“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.