The Best Short Stories by Guy de Maupassant

“And the two began placidly discussing political problems with the sound common sense of peaceful, matter-of-fact citizens — agreeing on one point: that they would never be free. And Mont-Valerien thundered ceaselessly, demolishing the house of the French with its cannon balls, grinding lives of men to powder, destroying many a dream, many a cherished hope, many a prospective happiness, ruthlessly causing endless woe and suffering in the hearts of wives, of daughters, of mothers, in other regions.” – from “Two Friends.”

I suppose one should expect a best of collection to be good–leaving the possibility that some duds from Maupassant larger oeuvre might be absent–but since this is my first experience with Maupassant, the consistent quality of these stories proves to me that Guy De Maupassant is a master of the form. I liked every story in this collection. Maupassant likes to write about the Franco-Prussian war (especially what it is like to live under Prussian occupation), the noble-nature of prostitutes and respectable society’s hypocrisy towards them, the french countryside (particularly the Normandy region), and impossible love affairs. Not only does Maupassant exhibit a talent for quality story-telling, but he also displays a mastery of descriptions, particularly of nature, employing an elegant prose style overflowing with beauty. I didn’t know whether to be more impressed with his skill at telling a fulfilling and entertaining story or the overwhelming beauty of his prose.

“Boule de Suif” (translated: Ball of Fat) is a story about an unlikely group of travel companions who gain permission after the Prussians occupy their town during the war to leave in the hopes of getting to an unoccupied town still controlled by the French. The travel companions include a nobleman and his wife, a rich wine merchant and his wife, a rich cotton merchant and his wife, two nuns, an alcoholic democrat, and a chunky prostitute (known as the Boule de Suif). At first, all the rich men and women feel scandalized having to share a coach with a prostitute. However, as the journey to their next stop takes longer than expected due to weather, their hunger gets the better of them and they all curse themselves for forgetting to pack provisions. Boule de Suif did remember to pack food, so she begins to eat in front of all her hungry companions. Eventually out of the kindness of her heart she shares her food with the others, which seems to change their opinions about her, declaring her a noble and kind-hearted person. They finally get to their first stop in another occupied town. The commanding officer in the town tries to proposition Boule de Suif, but she refuses to sleep with any Prussians due to her patriotic feelings. When they try to leave the next morning the commanding officer refuses to let them depart, wanting to sleep with Boule de Suif. Day after day this occurs, but Boule de Suif refuses on grounds of patriotism to sleep with the man. Her companions grow restless and accuse Boule de Suif of being selfish (after all, she’s slept with hundreds of men). They convince her to sleep with the Prussian officer using arguments that it will be a noble act of self-sacrifice that they will forever appreciate. She finally caves in and sleeps with the officer. The next day they leave, but once in the coach together everyone’s attitude is changed towards her, treating her likes she’s lower than dirt for having slept with the officer. This time she forgot to pack provisions. When dinner time rolls around, everyone eats their food, but nobody offers her any being a lowly prostitute and she begins to weep. This is without a doubt one of the best stories in this collection of Maupassant’s best stories. The obvious theme of this tale is hypocrisy. The rich treat her well when Boule de Suif has something to offer them. Her patriotism forms a stark contrast to their selfishness. They treat her as low as dirt for sleeping with the officer and plying her trade, despite being the ones to convince her to do so in the first place. They wouldn’t think of sharing their food with her, even though she shared all her food with them earlier.

“Two Friends” is a story about two friends living in Paris who haven’t seen each other since the Prussians invaded their country. One day they accidentally run into each other on the streets. They decide to go on one of their fishing trips by the lake. A French officer gives them a password to get in and out of Paris. While fishing they discuss the futility of war. They catch a lot of fish, but when they return to shore there are Prussian soldiers waiting for them. They bring them to an officer who accuses them of being spies. He threatens to kill them, unless they give him the password that will enable him to sneak troops into Paris. They refuse. He has them shot. The ending is actually extremely violent. This a story that notes how the innocent who only wish to mind their own business and do a little fishing with a friend get caught up in the war. Their discussion about war’s futility is paralleled by their ultimate fates; the Prussian General doesn’t get the password he wants and two innocent men are murdered. Nothing is gained, except death.

“Madame Tellier’s Establishment” is another story about prostitutes. In this tale, the men of the town are disappointed when they go to find the well-established brothel closed for a short time as Madame Tellier takes her employees to a neighboring village to visit her brother and celebrate her niece’s first communion. Maupassant explores similar themes as “Boule de Suif” but from a different angle. Maupassant is once again depicting the hypocrisy of society. Maupassant shows the prostitutes as having deep and genuine spirituality, suggesting even “lowly” prostitute who sell their bodies can have noble, virtuous and deeply religious sentiments. All the women in the church who aren’t aware that they’re prostitutes break down in tears before the deep spirituality and piousness of Madame Tellier and her girls. Meanwhile, if they knew they were prostitutes the women probably would’ve been scandalized. The upper class respectable citizens back home in town that society automatically assumes are more virtuous and respectable than prostitutes never exhibit pious feelings or noble emotions like the prostitutes, but instead worry about not being able to have their fun.

“Mademoiselle Fifi” is a fantasy revenge story in the similar vein as the recent Quentin Tarantino film, Inglourious Basterds (i.e. A lowly person in society takes revenge on her foreign occupiers during a war.) Four Prussian officers living in an occupied chateau amuse themselves by blowing up the expensive art. Being cooped up too long after an extended stretch of bad weather, they decide to amuse themselves by inviting four prostitutes to entertain them. At dinner, Mademoiselle Fifi, a particularly cruel and sadistic officer, starts hurting his prostitute named Rachel by pinching her and blowing smoke from his tobacco into her face. Eventually as the men get drunker they grow bolder and start bragging about their victories over France. This enrages the women, especially Rachel, who murders Mademoiselle Fifi and then manages to escape from the officers. They search the countryside, but are unable to find her. Besides being a fantasy revenge story, Maupassant relies strongly on symbolic stereotypes. Once again we have the noble prostitute demonstrating their superior character to the rest of society. Rachel is not only a prostitute, but a Jewess. The obvious symbolism is that even the lowest of the low in French society (a prostitute and a Jew) are more virtuous, brave, and noble than these German officers. Mademoiselle Fifi and the other officers embody stereotypes about German; when they blow up the art, Maupassant is suggesting that they have no appreciation of art or culture, and they’re nothing more than uncivilized brutes given to violence, too much drink, and prostitutes (the bodily pleasures rather than the intellectual ones).

“Miss Harriet” is a story that begins with a frame. Some bored ladies on a coach ride asks an old painter known for having many love affairs to tell them a story about one of his affairs. He tells them a tale of an old spinster from England passionate about nature and her peculiar version of religion. This woman who has never loved any man accidentally falls in love with the painter, while admiring the beauty of his paintings and realizing he shares her passion for the beauties of nature. Just as her feelings are developing she catches him engaging in a clandestine affair with a younger servant girl, which drives her to commit suicide. It ends with a memorable scene in which the painter kisses the corpse, telling us, “I imprinted upon those lips a kiss, a long kiss–the first they had ever received.” Maupassant’s descriptions of the natural surroundings and his deft hand with language in this story outdo the lushness and sensualness of any painting.

“The Necklace” is one of the author’s most famous stories. A pretty young girl wishing for a more opulent life after marrying a lower middle-class clerk convinces her husband to attend a ball being held by the Minister of Public Instruction so she can live her Cinderella fantasy of being someone important and rich. She borrows a diamond-studded necklace from her rich friend. She enjoys herself at the ball, experiencing for a brief moment what it would be like to be a member of the rich upper-class, but on her way home she discovers she has lost her friend’s necklace. They do everything in their power to recover the lost item, but cannot locate it. Eventually they purchase a new one just like it in a jewelry store that costs an astronomical amount of money, requiring them to take loans. She and her husband take extra jobs. After ten years of doing grueling work, they manage to pay off their debts for the necklace. The life of toil has spoiled the pretty young girl’s beauty. She meets out in public her rich friend years later who doesn’t recognize her anymore because her appearance is so changed from her difficult life. She confesses to her friend that they replaced her necklace and speaks about her hard life, only for the friend to tell her that the necklace she lost was fake costume jewelry, not real diamonds, making the whole story one big ironic punch line. This woman suffers a difficult life of hardship and grueling work on the brink of poverty and financial ruin because she isn’t content to live a sparing, but comfortable lower middle-class life and must put on appearances to pretend to other for one night that she is rich. Whereas she is spoiled and ungrateful for the life she has, the husband sacrifices his desires (such as money for a hunting gun and later taking on all those loans) for the sake of his wife’s desires.

“The piece of String” is a story about a thrifty man who picks up a piece of string on the road only to be caught doing so by his rival. When it is discovered that another merchant has lost his purse full of money, the rival claims to have seen the thrifty man picking up the purse of money rather than the string. The thrifty man tells everybody that will listen that he only picked up a piece of string and it is all a misunderstanding, but everybody mocks him believing he is guilty. Eventually a different man returns the purse to the original owner. The thrifty man believes this will exonerate him and goes around once again to try and convince everybody of his innocence, only for people to mock him further and believe he conspired to return the purse after stealing it. He becomes obsessed with telling the real story about the string and trying to convince people of his innocence, until it drives him mad. It is a story that tells us reputation and hearsay matters more than truth; once you develop a bad reputation in the eyes of society, it is impossible to clear your name, and any evidence that might be brought forth to exonerate a person will only be twisted to implicate them further.

Other stories that appeared in the collection include “Claire de Lune,” “Mademoiselle Pearl,” “Madame Husson’s Rosier,” “That Pig of a Morin,” “Useless Beauty,” “The Olive Orchard,” “A Sale,” “Love,” “Two Little Soldiers” and “Happiness.” Although I’m not planning to write about all of them, all of these stories were very good. I liked every story in this collection and I can’t say that about too many writers.

PENSÉES by Blaise Pascal

Like St. Augustine and Peter Abelard, Blaise Pascal is yet another example of the smartest kid on the block having a mystical experience that transformed him into a devout Christian. Prior to his conversion, Pascal was a prodigy in math and performed early experiments involving barometric pressure. The Pensees literally translated as “thoughts” represent his philosophical-religious statements on the human condition and an argument for the truth and necessity of Christianity.

 

Pascal sees the human condition as one governed by lusts and desires. We seek amusement to ignore how miserable and discontent we feel. We’re not really happy. Each time we achieve a desire, we only have new desires. We don’t cultivate virtues for its own sake, but we only care for them in so far as they make us appear superior in others’ eyes. We desire to be admired. All the things we value in the world are vanity. Man is foolish because he esteems things that are not important or essential. There is not true justice in the world. Justice is a matter of custom; since every country and province has its own sense of justice it cannot be objective. Only God can give us true justice.  We also can never have true knowledge of things. The history of philosophy has been dominated by the desire to either know the first principle or the ultimate truth, which can be restated as the reality underlying everything or knowledge of the purpose of all things. Many philosophers have claimed to have uncovered the first principle or ultimate truth, but they’re mistaken and are only fooling themselves. Most philosophical arguments fail because they ignore man’s epistemological limitations.  In comparison to beasts, man is privileged in that he has a rational capacity and the ability to ascertain some things about nature. Pascal is not denying that science and mathematics are able to give us some forms of concrete knowledge. However, in most cases they only lead to new questions, and when and if those questions are answered, they, too, lead to more questions, creating an infinite regress in which we never can arrive at the first principle underlying everything or discover the ultimate truth. In this way, man can never have true knowledge of the universe; he is only capable of possessing limited knowledge about it.

 

Only the Creator who initiated the first cause and who is immortal and not bound by human limitations can have knowledge of the true nature of things. Man must know both sides of his nature to be whole and happy. We are both great and wretched. The wretchedness we have serves as proof of the veracity of the Fall of Man, whereas the Greatness we possess demonstrates that we’re made in God’s image. The Fall of Man is why we have an idea of happiness (since once upon a time we were happy in the Garden of Eden), but it is also the reason why we yearn for happiness and can never achieve it. This event left an imprint on us. The only way for us to be happy, the only way for us to achieve true justice, and the only way for us to know the truth is through God. The proper thoughts of man should be on God alone. We can only practice the true religion if we love God and hate ourselves.

 

Although many have tried, religion and God cannot be proved by reason. Now a reader might be wondering: isn’t Pascal trying to prove that people ought to believe in God and that the Christian religion is true? Yes. However, what he seems to mean is that he won’t be engaging in formal proofs based in logic like some of his medieval predecessors, but rather religion is something you support with faith. God is felt in the heart and He grants belief to whom He chooses. God purposely gave enough evidence of his existence (mostly through scripture) to be justified in accusing those who fail to believe in Him, but He also obscured Himself enough so the truly wicked and unworthy will not believe and suffer eternal damnation. Pascal acknowledges many times that God is a hidden God.  You feel God through intuition (i. e. the Holy Spirit), but you don’t experience Him in the material world; at least not directly. This brings us to the most famous part of his argument: Pascal’s wager. Some interpret it to be as an argument to believe; others as an argument about why it is important to investigate the issue of God’s existence in the first place. The wager goes like this: If the Christian religion is wrong you will be dead for eternity and it doesn’t matter, yet if it is right you will suffer in hell for eternity should you fail to believe correctly. You have more to gain in believing than not believing. We need to enlighten ourselves whether an afterlife exists since it’s the most important question of our lives. People who are indifferent to these questions are ignoring a matter important to their eternal happiness and salvation and given the chance that they could be wrong and it could cost them so much it is only reasonable that we attempt to try and figure out the truth. I think the opening of the wager section imploring us to investigate is fine. However, there are many objections to the Wager proper.

 

After sharing his views on the human condition, Pascal spends the second half of his book trying to prove why Christianity is the true religion and the other Abrahamic religions are false. Heathens love the world and hate God, Jews love the world and love God, while Christians hate the world and love God. Pascal suggests that the Old Testament Tales were designed as typologies to foreshadow Jesus, and thus Jews who fail to recognize this have been blinded to their true meaning. In this view, the Binding of Isaac not only happened historically, but God instigated this event and had it recorded in scripture in order to foreshadow the eventuality of Jesus’ sacrifice. Pascal argues that these typologies serve as another piece of evidence of Jesus’ divinity in addition to more explicit prophecies. Pascal believes that Jews focus on the surface features of the text, missing these important typologies and the true spirit of the text. These typologies that foreshadow Jesus also serve as evidence of God’s hiddenness. The Holy Spirit allows Christians to see them. This textual “blindness” is further supported by various prophecies in the Old Testament that Pascal understands to predict that Jews will be blind to the true spirit of the law. The Old Laws were valid at the time in so far as they were designed to bring people to the Holy Spirit and functioned as another typology, but the literal commandments don’t matter anymore.

All of this leads us to the biggest problem of the book. Most of Pascal’s arguments are examples of circular reasoning. It is hard to imagine anyone buying into his arguments unless they already agreed with them prior to reading the book. To support his argument about Christians interpreting the bible correctly in comparison to Jews, he’s saying, “Those blessed by God with the Holy Spirt will interpret the Bible correctly. Those who interpret the Bible correctly demonstrate that they are blessed with the Holy Spirit. Therefore those with the Holy Spirit (Christians) interpret the Bible correctly.” He also quotes an enormous amount of scripture to support these arguments, but when you actually look at the passages of these Old Testament quotes they are almost always taken out of context and come off as dubious interpretations. He calls the Bible the oldest and most accurate history in the world. While modern archaeology has supported some parts of the Bible, it has also called into question a good amount of Biblical historicity. Similarly, archaeology in Mesopotamia has found many texts older than the Bible. In all fairness to Pascal, he lived in a time before all these discoveries and the rise of modern archaeology; the study of history in his day was mostly a textual affair. So many of the arguments he makes depend precisely on him uncritically forwarding the religious assumptions of his times.  Christians who already buy into Pascal’s arguments will probably love this book, whereas those who don’t buy into his arguments will not suddenly be convinced.

The Essays by Michel de Montaigne (Trans. M. A. Screech)

“I take the first subject Fortune offers: all are equally good for me. I never plan to expound them in full for I do not see the whole of anything: neither do those who promise to help us to do so! Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it with the tip of my tongue or with my fingertips, and sometimes I pinch it to the bone. I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle.” – On Democritus and Heraclitus

 

In the spirit of the Renaissance, Montaigne borrows the ideas of ancient writers as a guide for his own original and sometimes very modern thoughts. Despite extensively quoting writers from the past, he gives a prominent place to his own thoughts rather than the authority and opinions of others. As the essays declare numerous times his main subject is himself: his thoughts on various matters, his habits, his abilities and weaknesses, which he employs as a way of exploring the human experience more generally. He never leaves the impression he is trying to persuade you that his own views represent the ultimate truth on matters, but rather his style comes across as a man sharing his private thoughts and opinions in a conversation with an intimate friend, while acknowledging those friends might feel differently and come to different conclusions. The essays cover a wide variety of subjects related to philosophy, society, politics, education, exploration, and the self. The one constant for Montaigne is a world dominated by human variability. Montaigne grew up in an age where civil wars over religion were occurring in his country and Europe was exploring the Americas. These historical events serve as a backdrop and sometimes even the main topic of some of his essays.

 

An important topic for Montaigne is education. Montaigne questions the value of rote learning of facts and suggests the true purpose of education should be to develop our virtue and judgement. One might view him as an early proponent of critical thinking.

 

“A good education changes a boy’s judgement and morals.” – On Presumption.

 

Montaigne suggests that philosophy, since its primary concern is how to live, is the most important subject a child can study. Learning should not be just memorizing dates and being able to recite every last rule of grammar, but rather it should be connected to how we ought to live our lives. In the essay “On books” he elaborates on this point by saying he prefers cultivating knowledge of himself rather than spending his time acquiring factual knowledge. However, he is not suggesting we should merely navel gaze and ignore books altogether. In that same essay, he discusses the books of poetry, philosophy, and history that he found most profitable to exploring his own ideas, feelings, and nature. Books that fit into areas that we would typically call the Humanities assist us in exploring ourselves, our own values, experiences, and ideas. The Great Books can teach us to value ourselves properly by seeing our strengths and shortcomings.

“If anyone looks down on others and is drunk on self-knowledge let him turn his gaze upwards to ages past: he will pull his horns in then, discovering many thousands of minds which will trample him underfoot. If he embarks upon some flattering presumption of his own valour let him recall the lives of the two Scipios and all those armies and peoples who leave him so far behind. No one individual quality will make any man swell with pride who will, at the same time, take account of all those other weak and imperfect qualities which are in him and, finally, of the nullity of the human condition.” – On Practice.

Montaigne offers a justification for reading the Great Books and the study of history by suggesting that they help us understand ourselves and provide an honest assessment about our own character. They help us see our own place in the world and make us realize the world does not revolve around us. They help us measure our own ideas and experiences to those of the past.

He also has thoughts about pedagogy. A student should not passively read a philosophical dialogue, but share their own views on the arguments and ideas presented, much like what he is doing in the essays. In his attack on rhetoric and grammar as the foundations of education, he also defends the virtues of straightforward speech, while not quite dismissing rhetoric all together. He accepts that there is some value in possessing a great ability with words. The problem is that too often writers hide behind pretty rhetoric and flourishes, while lacking any real substance and content, and uncritical people are easily fooled into accepting bad ideas being masked behind the pretty language.

All of this leads to one of Montaigne’s other big concerns: the importance of virtue. One of the main methods of making ourselves virtuous is cultivating knowledge of ourselves. We have to be careful of caring too much about what other people think of us. Our happiness should not depend on things outside ourselves and thus outside of our control such as property, our relationships, and even good health. We should judge men by their inner qualities, not their rank or wealth or fine clothing. Those things are matters of fortune and superficial outer appearance; just as you would judge a horse by how fast it can run, not how luxurious its saddle might be. Solitude and tranquility are not found by fleeing society and the company of other people, but through the careful cultivation of reason and wisdom. We need to use reason and wisdom to control the vices and fears of our own mind; only then can we achieve tranquility.

“It is not enough to withdraw from the mob, not enough to go to another place: we have to withdraw from such attributes of the mob as are within us. It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession” – On Solitude.

We also need to keep in mind that even good forces that are generally helpful such as philosophy, matrimony, virtue, wisdom, etc. can be harmful if taken to excess. In Montaigne’s view traditionally positive practices are only beneficial if they are tempered by moderation. He also suggests that goodness and virtue are related but not the same. Virtue requires difficulty and opposition to one’s own inclinations, while goodness can arise from one’s natural temperament. Reading about virtue and understanding it are not enough. Without practice, reason and education cannot establish habits of mind and behavior. It is important to continually practice what we preach in order to make our ideas and ideals a part of our everyday thoughts and behaviors. There is so many more topics and ideas to be found in Montaigne, but all this variety makes it difficult to cover everything. While not always as entertaining as reading a novel, the essays are definitely thought-provoking.

Selected Plays by Moliere

Moliere grew up in a bourgeois family, but finding such a life stifling he gave it up in order to write plays and the lead the life of an actor. He had much success in this new career and many of his works were patronized and performed for King Louis XIV. Besides the ridiculous characters themselves driving the comedy of his plays, he employs other standard comical tropes such as slapstick and misunderstandings. Like Shakespeare, most of these comedies center on marriages and forces that threaten to thwart these unions, but his characters lack Shakespeare’s depth and tend to be one-dimensional, focusing on a single idea and obsession. Nevertheless, one quality that recommends these plays is that they are genuinely funny. Moliere really does a great job at capturing the ridiculousness of humanity and their sometimes obsessive tendencies.

Precious Provincials

Two young ladies named Madelon and Cathos have developed ridiculous expectations about romance and courtship from reading too many novels. The novels have left them with unrealistic expectations about how a relationship should proceed. This goes so far that they even want to change their name to make them more in line with the heroines of these stories. The father of Madelon believes his daughter and niece have gone mad. After rejecting two potential suitors whom they find to be bores, Madelon’s father tries to lecture them to have more commonsense, but to no avail. Offended by the rejection, the two suitors decide to play a trick on them and have their servants pretend to be nobility in order to court them. Soon Madelon and Cathos become enraptured by the fake nobles who fit all their ludicrous expectations only to have the illusion pulled from under their eyes and realize they’ve been fooled.

Although very different plots and dramatic tones, the “novel reading creating false expectations about reality” theme is a forerunner of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, both of which possess heroines that become partially dissatisfied with their lives due to novels. Although this is a comical take on the issue rather than a tragic one like those later novels. The play raises the important point that various forms of media often present unrealistic ideals of romantic relationships, which can lead to dissatisfaction when the real thing fails to live up to the idealistic make-believe. Likewise, the practical is being contrasted with the idealistic.

Don Juan

With the help of his reluctant servant, Sganerelle, Don Juan seduces women after woman by marrying them and then leaving them. Don Juan believes heaven and hell are mere superstitions and therefore there will not be any consequences for his actions. The play opens shortly after he has abandoned Dona Elvira, a woman he snatched from a convent and made break her vows of chastity in order to marry her, sleep with her, and then leave her. After his betrayal, she sends her brothers to avenge her honor and Don Juan must flee for his life, but along the way of seducing more women he unwittingly saves one of the brother’s life from robbers. This debt causes the brother to give Don Juan a chance to repent and fulfill his marriage vows to Dona Elvira. Don Juan ends up visiting a statue of the local commander whom Don Juan killed in a duel the previous year. He jokingly invites the statute to dinner, which then leads to the statue nodding its head and accepting the invitation. The superstitious and God-fearing Sganerelle warns his master that this is heaven’s sign that G-d has grown tired of Don Juan’s sinful ways, but Don Juan remains skeptical and refuses to repent. At dinner the statute arrives and then invites Don Juan to sup with him. Sganerelle warns him again that it is a sign from heaven that Don Juan must change his ways and repent. Not planning to change his ways, Don Juan attempts to put off the revenge of the brothers of Dona Elvira by pretending to be religious, convinced that you can fool anybody with false religious appearance. This fake and hypocritical religiosity offends heaven further; the statue arrives for their dinner date and drags Don Juan down to hell. This play inspired Mozart’s famous opera, Don Giovanni.

The Miser

Harpagon loves money more than anything else in the world to the extent that his own son must stoop to borrowing in order to afford decent clothes. His daughter, Elise has fallen in love with Valere, a disenfranchised nobleman who is currently acting as Harpagon’s steward and pretending to agree with his miserly ways in order to win his favor. Meanwhile, his son, Cleante, has fallen in love with a neighbor named Mariane. The only problem is that Harpagon has decided to marry Mariane himself, impressed by her frugality, which potentially crushes the dreams of his son. He has also plans to crush Elise’s dreams when he reveals that he has arranged a marriage for her to a wealthy gentlemen, who requires no dowry for Elise and thus Harpagon can avoid giving up any money. While all of this is happening, Harpagon has buried a large sum of money in his backyard. Eventually the money is stolen by one of his servants in league with Valere. Obsessed with his lost fortune, Harpagon promises to give up Mariane to his son if only he can have the money back. The miser figure appears earlier in the Roman playwright Plautus’ play, The Pot of Gold, and later in the form of Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.

The Would-be Gentleman

M. Jourdain is a bourgeois who tries his best to imitate the nobility, taking frivolous dancing, music, fencing, and philosophy lessons. He dreams of one day becoming a true gentleman. He befriends the nobility who take advantage of him by borrowing large sums of money that they never intend to pay back. His noble “friend” named Dorante, a comte, pretends to court a marquise named Dorimene for him, but really is courting the marquise for himself with Jourdain’s money. Jourdain’s obsession with the nobility becomes so bad that he refuses to marry off his middle-class daughter to anyone without a title and rejects her wealthy bourgeois suitor, Cleonte, because he lacks a title. So they play a trick on him; Cleonte dresses up and pretends to be a Turkish prince so that he can marry Jourdain’s daughter.

The School for Wives

The plays opens describing a Paris full of women cheating on their husbands. In fear that he will be made a cuckold like everyone else, Arnolphe comes up with a plan to raise up an adopted ward named Agnes in a way that would make her completely ignorant about the world and thus unlikely to cheat on him when he eventually marries her. Before he can broach the subject of marrying her, though, it turns out a boy named Horace has stumbled upon her by accident and they’ve fallen in love with each other. Complicating matters further is that Horace is the son of Arnolphe’s good friend. Based on his father’s friendship, Horace confides in Arnolphe about his love and conspires with him to get the upper hand over his mistress’s guardian, not realizing Arnolphe is the guardian and he keeps struggling to figure how the guardian keeps learning of his plans and spoiling them.

Tartuffe

This is a play about a religious hypocrite named Tartuffe who finds favor with a wealthy bourgeois named Orgon. The rest of the family can see through Tartuffe’s religious façade and into his hypocritical nature, but Orgon cannot see it. Orgon takes pity on him, and tries to punish his family for their treatment of Tartuffe by disinheriting them and leaving all his property to Tartuffe. Orgon eventually discovers the truth when Tartuffe tries to seduce Orgon’s wife and arrange an affair, while Orgon is hidden in the same room. However, it is too late. Tartuffe, now in control of Orgon’s property, kicks them out of the house. Tartuffe then reports them to the law because Orgon in confidence foolishly reveals that he failed to turn over a letter to the authorities from someone who was branded a traitor, which itself is a punishable offense. However, the king sees through this ploy and the guards sent to supposedly arrest Orgon end up giving Tartuffe his just deserts.

The Misanthrope

Alceste is a misanthrope who appreciates genuine sentiments and hates the phoniness of humanity. He’s an early Holden Caulfield! Against his will, he has fallen in love with Celimene who flirts with all the men in town. He competes against other suitors for her hand and almost ends up in major trouble with the law because he refuses to repent his genuine sentiments and ends up offending certain people high up in court. He also refuses to suck up to the judge, which was a common practice during the time, and believes his position, which is the truth, will win the day. After losing his case, tired of society’s evils, he decides he needs to move to the countryside, away from people. Celimene agrees to marry him, but she won’t move to the country to escape the hypocritical city life, which she loves. All this helps him realize that she is not the woman for him.

The Clever Women

Philaminte rules over her husband, Chrysale, and makes all the important decisions in the house. She is a female philosopher who dreams of one day opening up her own school for female intellectuals. Day after day Philaminte, her daughter Armande, and her sister-in-law Belise spend philosophizing about obscure issues, debating unimportant points of French grammar, reading third-rate Romantic novels, and fall into raptures as they listen to a talentless third-rate poet, their friend, Trissotin. Armande refuses to marry any man, corrupted by her philosophy into believing that love should be pure and unadulterated, not physical, which prevents her from returning Clitandre’s love in a way satisfactory to him. Eventually Clitandre falls in love with her sister, Henriette, who returns his love back. She has more simple tastes and doesn’t fit in with her intellectual relatives. Her father, Chrysale approves of the marriage, but her mother, Philaminte, has plans for Trissotin to be her future son-in-law, leading to a battle of the sexes over who Henriette will end up marrying.

When looking at these plays as a group, certain larger commonalities become evident. Moliere creates his comedy from the obsessive vices of his main characters. Harpagon is too obsessed with money, M. Jourdain is too obsessed with the nobility, Arnolphe is too obsessed with his fear of being cuckolded, etc. It is precisely these obsessions that lead them into trouble. Moliere is mocking the bourgeois of his times as social climbers (M. Jourdain), obsessed with money (Harpagon), and having a complete lack of taste or social decorum. This makes sense given his upper-class patrons. However, this characteristic so important to his plays goes deeper than the merely historical and tries to point out the dangers of irrational obsessions in general. There is nothing wrong with caring about money in relation to your needs, there is nothing wrong with secretly having some fear about being cheated on by a wife or lover; these are natural reactions. It only becomes a problem when these worries become an obsession and lead to irrational and unreasonable behavior.

From plays like the Precious Provincials and The Clever Women, it is clear that he is also interested in exploring what he sees as the problems with women’s rights. The female intellectuals of The Clever Women are clearly proto-feminist figures, wanting to create their own school for female intellectuals. In both plays, Moliere mocks the idea of such women, pointing out that they often have poor perceptions of the world, often misunderstand much of the scholarship they’re reading, their taste in poetry and novels are terrible, and all around come off as ridiculous. Now I don’t necessarily agree with these sentiments, but it would be irresponsible of me to ignore an issue that Moliere is exploring in his work. Even without agreeing, though, the way he does portray these characters makes for some comedy gold. Likewise, even though Moliere was targeting a particular type of woman who would frequent the salons of his day, the Precious Provincials can be read as making a more generalized statement against idealizing impossible relationship standards found in art and The Clever Women can be read as mocking anyone with intellectual pretentions who play at intellectualizing and philosophy, but actually have no idea what they’re talking about and lack good sense.

The Red and Black by Stendhal

I should probably start with the obligatory note about this works importance in literary history: many scholars consider this to be the first realist novel. It’s a novel intensely interested in describing the psychological drama of its characters, especially Julien, our lower class educated protagonist.

After receiving an education in Latin, Julien is hired by the mayor of his town, Monsieur de Renal, to tutor his children. Feeling a mixture of disdain and jealousy for his upper middle-class employers, Julien finds himself in love with the mayor’s wife, Madame de Renal. A jealous chambermaid soon makes the love affair public, forcing Julien to leave town on the advise of a friend and join the local seminary to further his education in the clergy. He finds his rebellious attitude and studious ways only brings him the ire of his classmates who value obedience to dogma more than actual erudition. The seminary director, Pirard, takes him under his wing, but soon finds himself ousted from his position. He recommends Julien as private secretary to the Marquis de la Mole. Julien soon finds himself hobnobbing with the highest ranking peers in the nation.

The Marquis’s bored, spoiled, and jaded daughter, Mathilde de Mole, falls in love with Julien. They have an on again off again relationship for multiple chapters as they play flirtatious mind-games with each other similar to modern day high school relationships. She finally falls deeply in love with Julien and wants to marry him. Now that she wants to marry him she decides to reveal their relationship to her father. Due to his high position in the peerage, his dreams that his daughter would one day rise in rank and be a duchess, and Julien’s extremely low social position, Marquis de la Mole freaks out and won’t accept the relationship at first. Just when it seems like he is warming up to the idea, a letter from Madame de Renal disparaging Julien’s character destroys any chances of winning the Marquis de la Mole’s favor forever.

An enraged Julien returns back to his home town and attempts to kill Madame de Renal. He fails to murder her and is arrested. Mathilde visits him in jail. So does Madame de Renal. He realizes he truly loves Madame de Renal, and not Mathilde, and has always loved her. She testifies in his defense as do many others, but due to pissing off the wrong people socially and politically earlier in his life (particularly, M. Valenod who also attempted to seduce Madame de Renal, but failed) they convict him anyway and sentence him to death.

The ending I think reveals quite well one of the book’s major points: if you piss off the people in power it will work against you later. Julien constantly must skirt the line between his own resentment of the upper-classes and how they treat him, and holding his tongue so he can make his living. At one point, Julien engages in hypocrisy when he imagines he might rise the social ladder with the help of the Marquise de La Mole. Napoleon’s life and rise to power serves as his touchstone. Although intelligent and resourceful, Julien finds himself stifled by his society, which thinks only of money and social status. His society fails to value what is really important.

Stendhal has a lot of fun mocking the upper class frequenting his drawing rooms who are shown as vapid, insincere, and suffering from meaninglessness in their lives. Stendhal illustrates this meaninglessness with Mathilde celebrating the past glories of one of her noble ancestors who lived during the Middle Ages; she romanticizes the past because she and the rest of the nobility find the present life unfulfilling and meaningless. The point is clear: gone are the days when the nobility had a purpose and practical function. The nobility are relics of the past that linger on in the present.

On the other hand, Stendhal reveals a rising middle-class that is boorish and outright cruel and petty in their gambles for power, showing little or no loyalty to their friends or benefactors, illustrated especially with M. Valenod who becomes mayor at the expense of his mentor, M. de Renal, and condemns Julien to death, despite the evidence, because of his personal grievances at the boy’s success in seducing the woman he desired. In some ways, Stendhal hints that the middle-class is a worse monster in the making. It’s important to remember the historical backdrop of the story. Stendhal was writing after the first French Revolution and the Revolution of 1830. The book takes place right on the brink of the Revolution of 183o; this impending revolution features prominently in the background of the second half of book, as does the first French Revolution, which still haunts the memories of the nobility, with the persecution of their class and dissolution of their power and property. A major element of these historical revolutions was the rise of the middle class to power. Stendhal’s book documents a period in which the nobility are still in power, but the middle-class are rising to assume power, have already tasted power and want it back.

Overall, I found myself bored a lot with the narrative. I’ll probably give this another chance sometime in the far future, but unless you’re a serious student of literature who feels some inexplicable urge to read every canonical work, you might consider skipping this one. I just found a lot of it dragged.

Germinal by Emile Zola (trans. Leonard Tancock)

The Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh

The Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh (1885)

After being dismissed from railroad work for attacking his boss during a drunken fit, Étienne wanders the French countryside in search of a job, but cannot find any because the country is suffering from a major economic recession. Only when he reaches the town of Montsou does he find a job at the coal mine of Le Voreux.

In this town and new life, Étienne encounters the many impoverished families that work the coalmines. He soon learns from direct experience that the coalminers of Montsou perform back-breaking and dangerous work down in the pits of the earth only to earn subsistence living that can barely buy enough bread to feed them and their children who live together in squalid homes provided by the mining company. People like the Maheu family work until their old and disease-ridden, spitting up coal dust from years of toil down in the mine, while the bourgeoisie, such as the Grégoires, who have invested their money into the mines live a life of idleness and luxury off of their exhausting work.

After further wage-cuts are instituted, a group of coal miners decide to go on strike, encouraged by Étienne and his newfound Marxist ideas. The wealthy manager of the mines, Monsieur Hennebeau, believes the strike will blow over in two weeks. The miners manage to hold out for three months, but as hunger creeps in things escalate to violence on both sides. Running beside this plot is a frustrated love story in which Étienne struggles with another miner named Chavel over the love and affections of Catherine, Maheu’s daughter.

Emile Zola is generally considered to be part of the Naturalistic movement in literature, a type of realism that dissects the social existence of human beings with a scientific accuracy. Despite its realism, his work still abounds with melodrama and a certain amount of idealism. Germinal caused quite the sensation when it first came out because it is sensationalistic. The terrible and difficult lives of the coalminers are depicted with an unflinching eye. The descriptions of the hellish conditions in the mines, with the miners breathing in noxious gases, working in fits of sweat and with aching muscles, bleeding hands, as cold water splashes down their face from leaks in the earth, all while not even being able to earn enough to buy the food they need, not only brings Dante’s poetic hell into a cold harsh reality, but makes Zola’s social case for him. Even if you’re not a Marxist, it is difficult not to be sympathetic to the lives of the coalminers. Yet, even while making it clear whose side Zola takes, he is a skillful enough writer to show a complicated portrait of his bourgeoisie characters.

Monsieur Hennebeau who is estranged from his wife— a woman engaged in passionate affairs with everyone except her husband—envies the coalminer’s promiscuity and easy access to physical pleasures. He claims many times he would give up all his wealth for such a passionate life. One point the novel is making here is that the bourgeoisie life is full of luxury and idleness, but it is unfulfilling. It also is meant to show Hennebeau’s ignorance; it never occurs to him that the reason they engage in lovemaking with such ease is that the miners have very few other joys available to them, and often this works against them when it produces more children, which impoverishes them further.  Mrs. Hennebeau flits from one affair to another because she is unfulfilled by her life as well. She finds one project or lover, followed by another, only to soon grow bored with it.

The other major bourgeoisie family is the Grégoires. It would be so easy for a writer to depict them as unfeeling monsters, but Zola is careful to depict them as human beings. They brag about their life of idleness and luxury, yet instead of coming off as uncaring, they come off more as ignorant and clueless about what the lives of the miners are really like as they live their quotidian existence of luxury. For them the life of idleness and luxury is the good life. Even though they spoil their daughter and enjoy their life of luxury, it is clear that this is a well-meaning family that cherishes their daughter. They love their child as much as the miners love their children. From their perspective, they’ve invested the money in the mine and see nothing wrong with earning a profit from other peoples’ labor. They aren’t evil profiteers or heartless, but just people who enjoy their idle luxury and don’t really think much about what goes into getting their profits. Indeed, one of their pastimes is charity work among the poor miners.

By showing both sides, Zola creates a contrast of their lifestyles; you have people who never work at all, but live this luxurious life full of rich foods and materialistic items that they don’t need compared to people who work the whole week in exhausting labor and can barely pay for a week’s worth of bread. Such a contrast is meant to call our attentions to the inherit unfairness of such a system. There are people literally doing nothing and earning huge sums of money on the backs of other peoples’ labor.

True to his naturalistic style, Zola doesn’t depict the miners as wholly good. Many of the men drink their earnings away, visit whores, are prone to violence, beat their children, and engage in crimes, while many of the women cheat on their husbands. There are many scenes that have the miners in which the miners fall into a frenzied mob in response to the injustices done to them, which Zola uses to show the uncontrollable anarchistic nature of mob mentality. Likewise, Zola even critiques certain forms of Marxism. He depicts a more extreme anarchist form of Marxism through a Russian character working at the mine called Souvarine. In the end, Souvarine commits an act of terrorism that not only damages the company’s property, but kills many miners as well.  This is the closest Zola comes to calling a character and their position: evil. Souvarine is willing to kill for his politics and cares little for human life in comparison to larger political goals. Whereas Étienne’s Marxist philosophy revolves around making sure everyone gets a fair share of the good life.

Zola doesn’t restrict his narrative to the political social message. These same ideas are also being explored in relationship to basic human needs and happiness. After his political dreams for a better future fail, Étienne comes to realize that he could be perfectly happy living a life of poverty and back-breaking work if he had Catherine by his side. His love for her comes to trump his political ideas. This part of the narrative then recognizes that happiness in personal relationships, that deeper love and passion, goes beyond concerns of social conditions.  Or maybe not. Maheude, Maheu’s wife, promises never to return to work for the mines after her husband is killed, but in the end finds herself back down there in order to earn bread for her family. Her basic needs end up trumping her emotional ideals. In this way, Zola always keeps us thinking and questioning the ideas of his narrative, never letting us quite settle on any final answers, but always raising additional problems and perspectives.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (trans. Norman Denny)

Les Miserable is an extremely difficult novel to summarize because of its length, many sub-plots, the large time span of events (basically the main story occurs during the restoration of Louis XVIII until the reign of King Louis-Phillipe), and many of its chapters are actually short collections of essays, which interrupts and transitions the main story during in between time jumps and setting relocations, but which otherwise are unrelated to the main plot and could be excluded from the novel without any deficiency.

Les Miserables is the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, who breaks his parole in order to escape from the relentless shadow of social condemnation. After more than twenty years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s hungry children and multiple attempted escapes from forced labor, he finds himself in a world that continues to fear and scorn him for being an ex-convict. The bishop Myriel, known for his good works and charity to the poor, gives Jean Valjean a place to stay and a meal when everyone else turns him away. After everyone heads off to bed, Jean Valjean’s resentment towards the world overcomes him and leads him to steal the bishop’s silver candlesticks. The police catch him and bring him back. However, the compassionate bishop spares him from prison by claiming the silver was actually a gift he gave Jean Valjean, hoping an act of mercy will encourage him to change his ways and live a righteous life. After much soul-searching, Valjean decides to become an honest man and live a Christian life helping the poor, following the example of the bishop. Valjean assumes an alias and becomes a successful businessman, whose good deeds promote him to the position of the town’s mayor. However, the local police inspector, Javert, suspects the truth about the mayor’s sordid past. Jean Valjean spends the rest of the book struggling to live a righteous life, find some happiness in a world that condemns him, and hide from the relentless Javert.

Intersecting this story is also the one about the tragic and hapless Fantine, a beautiful young woman, who is duped by a rich bourgeois student into a short-term love affair that produces an illegitimate child named Cosette. On the cusp of poverty, Fantine has no choice, but to leave her daughter with an unscrupulous innkeeper named Thernadier. Fantine’s luck only gets worse after she is dismissed from her job when someone learns about the existence of her illegitimate child and the only recourse left to her is prostitution. Eventually the kind-hearted Jean Valjean takes it on himself to recover Cosette and raise her as his own child. Cosette begins a new life with Jean Valjean and falls in love with a young idealistic student named Marius, all of which leads up to the events of the June Rebellion in 1832 in which students, workers, and dissidents participate in a failed insurrection against the regime of King Louis-Philippe in an attempt to establish a new republic.

Hugo hammers home the point with numerous examples that poverty leads to spiritual and social degradation. It is difficult to be a virtuous person when you’re poor and starving. Jean Valjean becomes a criminal due to starvation and poverty. Fantine becomes a prostitute because she cannot find a respectable job after her secret becomes known in town. The fate of Fantine and Jean Valjean reveals that it is hard to find a place in society once you’ve committed a social transgression, which then leads to further poverty, and creates a cycle of further degradation and inducement to crime. The prison system, far from correcting men, makes them worse and leads to recidivism, an issue not only of Hugo’s day, but one that still plagues our own. Hugo summarizes the major point of his novel as follows:

“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hell on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”

In this sense, Les Miserables can be seen as a cry to arms against the social injustices of poverty, the unfair social order in general, and harsh prison systems that merely degrade people further and fail to provide a solution to the problem of crime. What makes Jean Valjean remarkable is that he manages to overcome this cycle, suggesting that Hugo sees a possible solution to these problems in a kind of Christian humanism that emphasizes Christ’s teachings of helping the poor and one’s fellow man. Hugo isn’t content, though, to provide a simplistic worldview where adopting a Christian ethos forever transforms one into a righteous man.

After changing his ways, Jean Valjean faces numerous tests of conscience when his selfishness and happiness pits itself against selflessness and sacrifice. The first challenge occurs when a man named Champmatheiu is arrested on flimsy grounds and is falsely identified as Jean Valjean. Valjean must decide whether to let this man take his place in jail and continue to live safely under his new identity or confess the truth and go back to jail, but save an innocent man. The battle of conscience occurs again later in the novel when Cosette’s budding relationship with Marius threatens Valjean’s newfound happiness as her adopted father. In each of these instances, Valjean must sacrifice his happiness to either the ghosts of the past or the inevitable future. Valjean struggles to realize that material happiness of the moment is fleeting. The novel suggests that philosophers and Christianity are correct in that true happiness can only be found by being virtuous and possibly by reaching heaven as a reward for living such a virtuous life. There is no permanent happiness in this world for Jean Valjean, especially not with the type of unfair social system in place, but perhaps there will be in the next world and perhaps he can find happiness by helping others to be happy.

During these battles of conscience Valjean will often initially go through torturous rationalizations to convince himself the selfish action is actually the right one and justified. Hugo does a wonderful job at exploring the human capacity to rationalize our own immoral actions. In addition to these episodes of internal conflict for Jean Valjean, the character of Thernardier offers a powerful example of this sort of rationalization. In a scene, where Thernardier attempts to rob Jean Valjean, a tied-up Valjean accuses the former innkeeper of being a scoundrel, which leads Thenardier into an elaborate defense of his own actions.

“A scoundrel, is it? That’s what you rich call people like me. It’s true I’ve failed in business, I’m in hiding, I’ve no money in my pocket—so that makes me a scoundrel. I haven’t eaten for three days, so I’m a scoundrel! You keep yourselves warm with the best boots money can buy and fur-lined coats fit for an archbishop. You live in a first-floor apartment with a hall-porter, you stuff yourselves with truffles and asparagus at forty francs a bunch and green peas in January; and if you think the weather’s cold you look in the paper to see what the temperature is by Chevalier’s newfangled thermometer. But us, we’re our own thermometers, we don’t need to consult the newspaper to know how cold it is. We feel the blood freezing in our veins and we say, ‘’There is no G-d!’ And you come into the pig-sties we live in—pig-sties, that’s what they are—and call us scoundrels. But as under-gods, we’re going to chew you up, we’re going to make a meal of you! Let me tell you this, my fine-feathered millionaire, I was a man in a good way of business, once a licensed innkeeper, an elector, a respectable citizen—and I dare say that’s more than you can say. . . . And he talks to me as though I was a pickpocket! (683).”

Despite being only moments away from an attempted robbery, possibly even a murder, Thenardier’s words here reveal that he views his actions as justified and morally good. Even though his actions are reprehensible, he views himself as being a good guy and in the right. This is one of the ways Hugo complicates his narrative beyond being a polemic against the ill effects of poverty. Thenardier’s crime cannot be justified here as a response to the rich oppressing him; poverty isn’t an excuse for criminality, even if most crime stems from poverty and desperation. It is an ironic scene because Jean Valjean started as an impoverished worker who made his fortune later, while Thenardier owned an inn, which failed due to his mismanagement, and the reader meets him in the novel when he was a “licensed innkeeper” and supposedly upstanding citizen, but witnesses a man who is just as much a scoundrel. When Valjean committed his crime of stealing a loaf of bread it was for the sake of feeding his sister’s children, while Thenardier in the novel sells his own children to relieve his poverty. Hugo seems to be suggesting here that clearly some people are more naturally good than others prior to the exacerbating effect of social factors. Society is unfair and should be criticized, but just because it is unfair doesn’t excuse all bad behavior.