"But what one loves most
amid all the various adventures is the country, the woods, the rising
of the twilight, the moonlight. These are, for the painter, honeymoon
trips with Nature. One is alone with her in that long and quiet
association. You go to sleep in the fields, amid marguerites and
poppies, and when you open your eyes in the full glare of the sunlight
you descry in the distance the little village with its clock tower
which sounds the hour of noon"
Reviewed by Sheila Cornelius
Guy de Maupassant achieved his debut success in 1880 with Boule de Suif,
a fitting starter for this collection. It features those aspects for
which he’s best known: an evocative landscape, characters who reveal
their true natures in an unusual situation and a moralistic analysis of
society. The stories are set in Normandy, the cast ranging from
peasants to aristocrats, with a preponderance of army officers and
prostitutes. Maupassant’s mastery of the thumbnail character sketch is
reminiscent of William Hogarth’s satirical drawings. The coach
travellers in Boule de Suif,
for instance, include an "undersized and pot-bellied" tradesman , "a
nobleman advanced in years and of aristocratic bearing" and a nun who
is, "old and deeply pitted with smallpox that she looked for all the
world as if she had received a charge of shot full in the face".
His characters are prone to deadly intent or passionate
devotion, equally liable to seek revenge or to take their own lives
when crossed in love. Loyalty contrasts with cruelty, for instance, in Two Friends.
A Prussian officer kills two French men when they refuse to betray a
neighbour. Having interrupted their fishing trip and thrown the
bodies into a river he confiscates their catch and orders his servant:
"Have these fish fried for me at once, while they are still alive; they’ll make an excellent dish".The
protagonists are restless, whether itinerant artists, townsfolk fleeing
from Prussian occupation or a brothel madam and her charges out for a
spree. Typical encounters with confiding strangers take place in
wayside lodgings and add immediacy to the tales.
Strangers will often turn out to be connected in some respect. In Happiness,
for instance, a traveller is entertained in Corsica by old couple who
have eloped from his home town some years before. The narrator,
"wonderstruck by the power of love" is surprised when the woman
enquires about families in the old neighbourhood. The stories
have a quality of fable; flawed human nature and ironies of fate play
out against a backdrop of dining, love affairs and (sometimes
Eating and drinking occupy a fair amount
of time, whether omelettes and boiled chitterlings in an inn, an
impromptu picnic of wine and sausage in a carriage or meat roasted on a
spit; action, when it occurs, is sudden and often shocking. A boorish
officer in Madamoiselle Fifi,
for instance, comes to a violent end when his boast of conquering
France is an insult too far for a local girl; she seizes "a
small dessert knife with a silver blade from the table" and "almost mad
with rage" stabs him "right in the hollow of his neck."
anti-religious vein, a dislike of puritanism and hypocrisy, runs
through the stories, although in Maupassant’s world even priests are
not exempt from the redeeming effects of nature. An old abbé
bent on interrupting a midnight tryst in Clair de Lune
passes through a moonlit garden where plants are "filling the
warm moonlit atmosphere with a kind of perfumed soul", and comes
to the conclusion that God permits illicit love "since He surrounds it
with such a visible splendour".
His women mainly pander to male appetites and domestic needs, with occasional hints of a more iconic role. In Useless Beauty,
a married woman with children convinces her husband that she is "not
merely a being destined to perpetuate the race, but the strange and
mysterious product of all our complicated desires which have been
accumulating in us for aeons."
Ironies of fate and the apparent futility of human efforts to avoid it is shown in one of his best known stories, The Necklace,
where a woman and husband work for ten years to repay the cost
of lost jewels only to discover they were a copy with little
If the stories embody a pessimistic outlook, however,
they are framed by a pastoral charm and sometimes farcical humour, such
as when a young man is rewarded for his abstemious lifestyle and gets
drunk on the prize money, in Madame Tellier’s Rosier.
If characters fall short of their own aspirations, the tales themselves
are memorable and satisfying, justifying Maupassant’s reputation as the
father of the modern short story.