coach bound for Le Havre. She is traveling with her husband and business partner, Monsieur Loiseau. Madame Loiseau is a wine merchant in the Rue Grand-Pont. She is a tall, thick, bull-headed woman. Her voice is annoyingly shrill, and she makes quick decisions. She is determined and runs the firm, doing all the bookkeeping. Her attitude and voice make her an ill representative of the company, as she often makes insulting or coarse comments. Her husband is the jovial front man of the winery and has little interest in the day-to-day management; thus they make an excellent team. Madame Loiseau is never courteous to Boule de Suif, even after the prostitute feeds her and her husband. She is also the first to call the prostitute shameful after she sleeps with the commandant and saves the travelers from captivity in Tôtes.
Monsieur Loiseau is one of the ten passengers on the coach headed for Le Havre. He is traveling with his wife, Madame Loiseau. Monsieur Loiseau is a wine merchant from Rue Grand-Pont. He is a fat hedonist, with a red face and graying beard. Originally, he was a clerk at the winery. Eventually, when the former owners had driven the winery into bankruptcy, Monsieur Loiseau purchased the floundering company, turned it around, and made a fortune. He makes terrible wine and sells it at a very inexpensive price. He is considered a jovial scoundrel, almost a crook, because of his low-quality wine. He is widely recognized throughout the region surrounding Rouen as a practical joker, and most everyone knows that he is full of duplicity, yet no one seems to mind because he is so merry. Monsieur Loiseau's attitude is noted throughout the story. In the coach, he looks hungrily upon Boule de Suif, both for her body and her food. Later, when Boule de Suif finally complies and sleeps with the commandant, Monsieur Loiseau is so excited that he buys everyone champagne and makes jokes about what is going on upstairs in the commandant's chamber.
The Old Nun
The Old Nun is one of the ten passengers on the coach bound for Le Havre. She is traveling with her companion, the Puny Nun. The Old Nun has red, pitted skin from smallpox. She says very little during the entire story, spending most of her time praying over her beads. Near the end, it is the Old Nun that gives the religious approval to Boule de Suif regarding her indecision as to whether or not to sleep with the commandant. The Old Nun states that the church has no trouble granting forgiveness when the act committed is for the glory of God or the benefit of others. The Old Nun's words may have been crucial in Boule de Suif's decision to go against her categorical imperative and commit the difficult, but utilitarian act of sleeping with the enemy.
The Prussian Commandant
The Prussian commandant is staying in the best room at the Follenvie's inn. Although he is scarcely seen, the commandant is obviously egotistical and self-centered, as he does not allow the travelers to leave even though they have documents from his superior authorizing their safe passage. He sends comments down to the travelers through Monsieur Follenvie. Most frequently, he inquires as to whether or not Boule de Suif is yet willing to sleep with him. At one point, the Prussian commandant allows for a meeting with the respectable men—Monsieur Loiseau, Monsieur Carré-Lamadon, and Comte Hubert—to discuss their departure, but he quickly turns the men away. All the commandant desires is to conquer Boule de Suif and then let the travelers go ahead with their journey.
The Puny Nun
The Puny Nun is one of the ten passengers bound for Le Havre. She is traveling aboard the coach with her companion, the Old Nun. The Puny Nun is very slight, with a pretty, but sickly face. She has a narrow body that appears to be devouring itself. She is so petite that she appears to be caving in. The Puny Nun spends most of her time praying over her beads and has little impact on the course of the story.
Maupassant is a French author from the naturalist school of thought. Naturalism in literature describes a type of work that tries to apply analytic principles of objectivity and separation to the literary study of the human being. In opposition to realism, which focuses on technique, the naturalist author takes a philosophic position. The objects of study, human beings, are creatures that can be studied through their relationships to their surroundings. Maupassant's characters are no exception. Boule de Suif is understood not through her inner thoughts and feelings, but through her actual words and actions. She is revealed through Maupassant's ability to report details that create an insightful depiction of the prostitute. Her inner thoughts are unneeded because all of her being is available through her relationship to others and her environment. Through this type of objective study, naturalist authors believe that the underlying forces that reign over human beings may be unearthed. Maupassant was incredibly adept at this type of revelation because of his photographic memory and keen ability to express and depict scenes and dialogue with exceptional clarity.
Topics for Further Study
- The title character, Boule de Suif, is unwilling to do something that is against her own understanding of right and wrong—sleeping with the Prussian commandant—to appease her companions. However, she is pressured to do so by her companions, who push utilitarian principles upon her, stressing that sometimes one is forced to do wrong to produce a good end. Explore this situation, and try to come up with at least three examples, either personal, historical, or literary, in which you may or may not believe that the ends justify the means.
- Morality is at stake in Maupassant's tale. The prostitute seems to be the noblest character in that she has a code of ethics and makes the greatest sacrifice for others. But after they get her to do what they want, her companions shun her and draw back to their supposedly more respectable morality. Choose a historical event, such as a presidential election or a modern war, and evaluate how morality is applied, abused, or assessed in these historical events as compared to "Boule de Suif." Present a comparison to the class of the morality invoked by these historical events alongside the morality of the characters in the short story. Defend your own ethical position in light of your research.
- Other authors writing in Maupassant's era were also exploring unscrupulous characters. Take, for example, Gustave Flaubert or Emile Zola. Look into the publishing history of these authors. Were they ever banned? Did they have any trouble with the law because of their works? What impact, if any, did the translation of these works into English have on the puritanical societies in the United States and Britain?
- Maupassant met a bitter demise at the hands of syphilitic infection. Although it is likely that he contracted the disease from a prostitute, Maupassant did not transfer any anger to his characters, often making prostitutes his heroines. Yet the madness brought on by his infection helped to create his most horrific work "Le Horla." Read this short story and compare and contrast the style to "Boule de Suif."
Social Order and Scandal
Maupassant uses the social order to create a hierarchy inside the coach. The entourage is composed of differing social orders: two nuns, a prostitute, a democrat, and respectable, socially elite individuals. The nuns are dedicated to God. Appropriately, they engage in very little regarding scandal or squabble in the social order. The prostitute is a fringe element of the social order, dedicated to hedonism and immoral earnings. The democrat, a political leftist, is available to voice opinion against the aristocratic government and the respectable, socially elite travelers. Finally, the respectable individuals are in the vast majority, as it is expensive to flee to Tôtes. The respectable travelers look down upon the lower social classes. However, Maupassant, with a keen naturalist eye, unfolds several scandals. First of all, the respectable individuals damage their reputation when they give in to their carnal desires and feed upon the prostitute's wealth of food and drink. Later, they are again dependant upon Boule de Suif to rescue them from the Prussians. Their greed and selfish desires propel them into another damaging scandal. The respectable passengers manipulate and coerce Boule de Suif to commit an immoral act. They do not take the respectable, moral high ground—standing behind the prostitute's categorical imperative not to sleep with the Prussian Commandant—instead, the respectable characters push her over the precipice of immorality only to commit their last and final scandal. In the end, with Boule de Suif flustered and emotionally damaged by her actions, Maupassant unfolds the final scandal as the respectable individuals not only grant her no appreciation for her act, but they actually shun her and show her great disrespect, calling her shameful and immoral. Maupassant uses the social order and scandal to unearth the heart of his characters through their interactions with each other.
Promiscuity and Moral Confusion
Although Boule de Suif is an antihero, her promiscuity does lead to her own moral confusion. Oddly enough, the prostitute possesses the most exemplary code of ethics. She has set for herself rules and maxims that she holds with categorically imperative conviction. She desires to stand up for what she believes. However, as is often the case with someone who truly stands on a higher moral ground, she also wants to bring happiness to others. Her work as a prostitute is an example of bringing pleasure to someone else, in a sense increasing the collective happiness. However, this type of utilitarian behavior is a troubled spouse to an ethic composed of axioms and imperatives. Boule de Suif runs herself into this debacle when she is morally troubled by the prospect of sleeping with the enemy to free herself and her companions. On one hand, Boule de Suif has lived her life bringing utilitarian pleasure to a vast number of people. On the other hand, she has trouble using the same skills to bring to a life a different kind of utilitarianism, namely freeing her companions from the Prussians. Maupassant effectively uses promiscuity to unleash a cornucopia of moral confusion.
The Prostitute as an Antihero
The antihero is a central character who lacks traditional heroic qualities. Antiheros are not strong or physically powerful. Rarely do they muster up great courage to defeat a monster. Antiheros are usually outside the social norm, and they appreciate their position. Antiheros are usually distrustful of conventional values and are plagued with an inability to commit to any one set of ideals. The title character in Maupassant's "Boule de Suif" is no different. She is an exceptional antihero. She is not physically powerful. In fact, she is quite short, fat, and soft. She is certainly outside the social norm, as she is a prostitute—a profession not only considered fringe, but immoral. She is incredibly distrustful of the aristocratic government and often makes her opinions on such matters heard. On a final and most potent note, Maupassant's Boule de Suif cannot commit to one set of ethics. She waffles between categorical imperatives and a flexibility that is loosely bound to utilitarian principles. Boule de Suif holds to her moral rules only to be convinced that there is a better set of ideals. Nonetheless, her actions are heroic because she does them for the benefit of others. In the end, Boule de Suif saves her companions, entitling her to her antihero status.
The Franco–Prussian War
The Franco–Prussian War raged between 1870 and 1871. The war was essentially fought between France and Germany, although Germany was unified under Prussian control. France eventually lost the war to Germany. The underlying cause of the conflict was Prussian statesman Otto Edward Leopold von Bismarck's desire to unify Germany under Prussian control and eliminate France's power over Germany. On the other side, Napoleon III, emperor of France from 1852 to 1870, wanted to regain national and international status lost as a result of various diplomatic setbacks, most notably those suffered at the hands of the Prussians during the Austro–Prussian War of 1866. Lastly, the military strength of Prussia, as was revealed in Austria, added to France's desire to dominate the European continent.
The war was precipitated by a series of feather-ruffling events that would eventually lead to Germany unifying itself under Prussian leadership to wage war against the French. The prince of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Leopold, was pressured by Bismarck to accept candidacy for the vacant Spanish throne. This move alarmed the French, as they were wary of a Prusso–Spanish alliance. The French sent an ambassador to speak with William I, the king of Prussia, demanding that Leopold withdraw his candidacy. Although angered, William I agreed to their demands.
Unfortunately for the French, Napoleon III was not content and was determined to further humiliate Prussia. A French foreign minister was dispatched to William I, demanding that the king issue a written apology to Napoleon III. This was the final straw. The king rejected the French emperor's demands and immediately gave Bismarck permission to publish the French demands. Bismarck edited the document so as to inflame both the Frenchman and the Germans. France's egotism not only instigated war, but it had a dramatic psychological effect on the Germans, rallying them to unify under Prussia's cause.
The French were quickly and soundly defeated in multiple battles, due exclusively to the military superiority of the Prussian forces. Most notable was the battle at Sedan, when Napoleon III was captured along with 100,000 troops. Another significant defeat was at Metz, where an additional 180,000 soldiers were surrendered. However, the workers of Paris refused to accept defeat, and revolutionaries seized control of the capital. Unfortunately, the French army did not embrace the rebellion and, under the tacit support of the Prussians, the French soldiers took Paris from the revolutionaries and executed tens of thousands in what was known as Bloody Week.
From the earliest moments of the Prussian invasion, it was apparent that their forces were far too powerful for the French forces. During this time, most French troops and many citizens began a steady retreat toward the coast of the English Channel. Anyone with the means to leave planned to escape to England. Maupassant witnessed this mass exodus and his keen eye and photographic memory enabled him to absorb and store a vast collection of imagery and emotions from his fellow Frenchman. Eventually this collection of images and memories spawned his masterpiece "Boule de Suif." As a soldier in the retreating French forces, he had a front row seat for the emotional responses to war and the results of aristocratic narcissism, both of which played key roles in his character development and plot construction.
Compare & Contrast
- 1870–1880: In 1870, Germany invades France after France declares war on Germany, which starts the Franco–Prussian War and signals a rise in German military power and imperialism.
Today: Following many decades of war and upheaval, Germany and France have made amends and have united under peace as two of the strongest and most prosperous European nations.
- 1870–1880: In 1877, Queen Victoria is named the empress of India, illustrating a rise in European and, most notably, British imperialism.
Today: India is a free country and, although overpopulated and struggling, it has become a powerful nation through its contributions to progressive politics and technology.
- 1870–1880: In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone, sparking a new dawn in communication.
Today: A large percentage of the developed nations' populations carry a cellular telephone with them at all times. Communication has been established via satellite, cable, digital, and wireless networks, linking the world together.
- 1870–1880: In 1871, Charles Darwin publishes The Descent of Man, challenging creationism and putting into use the term evolution for the first time.
Today: The battle over creationism and evolution rages on, with one side defending evolution on the basis of scientific knowledge and the other side defending creationism on the basis of faith.
The literature of Guy de Maupassant, while widely read, has received little in the form of critical study. It may be that Maupassant's large readership has made it of little interest to critics, in that much of what is considered popular is often considered unworthy of analysis. It may also be that Maupassant has received little attention from critics and academics because his subject matter was considered immoral for so many decades. Regardless of the reason, his lack of attention is seemingly unmerited, considering the scope and clarity of his writing. However, Maupassant's own talent may be the reason so many critics have turned their backs on his work. Roger Colet, a rare Maupassant scholar and translator, states in his "Introduction" in Selected Short Stories, "[Maupassant] is the victim, in a sense, of his own perfect art."
Although much of his work was banned or condemned for being immoral, this did not slow his popularity. However, it did slow his publication in the United States. It took many decades before anyone was willing to publish his stories of sex, prostitutes, and madness on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Eventually, it became apparent that, at the bare minimum, Maupassant possessed an amazing ability to create characters of great depth and stories of immense clarity, even if the paradoxical protagonist were an immoral, heroic prostitute.
Martinelli is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor. In this essay, Martinelli examines how the main character's dialogue and actions create a confused ethic of both ontologism and utilitarianism, the two major schools of philosophical thought of the nineteenth century.
In "Boule de Suif," Guy de Maupassant tells the tale of Boule de Suif, a short, plump, inviting French prostitute, who is fleeing the advancing Germans during the Franco–Prussian War. Although seemingly immoral by profession, Boule de Suif actually adheres to a code of ethics. By the very nature of her profession, Boule de Suif feels as though she is spreading happiness through her service: Her clientele leaves with a greater level of satisfaction, thus adding to the greater good. In addition, Boule de Suif has several imperatives that she makes her best attempt to stand behind. Boule de Suif believes that these axioms should never be broken, namely that there should always be a different means to achieve the same end that would not require doing acts in opposition to her imperatives. Unfortunately, Boule de Suif, by following two codes of ethics—one utilitarian, the other onto-logical—lands herself in the ethically uncertain apex between these two opposed moral philosophies.
Utilitarianism is probably the most famous normative ethical dogma in the English-speaking history of moral philosophy. The doctrine's purpose is to explain why some actions are right and others are wrong. Although it had roots in philosophical history and although it is still widely appealed to by many modern philosophers, utilitarianism reached its peak in the late eighteenth century and the first twenty-five years of the nineteenth century. The leading philosophers in this school of thought were Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. In its earliest formulation, utilitarianism was simplistic. It was hinged to an idea called The Greatest Happiness Principle. This basic tenet of utilitarianism purports that the ultimate good is simply the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Happiness is seen as the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain. Thus, utilitarianism judges all consequences by the amount of pleasure derived from each consequence. This, of course, leaves no concern for the means to the end of the consequence: No examination is given to duty or to what is right or good; the aim is purely targeted on the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
Utilitarianism, if strictly followed, leaves little room for any sort of law, let alone ethical categorical imperatives. Bertrand Russell writes in A History of Western Philosophy, "In its absolute form, the doctrine that an individual has certain inalienable rights is incompatible with utilitarianism, i.e., with the doctrine that right acts are those that do most to promote the general happiness." Russell is summarizing one of the greatest difficulties with utilitarianism, not only in relation to governmental law but also to any law in general. Utilitarianism has a democratic feel, in that a majority of people feeling happiness is similar to a majority of people approving of initiative, thus making it a law. However, as this statement implies, and with the definition of utilitarianism, a law would be considered inconsequential if breaking the law—something wholly undemocratic—created greater happiness than not. Herein lies the paradoxical problem inherit in both utilitarianism and Maupassant's character, Boule de Suif.
Yet neither Boule de Suif nor utilitarianism can be wholly scrutinized without a keen examination of the ontological code of ethics described by Immanuel Kant. Kant is a nineteenth-century philosophical giant. Kant cannot be contained by any one distinct ism because his philosophy is incredibly profound and complex. His theories arose out of the stagnating doctrines of two of the most important philosophic theories: rationalism and empiricism. Kantian ethics were grounded in his definition of pure practical reason. For Kant, pure practical reason is concerned with the a priori grounds for action and, most important to his ethics, moral action. For Kant, this implies that there is an a priori moral law—a dogma that is already grounded and indisputable—with which all people should act in accordance. From this law springs moral maxims. Kant calls these laws categorical imperatives, which define morality through objective requirements, independent of individual desires. Kant states in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals:
The practical [application of the categorical] imperative will therefore be the following: Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.
Herein lies the second calamity of Boule de Suif. Not only has she treated herself as a means to an end, but so also have her passengers. Through the passengers' act of coercion, Boule de Suif is placed in opposition to Kantian moral law. In addition, the passengers commit the greatest immoral act in that they are using Boule de Suif's physical body to achieve their own desired end.
With a clearer understanding of both utilitarianism and a Kantian ontological ethic, Boule de Suif's plight begins to take shape. Boule de Suif lives through a moral code drenched in utilitarianism. Through her profession alone, Boule de Suif is married to a utilitarian code of ethics. It is her job to deliver happiness in the form of sex to her clientele. If she is adequately doing her job, the people whom Boule de Suif services should leave her, reentering society with a greater happiness and thus contributing to the pool of greater happiness for the greatest number. This alone upsets Kantian ethics in that Boule de Suif is using her physical body as a means to an end, that is, the physical happiness of another individual.
However, this trouble goes even deeper because Boule de Suif also acts in accordance with her own set of a priori imperatives. Most prominent are her axioms established in relation to patriotism. For example, when the Prussian officer orders the passengers to exit the coach, Boule de Suif and Cornudet stay inside. Maupassant writes, "They [Boule de Suif and Cornudet] were anxious to preserve their dignity, conscious that in encounters of this kind everybody is to some extent the representative of his country, and both were disgusted at their companions' obsequiousness." Boule de Suif is enraged that her companions are so subservient to the occupying Prussians. She sees their weakness as an immoral action. Yet, on the other hand, Boule de Suif is easily swayed. Although Boule de Suif is opposed to bending under the oppression of Prussian demands, she is more flexible when it comes to the demands of her countrymen. In an early encounter with the Prussian commandant, her companions plead with her to comply with the commandant's first demands to simply speak with the prostitute. Boule de Suif is initially stubborn, but eventually she takes the utilitarian route, saving her companions from a possible backlash. She even states, "All right … but I'm only doing it for your sakes." This decision is in step with a utilitarian code of ethics.
However, there seems to be a limit to Boule de Suif's flexibility. Although it is apparent that she is a jumbled mess of utilitarianism and Kantian ontologism, the prostitute takes an incredibly firm stand against the Prussian commandant's sexual advances. When the officer states that he will hold the passengers captive until Boule de Suif has sex with him, the prostitute exclaims, "Tell that black-guard, that scoundrel, that swine of a Prussian that I'll never do it. Have you got that clear? Never, never, never!" Boule de Suif's conviction, at first, carries over to her passengers. In fact one character, Comte Hubert de Breville, even outlines Kantian morality stating, "no woman could be called upon to make such a painful sacrifice, and that the offer must come from herself." Essentially, the Comte's comment is that no one individual should use another person as a means to a desired end. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that all of the people aboard the coach are more concerned with their own individual well-being than with any type of moral or ethical code.
What Do I Read Next?
- A Life: The Humble Truth, by Guy de Maupassant, was originally published in 1883. The book chronicles the life of a Norman woman whose kindliness is both a virtue and a vice.
- Bel-Ami (1885), by Guy de Maupassant, depicts the life of a journalist lacking moral scruples, whose success is built upon hypocrisy, lecherousness, and corruption.
- Pierre et Jean, by Guy de Maupassant, was originally published in 1888. The book is crafted around the psychological study of adultery involving a young wife and two brothers.
- Guy de Maupassant, Mademoiselle Fifi, and Other Short Stories, by Guy de Maupassant, was published as a collection in 1999. This collection contains many short stories that are not available in the Penguin Books collection, Selected Short Stories.
- Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, was originally published in two volumes in 1857. In a depressing, but rich, tale of adultery and love gone amiss, Flaubert has created what is often considered one of the greatest books ever written.
- Nana, by Emile Zola, was originally published in 1880. It is a risqué novel that tells the story of a ruthless prostitute's rise from poverty to the height of Parisian society.
- First Love and Other Stories, by Ivan Turgenev, was published as a collection in 1999. This book contains the famous title story, plus five other well-known tales from this exceptional Russian writer of the nineteenth century.
Soon, the other passengers' support of Boule de Suif's moral imperative begins to waffle. They want her to sleep with the enemy so they can get back on the road to Le Havre. The passengers even begin to resort to insults. Madame Loiseau proclaims, "Seeing that it's that slut's job to go with any man who wants her, I don't think she's any right to refuse one man rather than another." Oddly enough, and as crass as Madame Loiseau's comment may be, this statement is at the crux of Boule de Suif's moral confusion. As a prostitute, Boule de Suif is a master of the art of pleasure, committing utilitarian acts that return a greater happiness to a greater number of people. However, as a patriot, Boule de Suif desires to follow a stricter code of imperatives that she allows to override her utilitarian principles. While in Tôtes, Boule de Suif could employ her occupation and give back to the world a greater happiness for the greatest number. Not only would the Prussian commandant be sexually satisfied and thus happier, but also nine of her fellow travelers would be happier in that they would be allowed freedom from their Prussian captives. So herein lies the ethical calamity of Boule de Suif: the impossible decision to follow one moral code in opposition to another. No matter which tenet she selects, her actions will be viewed as immoral by someone.
In the end, Boule de Suif selects the utilitarian dogma and breaks her own personal moral code for the greater good. She caves under the weight of her utilitarian principles, coupled with the manipulation of her fellow passengers, and sleeps with the Prussian commandant. Her actions free her and her traveling companions, but Boule de Suif, crushed under guilt and self-disgust, is reduced to tears. Not only has she broken her own moral tenet, but she also realizes that her companions used her as a means to their own end. Plus, her companions are thankless; they even scorn their liberator, stating that Boule de Suif is "crying because she's ashamed of herself."
Ironically, Maupassant was frequently banned for his immoral stories and subject matter, and Boule de Suif's predicament is spawned from her own promiscuity. In an odd twist, Maupassant's naturalistic dissection of the dueling moral philosophic trends of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries proved not only to question ethical codes but also, sardonically, to support a more puritanical society. Although it may not have been wholly intended, Boule de Suif's occupation is the catalyst that allows the other passengers to rationalize their coercion. None of them would have felt entitled to manipulate another woman, even a peasant, to commit an immoral act for his or her own benefit. It would have been unthinkable. Yet since in the eyes of her fellow travelers Boule de Suif was already muddied with impurities and immorality, the passengers—even the nuns—were less inclined to stand behind the prostitute's moral convictions. This left Boule de Suif destroyed and embarrassed, wallowing in a state of moral peril.
Anthony Martinelli, Critical Essay on "Boule de Suif," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Carter is currently employed as a freelance writer. In this essay, Carter examines Immanuel Kant's moral argument for God in relation to Maupassant's story.
The protagonist of Guy de Maupassant's "Boule de Suif" learns that virtuous acts do not always reap rewards. In fact, her altruism or self-sacrifice jeopardizes, rather than improves, her own life. Boule de Suif is a victim of her own good nature. In her acts of charity she refuses to see how others have treated her. Such acts only win her even more disdain or hatred from the group.
"So herein lies the ethical calamity of Boule de Suif: the impossible decision to follow one moral code in opposition to another. No matter which tenet she selects, her actions will be viewed as immoral by someone."
Much of the interaction among the group of travelers in Maupassant's story revolves around the character nicknamed Boule de Suif. Throughout the narrative, she is put in a self-sacrificing position by a group of strangers who barely recognize or appreciate her generosity. First, because she is a prostitute, Boule de Suif receives the group's disdain. However, when she is the only traveler to produce a basket of food, it is the hungry travelers who eventually dine with her, albeit reluctantly. And, when captured by German and Prussian officers, these same travelers turn to Boule de Suif, insisting she respond to the Prussian soldier's demands to see her despite her resistance to the idea. Ultimately she does accept, exclaiming, "All right … but I'm only doing it for your sakes." Finally, when Boule de Suif learns that the enemy wants to sleep with her, she is appalled, as is the group; yet the group thinks nothing of exploiting her to that end, pressuring her to comply for their sakes.
Generosity in the narrative is not a two-way street. The ladies in the coach react with a ferocious contempt at the sight of Boule de Suif's basket of food, for instance, misinterpreting her generosity as an affront to their pride. This reaction to their traveling companion is one of many indications that the group, with the exception of Boule de Suif, is driven largely by selfish motivations rather than self-sacrifice. After their capture, several members of the party could have easily negotiated their release. Yet they respond not out of generosity, but of greed. Says the narrator: "The richer members of the party were the most terrified, already seeing themselves forced to pour out sackfuls of gold in the hands of the insolent soldiers in order to save their lives." However, rather than resorting to bribery to put an end to the group's captivity, they spend considerable time concocting or thinking of ways "to conceal their wealth and enable them to pass themselves off as the poorest of poor."
Interestingly, these same group members think nothing of sacrificing Boule de Suif to their own advantage. They put a considerable amount of energy in winning the prostitute over, of convincing her that she comply with the Prussian's demands for sex for the sake of the group. They feel "almost annoyed" with Boule de Suif "for not having gone to the Prussian on the sly so as to provide her fellow travelers with a pleasant surprise in the morning," despite the fact that her self-sacrifice in this situation is fraught or filled with dangerous implications. In surrendering herself physically to the Prussian, she could subject herself to violence, even death at the hands of the enemy—indicated when the travelers themselves engage in moments of worried silence for the prostitute. Expecting Boule de Suif to sacrifice her person in the name of the group is hardly given a second thought. When it comes to reaching down into their pockets, however, the group is reluctant to part with even a handful of coins to quickly resolve their situation, nor do they feel obligated to do so.
Ironic too is the method that Boule de Suif's companions use to persuade her to sacrifice herself to the Prussian. The group engages in a general theological or religious argument, based on their interpretation of the will of God, to manipulate her, an activity one could hardly regard as being the least bit noble or pious. Beginning with a vague conversation on self-sacrifice, the discussion emphasizes the idea that "a woman's only duty on earth was perpetual sacrifice of her person." When Boule de Suif is not convinced, the group engages the elder nuns in a conversation about the nature of one's deeds in life, and the ability of the church to grant absolution for those deeds "committed for the glory of God or the benefit of one's neighbor." The Comtesse makes the most of this argument, asserting that no action "could be displeasing to the Lord if the intention was praiseworthy." So persuasive is the Comtesse, she "eggs on" the old nun of the group to speak to the moral axiom "The end justifies the means." Says the nun: "An action which is blameworthy in itself often becomes meritorious by virtue of the idea which inspires it."
"Expecting Boule de Suif to sacrifice her person in the name of the group is hardly given a second thought."
Like de Maupassant, Immanuel Kant's interest in the dynamics of human social interaction shaped much of his work. Kant, an important German philosopher who died at the turn of the eighteenth century, makes a "moral argument for God" that closely parallels the Comtesse's argument. In his early writings or pre-critical discussions of God, according to Philip Rossi, in his entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Kant's moral argument for God rests on the relationship between a person's ability to lead a virtuous, moral life and the satisfaction of that person's desire for happiness. Kant believed that a moral or practical use of human reason constituted the "highest good." Essentially, within the context of his moral argument, our ability to exercise our will to choose actions solely in view of their moral rightness constitutes the practical use of reason. Exercising such choice, according to Kant, means that we will our actions on the basis of a "categorical imperative" or highest good. The highest good, therefore, consists in proper proportioning of happiness to match the measure of the virtue each person acquires in willing right moral actions. The highest good thus includes a harmonious balance or proportioning of happiness to virtue for all moral agents. Essentially, actions that one wills to be moral actions, those chosen on the basis of the categorical imperative, must be actions that will effect a proper proportion of happiness to virtue, not only for the person directly involved, but for everyone.
In the case of Boule de Suif's sacrifice, for example, the group justifies putting her in harm's way for the sake of the highest good. In light of Kant's beliefs, revisiting the old nun's version of the moral axiom "the end justifies the means" reveals an argument riddled with complexities. The group consensus as to the prostitute's fate seems to be that she should be willing to comply for the sake of their freedom, that sleeping with the enemy, because of her line of work, "was such a trivial thing for her." Publicly, all of the women lavish "intense and affectionate sympathy" to win over their reluctant companion. Privately, they justify her sacrifice by pointing out that "it's that slut's job to go with any man who wants her," believing she has "no right to refuse one man rather than another." For the group, the end does truly justify the means. For their own sakes, all group members believe, or at least have convinced themselves that Boule de Suif's act of self-sacrifice is for the highest good—to preserve their own wealth as well as their safety, and to ultimately affect their release. In the end, it is their ability to make use of Kant's strong philosophical argument that wins Boule de Suif over.
At the end of the story, however, the prostitute does not emerge triumphantly in the eyes of her traveling companions. After a night with the Prussian, Boule de Suif returns to the carriage only to meet rejection, her companions turning away, "as if they had not seen her." The group, rather than praising her for her sacrifice, engages in open displays of contempt, even disgust. The result of this rejection, states the narrator, is that Boule de Suif "felt angry with her neighbors, ashamed of having given way to their pleas, and defiled by the kisses of the Prussian into whose arms they had hypocritically thrown her." Clearly, the group's rejection of Boule de Suif was not the response she was looking for, or had even anticipated, for that matter. After all, she had agreed to sleep with the Prussian with the idea that somehow her actions would transcend the unpleasant, distasteful sacrifice she had to make, and that her fellow companions would be pleased, even grateful for her efforts. In light of the group's response, her sacrifice goes unrewarded; the whole exercise becomes, to some degree, a lesson in futility for Boule de Suif.
According to Rossi, despite his hypothesis, Kant himself offered evidence to suggest that such willing of the highest good may be an exercise in futility. First, simply willing one's actions to be moral is not sufficient to insure they will effect the happiness appropriate to their virtue, chiefly because of one's tendency to choose morally right actions without consideration of the happiness they might reap as a result of these actions. In some cases, Kant feels that at least some of these choices may have the opposite effect on one's own life. In other words, on the basis of the categorical imperative, these choices, by their very nature, forbid individuals to consider any effects they may have on their own happiness. Consistently, Boule de Suif makes choices that satisfy Kant's moral imperative for the highest possible good, without much regard for consequences. She generously and willing shares her provisions for the trip with the ill-prepared group. She speaks with the Prussian and even sleeps with him to appease her fellow travelers. Yet she fails to recognize or even predict the possible outcome of these actions—that she may go hungry, have to live with the shame of sleeping with the enemy and, in turn, earn the disdain or contempt of the group for doing so.
Immanuel Kant's moral argument forms the basis for Guy de Maupassant's Boule de Suif. The story's protagonist, Boule de Suif, discovers that despite her heroic acts of self-sacrifice, she cannot rise above her circumstances to win the admiration of the group. Her story mirrors the failings of Kant's categorical imperative, that it is difficult to make choices for the highest good while realizing happiness proportional to those choices. In this way de Maupassant masterfully weaves his instructional tale, using this philosophical approach to expose the follies of mankind, in its infinite greed, selfish motives and unfounded justifications.
Laura Carter, Critical Essay on "Boule de Suif," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
In the following essay excerpt, Donaldson-Evans discusses the main sexual theme and sub-themes of nutrition, socioeconomics, and the military in "Boule de suif," while placing the storywithin the context of Maupassant's "war" and "whore" stories.
As can be discerned from this outline, "Boule de suif" is constructed upon the interplay of three thematic "sub-codes"—the nutritional, the politico-economic and the military—with the main code which is sexual. To understand the way in which these codes function, it is necessary to consider the text in both its diachronic and synchronic dimensions. It is also useful, although not essential, to place "Boule de suif" in the context of Maupassant's war stories, on the one hand, and his "whore" stories, on the other. It is not by chance that the two themes frequently collide, and that his most unforgettable prostitutes are war heroes as well.
Let us begin, then, with the sexual code. As a prostitute, Boule de suif is the incarnation of sexuality. She is a "marchande d'amour", her marchandise being her body. Aggression is the sine qua non of her trade. In the eyes of society, she is immoral, ignoble; yet, as Forestier has pointed out, Boule de suif, like many of Maupassant's prostitutes, has managed to retain her self-respect by transferring her moral sensibility to a domain other than the sexual. She thus possesses a sense of dignity despite public opinion, and when the whispered insults reach her ears at the outset of the journey, she is not intimidated; rather, she looks directly at her insulters with "un regard tellement provocant et hardi qu'un grand silence aussitôt régna." That they let themselves be silenced by her is not an indication of respect, however, and the epithets used to describe the prostitute as seen through their eyes ("honte publique", "vendue sans vergogne") make it quite obvious that at this point in the story she is held in low esteem indeed. In fact, a study of the terms used for the prostitute throughout the story reveals that they follow a curve, corresponding closely to the rise and fall of her "value" in their eyes. Her proper name, Elisabeth Rousset, is used only four times, in each case by the innkeeper Follenvie in transmitting the Prussian's message. To the others, and to the narrator, she is Boule de suif, an objet de consommation in the eyes of all. Moreover, as Sullivan has suggested, the evocation of the bourgeois origins of the French military officers, "exmarchands de suif ou de savon" is not gratuitous; rather, it establishes a symbolic link between these ill-qualified leaders "nommés officiers pour leurs écus ou la longueur de leurs moustaches" and the travelling bourgeois who use Boule de suif as their merchandise, who reify her and look upon her as a means to their dual end, escape from the Prussians (hence freedom) and financial gain.
"Seen as a mirror-perfect image of France herself, la belle, la douce France, humiliated and betrayed by her very own people, those whom she had succoured and nourished, Boule de suif acquires a tragic grandeur."
If the women are, or pretend to be, shocked by the presence of a harlot in the carriage, the men are clearly aroused. The vulgar Loiseau is the only one not to lower his eyes under the prostitute's provocative gaze; rather, he continues to look at her "d'un air émoustillé." Cornudet, the only male traveller unaccompanied by a woman, can afford to be bolder. The first night in Tôtes, he openly propositions her in the hotel corridor and only reluctantly returns to his own room after her adamant refusal, somewhat impressed despite himself by "cette pudeur patriotique de catin qui ne se laissait point caresser près de l'ennemi." Maupassant cleverly presents us this scene through the eyes of Loiseau who, peeking through the keyhole from his hotel room, is sufficiently titillated to return to his bed and the "dure carcasse de sa compagne" to whom he transfers his sexual interests (one is reminded here of the French adage, "Faute de mieux on couche avec sa femme"). The other two male characters, prevented by their class consciousness from any overt reaction to the prostitute's sexuality, effect a similar transfer the last night when, during the "celebration" dinner, they engage in a seemingly innocent flirtation with one another's partners: "Le comte parut s'apercevoir que Madame Carré-Lamadon était charmante, le manufacturier fit des compliments à la comtesse." The evening, filled with laughter and bawdy jokes made at the prostitute's expense, is not without orgiastic overtones. Loiseau's tasteless and vulgar farces shock no one "car l'indignation dépend des milieux comme le reste" and even the women and the count make a few discreet allusions to what is taking place upstairs. Only Cornudet does not participate, and his departing words ("Je vous dis à tous que vous venez de faire une infamie […] une infamie!") threaten to end the evening on a sour note until Loiseau, doubling over with laughter, reveals to the others "les mystères du corridor." Indeed, it must be said that Cornudet is somewhat tainted by his attempted seduction of the prostitute, and his refusal to collaborate with the others cannot be unequivocally attributed to purely Republican patriotic sentiments. Moreover, he is himself identified with the Prussian, not only by his relationship to the prostitute, but also by his pipe and his favorite beverage, beer. The first two syllables of his name clearly suggest his role at the sexual level of the text: he is indeed the cuckold, betrayed by Boule de suif herself and above all by the others who have served as proxénètes, forcing her into the arms of the Prussian officer for their own monetary benefit (for they have "de gros intérêts engagés au Havre").
The sexual activity of the first night in the hotel had been limited to Cornudet's fruitless attempt to overcome the resistance of Boule de suif and Loiseau's supposed seduction of his wife. The only sound disturbing the silence of the night had been Follenvie's heavy breathing, "un ronflement puissant, monotone, régulier, un bruit sourd et prolongé avec des tremblements de chaudière sous pression" In contrast, the last night in the hotel is a restless one:
Et toute la nuit, dans l'obscurité du corridor coururent comme des frémissements, des bruits légers, à peine sensibles, pareils à des souffles, des effleurements de pieds nus, d'imperceptibles craquements. Et l'on ne dormit que très tard, assurément, car des filets de lumière glissèrent longtemps sous les portes. Le champagne a de ces effets-là; il trouble, dit-on, le sommeil.
Follenvie exits from the story once his role as go-between has ended, but the emotion evoked by his patronym has remained and once again it is folleenvie which troubles the stillness of the night. Whether the sexual activity of the last night is legitimate is not made explicit by the text, but the fact remains that the travellers' prurient appetites have been aroused—and satisfied—by the presence of Boule de suif.
Nor do the other women play a completely passive role. Even the nuns, whose position places them beyond sexuality, are involved. Maupassant's ingenuity in using a nun to weaken the prostitute's resistance must not be forgotten, and the elder nun's emportement is not unlike Boule de suif's own. In fact, a study of Maupassant's lexicon reveals the presence of a contiguous relationship between Boule de suif and the nuns. For example, the prostitute's chubby fingers, "pareils à des chapelets de courtes saucisses" evoke both the literal chapelets of the two nuns and the saucisson upon which they lunch during the final stage of the journey. Moreover, the nuns are characterized as "de saintes filles habituées à toutes les soumissions", and are the first to obey the Prussian officer when he asks the voyagers to exit from the carriage upon their arrival in Tôtes. Only the epithet "saintes" apparently subverts the equation nuns = prostitutes, and one senses that, in the case of the elder nun at least, it is merely an accident of nature (the disfiguring smallpox) which made of her a "sainte fille en cornette" rather than a "fille" tout court. Her virtue is only habit-deep and when she surprises everyone by her unhoped-for complicity in the plot, Maupassant cleverly shifts from indirect dialogue to direct, thereby enabling his countess to address the nun as "ma sœur." More than a mere formula, these words strongly suggest that the nun has been accepted into the sisterhood of all women. Seen in this light, the "forbidden pleasure" represented by the nuns' first-ever taste of champagne during the celebration dinner must be accorded its full symbolic value.
Among the other women, it is clearly Madame Carré-Lamadon who bears the closest resemblance to Boule de suif, despite physical dissimilarities mirrored in the geometric connotations of the names by which they are most often known in the text (Boule de suif and Carré-Lamadon). Pretty and delicate, Madame Carré-Lamadon is much younger than her husband; the statement that she was "la consolation des officiers de bonne famille envoyés à Rouen en garnison" is deliberately suggestive, and the frequent references to her sexual fascination with the Prussian officer are not gratuitous. Once again, it is the jealous termagant Madame Loiseau to whom is given the role of making specific what is merely suggested elsewhere in the text. Speaking of "cette chipie", Madame Carré-Lamadon, she laments to her husband, "Tu sais, les femmes, quand ça en tient pour l'uniforme, qu'il soit Français ou bien Prussien, ça leur est, ma foi, bien égal. Si ce n'est pas une pitié, Seigneur Dieu!" In fact, even Madame Loiseau is not beyond imagining herself in the prostitute's place, and her statement that the Prussian officer would doubtless have preferred one of the three married women can only be regarded as wishful thinking.
The countess' virtue is equally questionable. She is not of noble birth and it is above all her sexuality ("elle […] passait même pour avoir été aimée d'un des fils de Louis-Philippe") which has won for her the respect of her adoptive class. Her duplicity is underlined often and her own role in the seduction of the prostitute is a major one, since it is she who brings the elder nun into the plot.
Only the younger nun does not participate actively in the alliance against Boule de suif, although her silence must be understood as compliance with the efforts of the other women. Among the male travellers, the prostitute's ostracization on sexual grounds is mirrored by Cornudet's politico-economic isolation, as Sullivan has suggested. Just as the women are sisters in their supposed "virtue", the men draw together against Cornudet, "frères par l'argent." In actual fact, however, the distance which separates the moneyed males from Cornudet is travelled as quickly as that separating the "virtuous" women from the prostitute. Cornudet has inherited a large sum of money from his bourgeois father. Unlike the other bourgeois, however, he was not imbued with the bourgeois ethic. Rather than invest his money to increase his wealth, he had spent it; rather than work, he had played. Now a "have not", he is associated with the prostitute who is by definition déclassée. Unlike her, however, he is untrue to himself, and his passive role in the collaboration (he does nothing to alert Boule de suif to the plot and only expresses his dismay after it has succeeded) makes a mockery of the ideals embodied in his loudly proclaimed Republicanism. In his case, too, liberty, equality and fraternity have sold out to egotism. As eager as the others to reach Le Havre, he has sacrificed Boule de suif just as surely as they have. For him, too, the prostitute has a valeur marchande. That her value in his eyes is sexual rather than material is of little importance, for the result is the same: not only does he fail to defend her against the collaborators, but he shows no pity for her when the voyage resumes, his sense of fraternity for this unfortunate war victim being too weak to persuade him to share his lunch with her. Equally absent from Cornudet's moral makeup are sentiments of equality. The social superiority displayed by the Carré-Lamadons and the Brévilles is matched by Cornudet's intellectually superior attitude. Apart from singing the Marseillaise, smoking his pipe and drinking beer, his activity in the story is very nearly confined to approving or disapproving the opinions of others. Furthermore, although his flight from Rouen, like Boule de suif's, can be justified (having had trees felled, traps set, holes dug around Rouen in order to retard the Enemy's invasion of that city, he is now going to organize similar defensive activities around Le Havre), Cornudet is above all characterized by his refusal to confront the Enemy. When the news of the Prussians' approach reached Rouen, "il s'était vivement replié vers la ville"; when the other male travellers ask him to accompany them to the Prussian's chambers where they hope to learn the cause of their detention (hardly a compromising mission), he refuses, proudly declaring that "il entendait n'avoir jamais aucun rapport avec les Allemands." This fear of confrontation masquerading as pride is in stark opposition to Boule de suif's humility and courage. Cornudet, with his knowing smiles and political aphorisms, is a man of words, not of action, and his Republican reputation has been established largely in cafés. It is hardly surprising, then, that his pipe enjoys among his followers "d'une considération presque égale à la sienne" or that he himself has difficulty in distinguishing between his two passions, "le Pale-Ale et la Révolution."
The thinly veiled sensuality with which Cornudet contemplates his beer, his extreme physical enjoyment of his pipe which is "admirablement culottée […] parfumée, recourbée, luisante, familière à sa main" are but variants upon what one might refer to as the nutritional code, a lexical and metaphoric network which threads its way into every corner of the text and which, as Bourneau has pointed out, is closely affiliated with the sexual.
The nutritional code is present at all levels of the text. The alimentary uses of animal fat are well-known, and Boule de suif is the first to be assimilated to the nutritive, both literally and metaphorically:
Petite, ronde de partout, grasse à lard, avec des doigts bouffis, étranglés aux phalanges, pareils à des chapelets de courtes saucisses […] elle restait cependant appétissante et courue, tant sa fraîcheur faisait plaisir à voir. […] Sa figure était une pomme rouge […] (italics mine)
If the metaphorical alliance of the sexual and culinary can be considered a literary commonplace, as James Brown has shown, Maupassant's exploitation of the theme is far from hackneyed, thanks to the constant va-et-vient between the literal and the figurative. As a prostitute Boule de suif is to be bought and consumed, much as one would buy a cutlet from a butcher shop. Moreover, it is clear that her bourgeois travelling companions are voracious consumers, and Maupassant's description of the contagious yawning which is transmitted from one to another places the emphasis, not upon the various "styles" of yawns dictated by etiquette and social class, but rather upon the common "trou béant d'où sortait une vapeur." The intensity of their hunger darkening their moods, the travellers react with shock when Loiseau jestingly proposes to do as the popular song says and to eat "le plus gras des voyageurs." The allusion to Boule de suif is direct and is followed almost immediately in the text by the harlot's sudden resolution to take out her basket of provisions. That it had been hidden under the bench, "sous ses jupons" establishes a blatant link with the sexual and Loiseau's earlier stares at the prostitute are matched now by his lascivious ogling of the chicken. The first to accept Boule de suif's offer of food, he is followed by the two nuns, then by Cornudet, finally by the more "distinguished" company, but only after Madame Carré-Lamadon has fainted from hunger. The rapidity with which the travellers empty the strumpet's basket, and the savagery of their appetites are suggestive of a cannibalistic carnage, the victim of which is Boule de suif herself: "Les bouches s'ouvraient et se fermaient sans cesse, avalaient, mastiquaient, engloutissaient férocement." While part of the savagery of this scene may be explained by Maupassant's desire to remain faithful to the tenets of Naturalism, we can also see in it a scarcely veiled Darwinism which is verbalized later in the tale by the count himself: "Il ne faut jamais résister aux gens qui sont les plus forts." Indeed, the sacrificial nature of Boule de suif's generosity and the humility with which she offers to share her food are thrown into relief by the hubristic condescension of the others whose reluctance to sully themselves by accepting the harlot's food is finally overcome by the anguish of their hunger.
In Tôtes (which suggests "tôt" and "toast", both derivatives of the Latin tostus, meaning "grilled" or "cooked") the metaphorical union of the sexual with the nutritional is again underlined by the fact that each of the Prussian officer's three "invitations" to the prostitute is extended, through the intermediary of the aptly named Follenvie, at dinnertime. The fifth dinner, which we have characterized as a celebration dinner, is, as we have seen, consumed in the absence of Boule de suif who is otherwise engaged upstairs, this time quite literally sacrificing herself for the good of her compatriots. But unlike the previous nutritional sacrifice, this giving of herself had not been spontaneous; rather it had been wrenched from her through a carefully planned and skilfully executed verbal aggression. The scenario of the conspiracy had been sketched the previous day while Boule de suif attended a baptism. Thus, while the prostitute, ostensibly the symbol of vice, prayed, the married couples, apparent bastions of all that is proper and "moral", plotted against her, the women in particular deriving vicarious pleasure from their planning. Maupassant's choice of a culinary metaphor to describe their activity is not unexpected:
Un étranger n'aurait rien compris tant les précautions du langage étaient observées. Mais la légre tranche de pudeur dont est bardée route femme du monde ne recouvrant que la surface, elles s'épanouissaient dans cette aventure polissonne, s'amusaient follement au fond, se sentant dans leur élément, tripotant de l'amour avec la sensualité d'un cuisinier gourmand qui prépare le souper d'un autre.
Assimilated at once to the food itself and to the gluttonous cook, it is these women who, beneath their veneer of sophistication and righteousness, are the true marchandes d'amour.
The attack is mounted at lunchtime and, given renewed vigour by the nun's timely intervention, the attempts at persuasion continue through the evening meal as well. Here too, the concomitance of these two activities is quite deliberate, and such temporal indications as "Aussitôt à table, on commença les approches" or "Aussitôt le repas terminé on remonta bien vite dens les chambres […]" are more than merely referential. The warmth, the sense of community and bien-être afforded by a meal are guarantors of vulnerability as well as being evocative, throughout Maupassant's work, of that other physical pleasure which is the prostitute's special fare. Boule de suif's hypocritical travelling companions choose their moments as carefully as they choose their words.
The final betrayal of Boule de suif, the arrogance which the bourgeois display as they continue their journey, and their insensitivity and egoism in eating in her presence and without offering her even their leftovers (the nuns wrap up their remaining sausage after having eaten their fill) once again evoke the culinary. The fact that the prostitute is identified with animal fat by her nickname, and that all but one of the travellers lunch on meats (suggestive of Boule de suif's role by the nouns used to characterize them: morceau, gibier, etc.) reinforces the notion of self-sacrifice. Cornudet, whose meatless repast consists of eggs and bread, is the only one who has not enjoyed a "forbidden pleasure" at Boule de suif's expense.
This discussion of the nutritional code would be incomplete were we to fail to evoke the most arresting metaphor of all, that of the pigeons pecking at the horses' steaming excrement in the final scene at Tôtes. The passage deserves to be quoted in its entirety:
La diligence, attelée enfin, attendait devant la porte, tandis qu'une armée de pigeons blancs, rengorgés dans leurs plumes épaisses, avec un œil rose, taché, au milieu, d'un point noir, se promenaient gravement entre les jambes des six chevaux, et cherchaient leur vie dans le crottin fumant qu'ils éparpillaient.
The solemnity and decorum with which the coprophagic pigeons feed upon the horses' dung is clearly symbolic of the arrogance and outward "dignity" with which the travellers had committed the most shameful and undignified of betrayals. The double evocation of the digestive in this passage (the pigeons ingesting what is in fact the residue—one is tempted to say "end-product"—of the alimentary process) in addition to suggesting the repulsive nature of the bourgeois' treason and collaboration with the Enemy, mirrors the circular movement of the narrative itself and subverts the notion of a plot built upon the horizontal line of a journey. Many critics have remarked upon the symmetry of the last carriage scene and the first: it does indeed close the circle, and such oxymoronic expressions as "voyageurs immobiles", "gredins honnêtes" suggest the paradox implicit in the text itself. Despite the geographic distance covered, these bourgeois have not budged from their stance of hypocritical complacency. With the exception of their physical mobility (which had been effected by the horses and, not coincidentally, by Boule de suif who might be likened to the "pauvre cheval qui ne venait pas volontiers"), the only movement they had ever known had been the vertical movement of their climb through society. It is not by chance that this movement, too, had been made possible by the sacrifice of the humble.
Finally, the almost obsessive identification, in Maupassant's work, of the sexual with the excretory, finds its echo in this passage, and the repulsion which the travellers display towards Boule de suif on the last lap of the journey indicates clearly that they no longer see in her a saviour, a mère nourricière, but rather a whore who, like the horses' excretions, represents "[un] contact impur" from which they must keep their distance, "comme si elle eût apporté une infection dans ses jupes."
In addition to its frequent intersections with the sexual, the nutritional code is closely associated with the military. The first and most obvious meeting takes place at the semantic level of the plot. The Rouen bourgeois lodge and nourish the occupying army, affecting alienation and animosity in the street while displaying an obliging hospitality and even a certain affection for the soldiers in the privacy of their own homes:
On se disait enfin, raison suprême tirée de l'urbanité française, qu'il demeurait bien permis d'être poli dans son intérieur pourvu qu'on ne se montrât pas familier en public, avee le soldat étranger.
The bourgeois' hypocrisy (represented by the interior-exterior opposition) stems both from their materialism (they would perhaps be given fewer soldiers to feed if they caused no trouble) and from their cowardice ("pourquoi blesser quelqu'un dont on dépendait tout à fait?"). Such egotistical logic brought to the defence of what is in fact collaboration with the Enemy stands in direct contrast to the passionate patriotism of the lower classes, farmers, prostitutes, petites gens of all sorts whose silent nocturnal murders of Prussian soldiers endanger their lives without bringing them fame or glory: "Car la haine de l'Etranger arme toujours quelques Intrépides prêts à mourir pour une Idée." It is not these fearless idealists, true heroes of the war, who are responsible for France's defeat, but rather the bourgeois whose economic clout has placed them in positions of military as well as social leadership. And what about this formidable enemy, the Prussian? The modest citizens of Tôtes, who, unlike the wealthy Rouennais, are not versed in the art of hypocrisy, make no secret of their relationship with the Enemy, and the latter can be seen scrubbing floors, peeling potatoes, caring for babies, splitting wood:
[…] et les grosses paysannes dont les hommes étaient à "l'armée de la guerre", indiquaient par signes à leurs vainqueurs obéissants [italics mine] le travail qu'il fallait entreprendre […] un d'eux même lavait le linge de son hôtesse, une aïeule toute impotente.
That these plump provincial women have succeeded in domesticating the occupying soldiers can only be seen as a further indictment of the "bourgeois émasculés." Throughout Maupassant's war stories, Prussian officers are portrayed as barbaric, destructive, insensitive and sadistic ("Mademoiselle Fifi", "Deux Amis", "Un Duel") but the foot soldiers are more often than not described as merely naïve, even stupid, l'air bon enfant ("Saint Antoine", "L'Aventure de Walter Schnaffs", "La mère Sauvage"). France's ignominious defeat by these unworthy opponents becomes thus all the more difficult to accept and, notwithstanding the truism advanced by the old sexton of "Boule de suif" ("c'est les grands qui font la guerre"), the outcome of this war was made possible by complicity at all levels. The exemplary value of Boule de suif's resistance is lost upon her bourgeois travelling companions who are incapable of any action which would jeopardize their own material welfare. In their betrayal of the prostitute, they are comparable to the bourgeois who quietly nourish the occupying soldiers: indeed, they "feed" Boule de suif to the Prussian in exchange for their own freedom. With their help, he realizes a sexual invasion of the unwilling prostitute which is but a metaphor for his army's military invasion of France. Little wonder, then, that the vocabulary of their conspiracy is borrowed from the arsenal of military terminology:
On prépara longuement le blocus, comme pour une forteresse investie. Chacun convint du rôle qu'il jouerait, des arguments dont il s'appuierait, des manoeuvres qu'il devrait exécuter. On régla le plan des attaques, les ruses à employer, et les surprises de l'assaut, pour forcer cette citadelle vivante à recevoir l'ennemi dans la place.
Seen as a mirror-perfect image of France herself, la belle, la douce France, humiliated and betrayed by her very own people, those whom she had succoured and nourished, Boule de suif acquires a tragic grandeur. In the story's final scene, it is not a mere prostitute who sobs; rather, in the words of Armand Lanoux, "c'est la France qui est humiliée, qui pleure et se révolte." In the wake of the Franco-Prussian war, Frenchmen could find no justification for their ignominious losses. It was France itself which had so confidently declared war, convinced of the invincibility of its army, the French bourgeois who had made the occupation so effortless for the Enemy, the French Republicans who had needlessly prolonged the war after the defeat of the Empire, when Prussia's final victory seemed to all but a reckless few a foregone conclusion, the French who, in the end, turned against their own compatriots in one of the bloodiest Civil wars in French history, the war against the Paris Communards. The disarray and unpreparedness of the French army is attested to by historians as is the disgraceful ease of the invasion and occupation of Rouen. Maupassant's version of the retreat is further corroborated by an eye witness account of the events which took place in Rouen on 4 and 5 December 1870, as described in a letter written by a well-known Rouen citizen, Dr Hellis. Besides confirming the precision of detail which characterizes Maupassant's narrative, Hellis' letter sheds a new light on the story as political allegory in its revelation of the occurrences which preceded the army's retreat:
Dimanche 4 décembre MM. de la Rouge firent une démonstration contre l'hôtel de ville; tout étant en désarroi, ils trouvèrent des armes et saccagèrent l'intérieur, lls se promirent […] de proclamer la république rouge avec l'établissement de la commune comme à Lyon. […] Le lendemain, les frères et amis se rendent à la place Saint-Ouen pour achever leur ouvrage quand tout à coup la panique s'empare de tous. Les Prussiens, les Prussiens! A ce mot nos braves s'enfuient jusqu'au dernier et la place fut entièrement vide. J'étais là […] j'ai vu arriver nos vainqueurs. Sans tambours ni musique, au pas, graves, silencieux, comme stupéfaits d'un succès aussi inespéré […].
Hellis' legitimistic prejudices are obvious here; they even lead him, later in the letter, to write almost affectionately of the Prussians whom he credits with having saved Rouen from the revolutionaries! One would be hard put to find a more apt illustration of the bourgeois attitude which Maupassant so mercilessly ridiculed in "Boule de suif." But the real interest of this letter lies in the documentary proof which it offers of the Revolutionaries' attempted takeover of Rouen prior to the Enemy's invasion. Seen in the perspective of these occurrences, Cornudet's attempted seduction of Boule de suif acquires symbolic value, clearly evocative of the Revolutionaries' interrupted looting of the town hall. For Cornudet, Boule de suif was la gueuse Marianne, and his desire for her was as great as his desire for the establishment of the Republic, identified in his mind (and in the minds of all of Gambetta's followers) with a French victory over the Prussians. The Prussian officer's triumph over Boule de suif thus comes to symbolize the humiliating Prussian victory over France. It should be remembered too that Boule de suif, as a bonapartiste, represents the Empire; by not allowing Cornudet to possess her, she was resisting the Republic. As for the other characters, all had prospered under the reign of Napoleon III, and the Second Empire saw, for a time at least, the alliance of two conservative forces, the bourgeoisie and the Church. Seen in this light, the nun's collaboration is not unexpected. It is, finally, with a stroke of malicious irony that Maupassant paints even his supposed aristocrats the same colour as the bourgeois, not only because of their mercenary attitudes, but also by specifying that their nobility had been purchased. The historical justesse of this phenomenon is well-known, but Maupassant cannot resist adding a sexual dimension to his account of the Brévilles' aristocratic origins. The count Bréville has Henri IV to thank for conferring upon his ancestors their nobility: "Henri IV […] suivant une légende glorieuse pour la famille, avait rendu grosse une dame de Bréville, dont le mari, pour ce fait, était devenu comte et gouverneur de province." The count's nobility thus results directly from a royal indemnity to a cuckold! To further mock this ignoble pair, Maupassant asserts that the countess' "nobility" is acquired at least partly through her sexual activities.
As morally dissolute as the more distinguished company, but without their overlay of elegance, Loiseau and his wife become the porte-parole of the group, verbalizing what the others dare not express. The wine merchant who, not surprisingly, lives on the Rue du Pont, is thus the first to bridge the social gap and to open the dialogue with the prostitute, and the first to accept her offering of food. It is he, moreover, who makes it possible for the others to accept her food without suffering a loss of dignity in the process. ("Et, parbleu, duns des cas pareils tout le monde est frère et doit s'aider. Allons, mesdames, pas de cérémonie: acceptez, que diable!") The count, finally, is persuaded to speak for the foursome (the Brévilles and the Carré-Lamadons) and his acceptance, executed with a curious mixture of condescension and genteel humility, unseals the mouths of his starving companions. The historical event to which Maupassant alludes in describing the difficulty and sudden resolve of the count's decision to accept is highly significant: "Le premier pus seul coûtait. Une lois le Rubicon passé on s'en donna carrément." Our appreciation of Maupassant's punning ("carrément") should not blind us to the sérieux of the classical allusion. Caesar's crossing from ancient Gaul back into Rome despite the order of the Roman Senate carried with it the notion of betrayal. In a similar way, this sharing of Boule de suif's abundant provisions is the first step in the bourgeois' betrayal of the prostitute and, by metaphorical extension, of France.
Mary Donaldson-Evans, "The Decline and Fall of Elisabeth Rousset: Text and Context in Maupassant's 'Boule de suife,"' in Australian Journal of French Studies, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, January–April 1981, pp. 16–34.
Albert H. Wallace
In the following essay excerpt, Wallace argues that Maupassant's admiration and love for women and disdain for men is a common theme in Maupassant's works.
I The Growth of a Favoring Prejudice
Maupassant was not showing us a Romantic "femme fatale" when he repeatedly told tales in which the woman gained ascendancy over the man. His admiration for woman grew out of personal contact and observation, not from fear inspired by a superstitious cult. Among the strangely few men who enjoyed Maupassant's unstinting admiration, most had chosen celibacy and so were relatively safe from acts of weakness that so often characterize a husband's behavior and which would have lowered them in his esteem. Flaubert, of course, was so far in the vanguard of this select few as to be the god of the microcosm.
To Maupassant, marriage was a form of servitude which the female refused to accept because she recognized it as such, and to which the male submitted while deluding himself with the notion that he was free, the master. The calm demeanor and un-flinching resolve of Maupassant's mother inspired early his admiration for woman and caused him to question the myth of male superiority. Madame de Maupassant's influence upon her son can never be accurately evaluated, for the more one ponders his work the more one is struck with her presence in the character of heroine after heroine. Far more accurate assessments can be made of the influence of Maupassant's father in shaping the son's prejudicial view of husbands as self-centered weaklings who deserved cuckolding, and of the role his disappointment in his father had in determining him to seek in Flaubert a father who was not weak or unworthy of the charge.
Paradoxically, we find Maupassant writing, near the end of his days, in favor of marriage. The cruel spark of loneliness ignited this twilight mania in a man who had spent most of his career satirizing or openly denouncing the institution. Celibacy confirmed the strange and haunting terror that was typical of Maupassant's bouts with insanity. He speaks of his terror of loneliness in a letter to his mother: "I fear the arriving winter, I feel alone, and my long, solitary evenings are sometimes terrible. Often when I'm alone seated at my desk with my lamp burning sadly before me, I experience such complete moments of distress that I no longer know where to turn" IV, cxxvii.
It should be stated that Maupassant did not always write with the aim of inciting sympathy for the married woman's plight or of excusing her extramarital affairs. Une Famille typifies a number of stories whose aim is clearly to decry how marriage destroys friendship between old male cronies and to express his repugnance at how the wife is always certain to drag her husband down to her level. However, these stories, with their strange male prejudice, lack the power of those which speak with admiration of woman. What vitality they have results from a sudden and ephemeral anger, and not from the slowly nurtured conviction that lends the moving power and lasting vitality to his writings which praise woman.
II War Demonstrates Woman'sSuperior Courage
The magnificent courage and nobility of woman in time of war and defeat inspired what many consider to be his greatest story, Boule de Suif. War was a fact of Maupassant's life. This makes his praise of woman's behavior as contrasted to the less admirable, often even cowardly behavior, of her counterpart the more striking. But it does not seem out of character to the one who has opened his eyes to the apparent philogyny in his other works. Philogyny is not merely a tone in Maupassant, it is the basic trait of his attitude concerning the human species.
The prostitute Rachel, in Mademoiselle Fifi, behaves in the way that epitomized for Maupassant the effective disdain of the conquered. Women can deal with a derisive effectiveness above man's capacities, Maupassant believes, because their long-suffering experience as prisoners of male conventions has taught them the mastery of derision. "You think you're raping the women of France," sneers the proud Rachel to the sadistic Mlle Fifi (Wilhelm d'Eyrik), "As for me! Me! I'm not a woman, I am a whore, that's indeed all the Prussians need or deserve" X, 23. Her stabbing of him and the ringing of the bells which had remained silent in the face of his ironic threats to have the townsmen's blood or be the cause of their ringing again are almost anticlimatic, following as they do in the wake of her success in making the Prussian feel the littleness ascribed to him and his kind by those he had conquered but could not break.
The Comtesse de Bremontal's sensitivity, in the unfinished L'Angelus, her love of poetry and her melancholy surroundings are all reminiscent of Laure de Maupassant. Abandoned too by a husband whose seignorial, Norman bravado presents to his whimsical mind the going off to serve as a higher calling than remaining with his pregnant, defenseless wife, the Countess behaves with disdainful composure in the face of threats by the Prussian officer who has taken over her house. So effective is her contempt that the Prussian suffers the ignominy fatal to all conquerors' pride. Maupassant had great plans for this novel to be entitled L'Angelus. It was to be his masterpiece in the genre. His dedication to the project and the magnitude of the idea he had in mind can be guessed at from notes sketching what was to follow the events described above: the Countess' boy child would be born on Christmas a cripple in one of the chateau's outbuildings, his disfiguration the result of his mother's having been brutalized by the Prussian. The religious sources are perhaps a little too obvious, but it must be kept in mind that the story came to him as something that had to be written only when he was already hopelessly in the grip of his tragic malady. No one can say what turn he might have given the theme had he been in good health.
"Philogyny is not merely a tone in Maupassant, it is the basic trait of his attitude concerning the human species."
The tragic fate of the lovely Irma of Le Lit 29 has none of the mawkish sentimentality of so many stories of its kind. While showing us how war so tragically truncates those seemingly perfect love affairs, Maupassant demonstrates how it is the male's weakness and imperfections that are really responsible for their failure. The lady killer, Captain Epivent, was happy to rattle his medals truculently against an enemy who had had the gall to rape his woman and then take her life, and to hurl threats toward Germany in case of any future incursion. But when he found that his beautiful former mistress was alive and had syphilis, it was another matter; for in order to protect the noble image of himself he sought to foster he would have to go through the troublesome formality of paying her a solicitous visit. The visit began on an ironic note which demonstrated clearly the selfless contrast of her love for him: she expressed pride in his medals and avoided complaining about her own wretched condition. Only when he pressed her did she reveal the patriotism that had prompted her to refuse treatments for the infection a Prussian had brought her: she had taken it upon herself to spread the infection amongst the hated army of occupation, using her beauty as a lure. It was what she could do to avenge her country's lost pride. She had known she would end up here, but it had been worth it. "And I also infected all of them, all, every single one, the most I was able" XXIX, 82. The Captain left with the intention of never returning. But he could not play the hero before the people. Though he ignored her letter of entreaty, he had to go to save face when the hospital chaplain came after him.
Maupassant's description of her contempt for her former lover removes any doubts as to his dedication to emphasizing the sharp contrast between the pusillanimity of the male with his illusory strength, and the strong courage of the female with her alleged frailties. Irma's choice of a name for the man she was dismissing was forged in the mind of a creator burning with a sense of outrage at men blinded to the truth by their stubborn, ego-inspired antifeminism. "get away from me, capon ! More than you, yes, I killed more of them than you, more than you" (italics mine) XXIX, 88. She died the following day.
Berthine of Les Prisonniers is a healthy peasant girl whose vengeance against the invaders is blunt, unsophisticated, and as final as a wily Norman peasant's business transactions. She allows them in her house, tricks them into her basement from which escape is impossible, and then convinces them that surrendering to the local constabulary, ignominious though it may be, is the wisest choice for them. Evidence that Maupassant did not deem a male capable of this sort of clear design and execution is the fact that he presents an exceedingly satirical and damaging picture of the ostentatious, bungling militia commander who joyfully accepts total credit for the capture.
One sees the same admiration for the concise manner in which women exact their vengeance against the enemy in the story about the madwoman—insane with grief because she had befriended the Prussians, being an innocent in politics, until she had learned their army had killed her son—and how she beguiled her Prussian "guests" into affixing their signatures to a document before incinerating them in her house as they slept soundly, sure of her friendship. She wanted their signatures as proof to their loved ones that they were dead and that she and she alone had been responsible for their deaths. Her steady dedication to her purpose is the quality with which Maupassant often endowed his women: it is consistent with his depiction of woman as uniquely capable of the kind of discipline necessary to overcome the greatest obstacles.
III Boule de Suif
The high place Boule de Suif occupies in French literature is merited, for it presents with almost unparalleled power woman's courage and resolve to survive defeat and personal degradation. This story provides the clearest and most moving presentation of Maupassant's admiration for female strength in times of dire disillusionment. Defeat breaks the souls of most of the men it tries. And even those strong survivors of the initial shock, upon viewing the tragic shambles of their fellow beings' broken spirit, often knuckle under to despair. The very few who can look upon defeat and its waste and still remain whole are the real heroes who cause others to pick up their pride and begin again. A person familiar with Maupassant's life and work will know why he chose a prostitute for this almost superhuman accomplishment. But one must see his treatment of woman in the proper light and must be familiar with every line he wrote about her to reconcile his ambivalence regarding woman as a general class, for the question continually arises as to how he could have set a course in his own life which seemed oriented upon degrading her. We must conclude that the women he met in the bordello he found to be the consummation of all the qualities he considered important and admirable: we have Boule de Suif as evidence. It is also quite evident that choosing a prostitute was the best way for Maupassant to continue his effective needling of society's pride in its conventions, in particular the ones that tended to assign a priori the virtues of acting heroically to the male and faintheartedness and ineffectual sentimentality to the female. And even more pointedly he could mock the conventional stigmatizing of prostitutes as socially destructive and morally inferior. The lovely figure we see emerging from the wretched world that spawned, abused, and reviled her, even giving her the derisive name, Boule de Suif, to mock her, is the brainchild of a loving and admiring creator, whose philogyny is evident.
Maupassant knew that the best milieu in which to test individual greatness was a world disillusioned with itself—a world of defeat where wound-licking is often the last vestige of struggle. Boule de Suif comes upon a scene where people are more concerned with adapting to defeat and calling it by another name than with refusing to be servile. It is a world where her refusal to accept the defeat the others took for granted both sets her apart from the common herd and brings her into conflict with it. She would not have been able to utter their eloquent idealistic cliches, but she possessed idealism and the courage to pursue it. Maupassant wastes no time in stamping her with the mark of superiority. The coach has scarcely begun its journey before his concise artistry has revealed to us that the other passengers, and especially the women with their conventional morality leading at best to the delusion of the rectitude of their ambitions for peace and material prosperity, are indeed impoverished human spirits with whom this brave, engaging prostitute contrasts sharply. The author thus wins our esteem early and causes us to be more wary of the others.
Loiseau, the wine merchant, spouts the kind of cliches typical of the articulate among the society with which Maupassant found himself at logger-heads. His pronouncement which removes the other women's hypocritical compunction against accepting food from a prostitute is the type of thing one finds in Flaubert's Dictionnaire des idees recues. And Boule de Suif's ignorance of their absurd cliches sets her above them in our minds. Her fellow passengers are shown from the beginning to be people with nothing for the desperate times but talk. Boule de Suif would never articulate the accepted idea that "in such cases all men are brothers and should aid one another," but she would so act. Maupassant with this brief incident has shown us the larger meaning of his story, and how the meaning of his story transcends the boundaries in which he had given it light. He could not have been more effective in drawing the line between the others and Boule de Suif. The latter returns what she takes from life and more, and in so doing she is neither a conventional prostitute nor a conventional human being; she is a woman and a superior human being.
Later, at the inn, in the scene in which the other traveling companions quarrel over what they think would be the right thing for Boule de Suif to do, the latter herself has figuratively ascended to an empyrean where the pettiness of her erstwhile companions is not permitted to trouble her deliberations upon her course. Maupassant shows considerable artistry in the symbology of having Boule de Suif upstairs in the inn, separated from the others physically by some small distance, while the distance of her spiritual separation is so vast, as vast as the distance between positive and negative. With the use of this symbol the author is able to reemphasize what he is saying with the whole story. The terrible pettiness of rationalizing to which we all resort brands itself upon our minds as they deliberate: "Since that's what the slut's trade is, to do that with any man, I find she has no right to refuse one anymore than another" IV, 56–57.
Maupassant makes us see the real question that we all must face with such startling clarity that we know we are in the presence of a master. Through Boule de Suif's unerring understanding of what it means to give herself to the enemy, we come to understand what it means for us to give ourselves to the enemy. And, moreover, we learn that most people in giving themselves to everything give themselves to nothing and that the enemy will settle for nothing but the greatest individual as his price. Maupassant, like us all, mourned in the face of the realization that so often the sacrifice of the greatest only causes those who benefit from the selfless act to respond by a show of their utter unworthiness. He chose a woman to show us his admiration for the unique strength of the great. And as if to dismiss the male race from consideration for such a role, he depicts the self-anointed revolutionary and the only one of the other travelers who hesitates to throw Boule de Suif to the wolves, as incapable of action when it counted. He talks: "I'm telling you all, you've just done an infamous thing!" IV, 69. And the next day Cornudet, the revolutionary, eats with the others from whom only inefficacious words had ever separated him and continues deluding himself by singing the "Marseillaise." Maupassant thereby is able to register again bitter disappointment and cynicism regarding the behavior in general of his countrymen. If Boule de Suif is truly Maupassant's masterpiece, it owes the honor to an insistent admiration for woman which receives its finest artistic expression and compression in the story. The theme is not new, nor does it end here. Philogyny is omnipresent in his writing.
IV The Image of Laure de Maupassant
Madame de Maupassant's fear that the very genius of which she was so proud would be the cause of an ever-widening gulf between her and her son, though it might have proven well founded, need not have tormented her. In Maupassant's creative output alone, her influence is apparent, more apparent than it was to either mother or son. She perhaps could not see her success for the troubling fantasies her mind served up to her as she watched him move restlessly about Europe and Africa and as she watched him become more and more a recluse because of his art and his illness. The novels especially provide us with portraits of women who closely resemble Laure de Maupassant. The problems they face and their superiority in dealing with them seem to have been inspired by his observations of his mother's life.
In Notre Coeur we see a bitter rendering of a situation which Maupassant must have viewed as but a slightly exaggerated version of one his mother had faced. He speaks of the heroine, Michele de Burne: "Married to a well-mannered but worthless man, one of those domestic tyrants, before whom everything had to give, to bend, she at first had been wretched" XII, 7. Like Laure de Maupassant, Madame de Burne was not the kind of woman who would permit herself to become a slave to the shallow ambitions and vanity of an inferior husband. The difference in the way Maupassant causes Madame de Burne to work out her problem is the fictional aspect; the forces that aggravate the problem, a complacent and indifferent husband and a social milieu bent upon justifying rules to make the superior accept what the mediocrity takes for good remain the same. The story is told with varying emphasis in the other Maupassant novels. Each time the solution is different. We see Maupassant following in the footsteps of his teacher, Flaubert, in undertaking a study of the series of environmental forces that encircle a kind of woman who, rather than surrender her own ideas of her happiness and destiny, will struggle dramatically if inefficaciously. Maupassant's heroines resemble Emma Bovary because they are placed in identical situations, not because of the way they deal with them. That they do deal with them, either through a stoic acceptance of fact or by establishing themselves as mistresses of their social fate, shows how they are different from Flaubert's heroine.
When death removed Madame de Burne's primary problem, she vowed never again to compromise herself in marriage. But she needed men. She needed to dominate them and succeeded in doing so. Then Andre Mariolle (whose determination not to be compromised by love was quite as strong as hers) came into her life. A paltry investment of her emotions shattered his resolve to remain independent. This easy conquest resulted from the Maupassantian conviction that the male is the weaker of the sexes when it comes to achieving the destiny he has set for himself. Mariolle was a nonwriting talker about writing. Maupassant's male characters were more frequently talkers than doers. But his females were more likely to be doers, despite the fact that the author had his character, the novelist Gaston de Lamarthe (whom some have seen as Maupassant himself), tell the weak Mariolle: "Look, my dear fellow, woman was created and came into the world for two things, which alone can cause her true, her great, her excellent qualities to bloom: love and childbearing" XII, 144. Maupassant was fond of dropping this line with acquaintances who took it as evidence of a misogynism which does not appear justified considering all of the evidence to the contrary. Lamarthe is probably closer to expressing his creator's conviction when he argues that the Realist-Naturalist novelist in suppressing the poetic quality of existence and dealing only with life's grim realities is to blame for woman's turning upon her weaker counterpart: "Nowadays, my dear sir, there's no longer any love in books, nor any love in life. You were the ones who invented the ideal, they [the women] believed in your inventions. Now you're only exponents of precise realities, and following you they have begun to believe in the vulgarity of everything" XII, 146. How strongly this suggests Maupassant's great depth of understanding of both Madame Bovary and of the Realist-Naturalist movement in literature! Mariolle's failure to reach any of the admirable goals he had set for himself is a presaging of his surrendering of all of his male prerogatives. Maupassant's hatred for inadequacies in the male flows into the book with as much force as his admiration for the female's ability to turn the tables on an environment fostering the conventions that threaten her individuality. This dual emphasis is one of the book's weaknesses. The latter half of the book is crowded with analyses of Mariolle which make it more and more apparent that such a weak prize is hardly worthy of Madame de Burne's efforts and that any dramatic reversal in his conduct is unlikely. Maupassant gives us a bit of autobiography in reverse in the character of Mariolle. Speaking of his hurt he says: "The arts having tempted him, he did not discover sufficient courage to give himself entirely to any one of them, nor the persevering obstinacy necessary to triumph in it" XII, 205. Are we to assume, then, that the author's success in the arts being the opposite to his hero's failure, his success with women was just as clearly the opposite? Probably so. But that scarcely is sufficient to justify our admiration for the novel. Mariolle's algolagnic relationship with a serving girl whom he called upon to read to him every night from Manon Lescaut evidences the strange, almost maniacal proclivity Maupassant developed in later years for debasing the male. He exaggerates to the boring degree. He had already done an excellent job of reducing man to a low state in his treatments of cuckoldry. Perhaps in so doing he had spent his artistic capacities to deal with the subject.
Albert H. Wallace, "Chapter 3: Maupassant's Women: His Mother and His Heroines," in Guy de Maupassant, Twayne's World Authors Series, Twayne Publishers, 1973.
In the following essay, the critic argues that de Maupassant's writing is dazzling but lacks imagination.
De Maupassant was, of course, a born writer. Observe, writer. No one ever said what he wanted to say with a nicer exactitude or a more certain effectiveness than did de Maupassant. The sentence was a marvellous tool in his hands. But, having admitted that, one has the right to inquire: what did he want to say? What of importance had he seen? We cannot believe, for ourselves, that de Maupassant's imagination and insight were of the first order, or even of the second order. His philosophy was a Parisian cynicism. His spirit was happy in that world of sense which the greatest writers have either ignored or assumed. Animalism is good, but it is not the best. There are writers who might have taken a story of de Maupassant's and, using it for a mere concrete foundation, might have built upon it the more delicate fabric of the essential story—the intimate spiritual drama which he had either missed or, in the ruthlessness of his animalism, disdained.
The main secret of de Maupassant's mere vogue is that he dazzles. As a cyclist at night, he rides down the highway with Dexterity flashing ahead of him like an acetylene lamp. In that illumination you can perceive no defects: you can only wonder. De Maupassant will not survive translation. Although translation may retain every ingenuity of construction, the last finish, the ultimate polish, is lost in it. The magic dazzle fades. You wake as if from enchantment. Boule de Suif in English (good English, too) is a shock. The superficiality, the trickery of it, stand forth ashamed and convicted.…
Boule de Suif is deficient, not only in fine observation, but in imagination. To us, in this English version, it positively lacks fire. It seems to be a little smug even in its elaborate cynicism. Regarding it technically, the opening is somewhat fumbled and shapeless; and surely no one will deny that the conclusion is forced, against probabilities, into a conventional shape. (Get a climax; get it honestly if you can, but get it.) Let us not be accused of belittling de Maupassant. We assert our intense admiration for much of his work. He wrote the last fifty pages of Une Vie, and, by a fortunate concatenation of circumstances, therein produced an effect of pathos which, crude though it is, has scarcely been surpassed in all fiction.
Anonymous, "The Finest Short Story?" in Academy, n.s. Vol. 57, No. 1421, July 29, 1899, p. 107.
In the following essay, Barry argues that Maupassant's stories contain the "suffocating atmosphere and cold analysis" of Zola's school of writing but also "humour, pathos, strong character-drawing, and the most deceptive air, not merely of Realism but of real life."
All that is revolting in [Zola's 'physiological school']—its suffocating atmosphere and cold analysis,—might be illustrated from 'Boule de Suif.' But there was something more in it than Zolaesque brutality, or the tedious yet impressive collocation of details with which Flaubert's name is inseparably associated. There was humour, pathos, strong character-drawing, and the most deceptive air, not merely of Realism but of real life.… 'Boule de Suif,' who gives her name, or rather her nickname, to the story,—how can we praise her sufficiently? Describe her, indeed, we cannot, except by a circumlocution, yet in her degraded but still womanly nature, the oddest notions lurk of the base and the honourable, making her,—poor bedraggled creature,—a sort of heroine, in the 'General Overturn.' It is the absurdest, yet most touching situation.
And it is in the spirit of Flaubert. If there is in it a throbbing vein of compassion, there is also unconquerable cynicism.… Never, from the day he be gan to write until the pen dropped from his convulsed fingers, did Maupassant grow weary of enlarging on 'the infamy of the human heart.' With the insolent gaiety of youth he paints it in the faces, actions, gestures, … of Frenchmen and Frenchwomen.… This we may call satire, if we will, but it has risen to a great height, and is in a key untouched, we are sure, by Juvenal.
But the root of bitterness remains. Our feeling, as we read the last words of 'Boule de Suif,' is not so much pity for the victim, as a loathing like that which overcame Gulliver on returning from his last voyage, and falling in with the Yahoos who were his own kith and kin. It provokes an indictment of human nature. That anarchic moral returns in Maupassant's stories like a refrain. The disgust of his own species never quits him. For dogs and horses he can feel; nor is he without a thrill of compassion when he comes across suffering or tormented children. He pities the miserable, too; outcasts, vagabonds, cripples, of whom he knows many sad and melting stories, appeal, not, he would say, to his humanity (for the human is vile and selfish), but to that quality of tenderness in the modern, highly civilized man, which is artificial, and not in any sense due to nature. He is eloquent on the struggle maintained by choice spirits against the something that made the world, and made it so brutal and ugly. That Promethean strain, so marked in a stage of Goethe's life and poetry, which Shelley also has harped upon in exquisite golden verse, inflicts on us a sense of surprise, when we hear it in Maupassant. But the antique symbol of a rebellious, suffering spirit which defies the god of nature, whether he is to be styled Zeus or Satan, has never perhaps died out of men's minds; and in 'L'Inutile Beauté' it finds vehement expression, though in language too gross and violent to be quoted. (pp. 483–84)
[Maupassant felt,] in his own language, 'a violent passion' for the sea and the river. In all his books the clear and astonishingly precise description of the quick changing forms, and dancing or slumbering beauty of the waters, would satisfy at once a scientific observer like Mr. Tyndall, and a dreamy artist like Turner in his best period. The resources of French prose since Victor Hugo have been strikingly enlarged; and a new and refined colour-sense betokens its presence by the added suppleness, the continual gleaming of words which fill the eye with a vision as distinct as a photograph, while adding to it the tints of the landscape. With Maupassant there is no affectation of artistic phrase. He writes a limpid French, bright and unembarrassed wherever it has no reminiscence of Flaubert, as in most of his later stories. In the conversations which he so admirably fits to the personages brought on his mimic stage, there is no sign of mannerism. They are quite unaffected and true to nature.… By and by, Maupassant, when his mental tone was enfeebled, did lapse occasionally into the morbid style of the symbolists. At no time, however, was it truly his own. The rude Norman vigour, the good sense, not quite unencumbered with a certain—shall we say stupidity?—which he inherited from his forefathers, and which ought to have kept him sound and healthy, would have sent him away laughing from lackadaisical poetasters, in whom there is no genius, but only a serious cultivation of aesthetic follies. He had no wish to be a prose Verlaine.
From nature he had received the endowment somewhat rare, among Parisian novelists, of hearty laughter. As a born Frenchman we might expect him to be witty and amusing; but humour we should not have looked for.… Maupassant, however, was not a scented popinjay, like those to whom Paris means all the world they have travelled in, or those others who have come up from the provinces young, and are glad to forget the miseries of their peasant childhood. In his acquaintance with fields and hedgerows, with the life of the farm, with its sounds at morning and eventide, with wild birds and wild flowers, he resembles George Sand, though he lacks her untiring good-nature, and is not in the least a Utopian or a Socialist.
Suggestive, indeed, as well as saddening, is the descent from lightsome and touching romance, in 'La Petite Fadette' and 'Les Maitres Sonneurs,' to the naked reality, though we grant its flashes of the ludicrous, which fills Maupassant's country scenes. They leave a feeling on the mind not unlike a medieval Dance of Death, painted among cornfields and vineyards. Everywhere we are sensible of a fixed and ingrained hardness which strikes home like a breeze from an iceberg, deadly cold and pitiless.… [We] may compare 'L'Histoire d'une Fille de Ferme' with 'Adam Bede,' or 'Le Père Amable' with 'Silas Marner.' Upon the English stories, for all their tragic burden, a mild radiance seems to be shed; the great sky, with its stars and sunsets, hangs above us while we move among these men and women, whose thoughts are not invariably bent earthwards, nor their spirit become a tired and fretful beast, dragging the plough with unwilling muscles. There is sunshine on the land, which yet we know is not simply a painted operatic scene, but, in some measure at all events, taken from life. And, from life, too, Maupassant draws, but in what ashen colours! … The painting is always,—we fear, because the facts warrant it,—a depressing 'grey in grey;' true doubtless, but spectral as the mists in Ossian, with ghosts murmuring hollow on the wind, and unspeakably desolate.
And still, bursts of laughter are not wanting; genuine, unforced hilarity, to which the dialect adds a keen flavour, as in 'Une Vente,' and 'Tribunaux Rustiques.' There is even at times (would it came oftener!) a vivid touch of the old world, something quaint, and lovable, or perhaps affecting: witness 'La Ficelle,' with its Teniers-like drawing of market-day in Goderville; or the exceedingly piteous tale of 'Le Gueux,' the starved cripple, in whose hunger none will believe until he dies of it.… Like these are the most taking of the country stories, which almost persuade us to unsay the charge we have brought against their author, of hatred of the human race. That he loves a joke is much in his favour; and we allow that his laugh has an infectious ring about it which ought to scatter some of our dislike for the self-conscious misanthrope. Moments there are when we acknowledge that Maupassant, like all who have mixed with high and low sympathetically, can be genial and even kind-hearted. When he talks his native patois, with its delightful yet unconscious touches of the comic, its rude repartee, quaint farce, and explosive jollity, one cannot help laughing all down the page, and the air clears in a surprising manner.… When Maupassant's peasantry laugh their best, they seem to stand back from their grim and sordid existence, like men looking at a picture; and the strings of their heart, nay, of their purse, are loosened. The fine Celtic gaiety, of which traces yet live in these stories, though less frequent as we move on with them, may love pleasure and excitement; but it is too eager, too delicate, to dwell, in the icy mood of the Epicurean, upon its own sensations. It is warm and tender, somewhat given to change perhaps, but as unlike as possible to the nature of the voluptuary, whose fancy swings to and for between Tiberius and the neo-pagans, and whose weary dreams Maupassant chose to delineate with ever-growing earnestness during his brief career. (pp. 485–88)
[Bel-Ami] is an edifying romance, not marred, be sure of it, in the telling. The style is crisp, high-strung, and exceedingly photographic,—the perfection of that which impressionists aim at but seldom achieve. From its descriptions, an archaeologist of the twenty-first century might reproduce, with most admired exactness, the form and habit of Parisian life as it goes on in the many-storied houses and outside them. We are here shown, with singular clearness, the Paris of [Daudet's] 'Les Rois en Exil.' … Yet in the multitude of human beings we distinguish an amazingly small variety of types. Huge Paris, with its two million mortals living inside the barriers, seems no larger, no more opulent in character and circumstance, than one of Terence's comedies. The scene has grown to vast proportions; it is an immense spectacle; but the players, and even the masks they wear, disappoint us with their eternal monotony. (p. 492)
['Notre Coeur' has] its brilliant pages; but in subtlety of colour and high-wrought passion it will not compare for an instant with George Sand's 'Elle et Lui,' to say nothing of 'Lélia' or 'Indiana.' Neither is the self-conscious, half-poetic mood which Bourget is fond of dissecting and of adorning with his passionate melancholy, quite in the vein of our sturdy Norman. Where sentiment is concerned, Maupassant does little more than make believe. He prefers a drinking scene, in which his comrades laugh over barrack-room stories, and make the glasses on the table ring again.…
In 'Notre Coeur' there is a sort of murderous enchantment, which takes prisoner soul and sense, though certainly not those of an Englishman, who despises what to his Gallic neighbour might seem to be luxuries of feeling. It is a dream, hanging clear above our heads—detached from duties and moralities—where instinct may do as it will and no fault found. (p. 494)
"It provokes an indictment of human nature. That anarchic moral returns in Maupassant's stories like a refrain. The disgust of his own species never quits him."
[In] the painfully vivid sketch called 'Un Fils,' the fathers of all the criminal vagrants, of the diseased, forsaken, and dangerous members of society, are neither the poor nor the hardworking, but the bourgeois intent on enjoyment, the academician, the artist, the deputy, the senator. Note, of course, the exaggeration; but mark also how much truth lurks in the gibe.… Our guide to these heartrending sights is only too competent. He paints and he speaks, not as a religious man,—he is no Frà Angelico,—but calmly, like a citizen of the world. Yet his voice trembles a little; and, in the midst of his shameful narrative there will break out, as it were, a sob from the depths of his heart,—as in the piteous story of 'L'Armoire.' The tale itself is slight, is nothing. But the picture of the child, turned out of its poor little bed and sent to sleep all night as well as it can, on a chair in the cupboard,—and the child of such a mother, engaged in such a trade,—who can express the things of which it is an evidence? They are as touching as they are horrible. (pp. 496–97)
When Maupassant tells a story like this, which goes to the heart, we bear with his coarseness, much as it offends a healthy nostril; we are almost willing to forgive and to like the man. But he is a creature of instinct; the pity which fills his eyes one moment is forgotten the next. He cares only for excitement, nor does he reck of what species, tender, morose, or even cruel. Not that he gloats over cruelty as done by himself; but he has a mania for studying its phases. The world of detestable, though still human vice, seems to undergo a transformation as we pass with him along his dark galleries. Our step falters where he gains assurance. Why explore these Bedlams, whether of life or literature? 'Why?' he replies, 'because they are the truth, the only solid ground beneath the world's illusion.' Thus he indulges, in a mood of mocking complicity, all the bizarre fancies which haunt the last agonies of reason. (p. 497)
[In the supernatural sketches of Maupassant] there comes the delineation of maniacal fury, bent on gratifying its cravings in a series of heightened atrocities. The coarse and illbred humour which disfigured Maupassant's Norman tales was harmless in comparison. It could only disgust. But the miasma of insanity exhaling from narratives such as 'Un Fou,' 'Moiron,' 'Chevelure,' and 'Le Horla' betokens, if we may venture on the expression, a decaying brain. We turn with unconquerable dread from the like phenomena in those high-coloured and plague-stricken artists Edgar Poe, Baudelaire, and William Blake. In this weird region of nightmare and hallucination nature seems dead. (p. 499)
William Barry, "The French Decadence," in Quarterly Review, Vol. 174, No. 348, April, 1892, pp. 479–504.
Colet, Roger, "Introduction," in Selected Short Stories, by Guy de Maupassant, edited and translated by Roger Colet, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 7.
De Maupassant, Guy, "Boule de Suif," in Selected Short Stories, edited and translated by Roger Colet, 1971, Pengiun Books, pp. 19–68.
Kant, Immanuel, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by James W. Ellington, Hackett Publishing, 1993, p. 36.
Rossi, Philip, "Kant's Philosophy of Religion," in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2004 ed., edited by Edward N. Zalta, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2004/entries/kant-religion/ (accessed December 3, 2004).
Russell, Bertrand, A History of Western Philosophy, Simon & Schuster, 1972, p. 628.
Christiansen, Rupert, Paris Babylon: The Story of Paris Commune, Penguin Books, 1996.
Christiansen gives a detailed description of Parisian political and social life both before and after the Franco–Prussian War.
Hartig, Rachel M., Struggling under the Destructive Glance: Androgyny in the Novels of Guy de Maupassant, Peter Lang Publishing, 1991.
Hartig's book is a challenge to the prevailing critical analysis of Maupassant's novels, purporting that his heroines do, in fact, undergo substantial change.
Howard, Michael Eliot, The Franco–Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870–1871, Routledge, 2001.
Howard provides a definitive history of one of the most dramatic invasions and decisive conflicts in European history.
Milner, John, Art, War and the Revolution in France, 1870–1871: Myth, Reportage and Reality, Yale University Press, 2000.
This collection surveys the response made by artists to the massive upheaval caused by war and revolution in France during the Franco–Prussian War.
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