The Best Short Stories
 by Guy de Maupassant

Wordsworth Editions Ltd
1997, Paperback







"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 explosive) friendships.

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."

An 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 value.

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.



Read a story from this collection on Bartleby.com


Sheila Cornelius studied at Goldsmiths College, London University and lives near Greenwich. A former Lecturer in English and Media, she authored a book about Chinese cinema. Now she enjoys writing about cultural events in London. As well as reviewing plays, films and short stories she likes travel and fiction writing.

Sheila's other Short Reviews: The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2008

Anne Enright "Taking Pictures"

Courttia Newland "Music for the Off-Key"

Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-shorts

Liz Niven and Brian Whittingham (eds)  "Bucket of Frogs"

Zoë S. Roy "Butterfly Tears"

Various Authors "Written in Blood"

Various Authors "Dancing with Mr Darcy"
                     
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Guy de Maupassant France’s foremost writer of short stories was born in 1850 and lived in Normandy. A prolific writer of poems, novels, plays and travel books, he  wrote over 300 short stories and was connected with a literati that included Flaubert and Zola.  He attempted suicide and died in an asylum in 1893.