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Guy de Maupassant is considered one of the finest short-story writers of all time and a champion of the realistic approach to writing. His work is characterized by the clarity of its prose and the objective irony of its presentation, as well as its keen re-creation of the physical world. To the realist’s ideal of precise speech, Maupassant added an economy of language and created a narrative style noted for its power, simplicity, and vivid sensuousness.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Dissolution of Family and Nation
Henri Rene Albert Guy de Maupassant, the first child of Laure le Poittevin and Gustave de Maupassant, was born on August 5,1850, near Dieppe in Normandy, France. After a bitter and unhappy life together, Maupassant’s parents separated when he was eleven years old, and Maupassant was raised by his mother. He attended schools in Paris and Rouen and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree.
The Franco-Prussian War broke out in July of 1870. Maupassant, who had gone to Paris to study law, enlisted in the army immediately. The war was good for Prussia, concluding with the declaration of the existence of a new nation-state—Germany—but involved a series of terrible defeats for France. Maupassant was bitterly disappointed by the devastating outcome, in which Paris was briefly occupied by the Prussians, France lost the territory of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany (a region that would continue to be hotly contested through both the First and Second World Wars, as well as the intervening peace), and the French government collapsed. After the war, Maupassant worked as a clerk in the naval office of the reconstituted French Republic.
Naturalism and Collaboration
The writer Gustave Flaubert had been a childhood friend of Maupassant’s mother and served as a friend and mentor to the author during his young adulthood, introducing him to other writers. ”Boule de Suif’ (”Ball of Tallow”), which was Maupassant’s first published story, was part of a collaborative effort, Les soirees de Medan (1880), which included the work of several young French naturalists under the influence and direction of Emile Zola. The story was the first of many war stories and the one that made Maupassant an overnight celebrity. A tale of hypocrisy and betrayal, it was a stinging criticism of Rouen’s “respectable” society, which made France’s defeat by the Prussians inevitable. Maupassant later broke with the naturalist school, turning instead to realism. The latter set of principles, as elaborated by Flaubert, called for a close attention to form and a dedication to precision of detail and exact description.
A Publishing Whirlwind
Maupassant spent several years on the staffs of two Parisian newspapers, often working under pseudonyms. From 1880 to 1890 he published nearly three hundred short stories and six novels, an astounding literary feat, by constantly reshaping and reworking existing stories and duplicating scenes, descriptions, and short scenes from his newspaper pieces. In 1881, La Maison Tellier (Madame Tellier’s Establishment), Maupassant’s first collection of stories, was published. Approximately half of the stories had appeared in print previously, and critical reaction was somewhat mixed, but sales were spectacular.
The years 1883 to 1885 were especially productive for Maupassant. Four additional collections of stories appeared: Clair de Lune (Moonlight, 1883); Miss Harriet (1884); Les Soeurs Rondoli (The Rondoli Sisters, 1884); and Yvette (1884). He also published Au soleil (1884; translated as African Wanderings, 1903), his first travel journal. Several of the stories in Clair de Lune treat the subject of madness, for Maupassant’s first serious doubts about his own sanity date from this period.
In 1885 his collection titled Contes dujour et de la nuit (Day and Night Stories) was published. ”La Parure” (”The Diamond Necklace”), one of Maupassant’s best-known tales, is featured in this collection. The twist ending, later exploited byO. Henry, was in fact not typical of Maupassant’s stories. Three more story collections next appeared, Monsieur Parent (1885), Toine (1886), and La Petite Roque (1886).
Personal Potshots and Glimpses of Madness
His novel Bel-Ami (1885; translated 1891) is a biting satire of Parisian society in general, and of the journalistic milieu in particular. Greeted with anger by those who felt personally targeted, Bel-Ami was nevertheless reviewed favorably by most critics and was another commercial success.
The definitive version of his most famous fantastic tale, ”Le Horla” (”The Horla,” 1887) recounts the plight of a passive victim, an unwilling host to an invisible parasite that is slowly sapping his power and his life. Again Maupassant addresses themes of madness that would prove eerily prophetic for his own life.
Pierre et Jean, Maupassant’s shortest novel and considered by most critics to be his best, was published in January of 1888. The subject of this psychological novel is the intense mental suffering of Pierre Roland, who begins to doubt the paternal legitimacy of his brother and is eventually excluded from the family circle. Maupassant’s fourth novel was on the whole very well received by his contemporaries, and also met with great popular success.
All This Useless Beauty
Maupassant’s last two novels, Fort comme la mort (1889; translated as Strong as Death, 1899) and Notre cour (1890; translated as The Human Heart, 1890), differ from previous works not only in the milieu they describe—that of the indolent rich—but also in the increasingly active role played by women, who cause untold suffering in their male admirers.
L’Inutile Beaute (1890) is a collection of stories that first appeared in 1889 or 1890. The ”useless beauty” of the story’s title is a countess who, after bearing seven children in eleven years for her possessive husband, throws off the mantle of repeated pregnancies. She plants a seed of doubt in her husband’s head by suggesting that one of her children is not his, thereby destroying his confidence and peace of mind for six years, until she reveals that she has lied. Exasperated at first, her husband suddenly sees her in a new light, as an ideal woman.
These novels were to be Maupassant’s last. He had contracted the sexually transmitted disease syphilis as a young man, and it was now killing him. The disease, which was incurable at that time—indeed, it was a rather common ailment, though a debilitating one—had led to recurrent problems with his eyesight and now brought Maupassant to a complete physical and mental breakdown. He attempted suicide in 1892 and was subsequently confined to an asylum in Paris. He died on July 6, 1893, at the age of forty-two, a victim of third-stage syphilis.
Works in Literary Context
Gustave Flaubert’s role in establishing Maupassant’s career was substantial. Besides offering encouragement to his young friend and intervening on his behalf in securing publishers for his early work, Flaubert shared with him his own philosophy of letters, insisting on the necessity of finding le mot juste (the precise word) to describe each concept and thing, as well as on the importance of accurate observation. Flaubert further aided the apprentice Maupassant by introducing him into literary circles that included not only Emile Zola but also Ivan Turgenev, Alphonse Daudet, Edmond de Goncourt, and Paul Bourget. Maupassant was truly at the center of European thought, and his work bears its stamp.
Class Consciousness and the Maintenance of Status
Many of Maupassant’s stories deal with the drama created by social class issues. In his short story ”The Diamond Necklace,” for example, the main character is a middle-class woman who aspires to a higher social status. She borrows a diamond necklace from a wealthy friend to wear to a fancy party, and when she loses it, she and her husband go heavily into debt in order to replace the necklace without the friend finding out. After many years of scrimping and hard work to pay off the debt, the woman discovers that the necklace she borrowed and lost was actually fake, and hardly worth anything. In his novel Pierre et Jean, a son doubts that his brother is actually the child of their deceased father, a potential scandal among their upper-class acquaintances. Rather than reveal the truth, the family hides the secret and shuns the legitimate son in order to maintain their social standing.
Maupassant’s short fiction in particular has been compared to that of Turgenev, Anton Chekhov, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry James. The authors outside of France whom he influenced include Rudyard Kipling, August Strindberg, Joseph Conrad, William Sydney Porter (O. Henry), Somerset Maugham, William Saroyan, and Gabriele D’Annunzio. Although various labels have been affixed to him (”realist,” ”naturalist”), he steadfastly refused identification with any literary movement throughout his life.
Works in Critical Context
Both during his lifetime and throughout the twentieth century, writers and critics alike have praised Maupassant’s writing. His stories are seen as masterpieces of economy and clarity, classical in their formal simplicity, uncommonly varied in their themes, and keenly evocative in their descriptions. His originality was believed to lie not in his subjects but in his style.
Maupassant’s critical reception has focused on several major areas, among them his morality, the nature of his realism, Flaubert’s influence on his work, and the autobiographical aspects of his fiction. The inherent sexuality of Maupassant’s work was questioned as early as 1880, when his poem ”Au bord de l’eau” shocked and offended bourgeois sensibilities, sparking threats of a lawsuit. Henry James, one of Maupassant’s most perceptive commentators, called Maupassant a ”lion in the path” of moralistic nineteenth-century critics because of the frankly erotic element in his work. A central concern of critics during his own time, Maupassant’s sensuality continues to be remarked upon by such modern critics as Martin Turnell, who find his emphasis on sexuality evidence of his limited artistic vision.
Realism, Purity, Lesbianization?
Maupassant’s realism has also provided a focal point for critics. Early commentators were often appalled at what they saw as his lack of compassion for his characters. Later critics have dismissed this contention in favor of commentary on the technical virtuosity of Maupassant’s prose, praising the purity of his narrative style, the use of the revelatory detail, and the absence of authorial commentary so much in vogue among novelists of his era. And still more recently, critics like Terry Castle have read Maupassant through the lens of queer theory, arguing that he enacts a ”’lesbianization’ of those scenes and locales … typically associated with French impressionist painting. We seem here to look into a [Edouard] Manet or [Pierre-Auguste] Renoir canvas in which the men, paradoxically, are really women and the women who love them know it.”
- Artinian, Artine. Maupassant Criticism in France, 1880-1940. New York: Russell & Russell, 1969.
- Castle, Terry. The Literature of Lesbianism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
- Donaldson-Evans, Mary. A Woman’s Revenge: The Chronology of Dispossession in Maupassant’s Fiction. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum, 1986.
- Harris, Trevor A. Maupassant in the Hall of Mirrors. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
- Ignotus, Paul. The Paradox of Maupassant. London: University of London Press, 1966.
- Riddell, Agnes Rutheford. Flaubert and Maupassant: A Literary Relationship. Chicago.: University of Chicago Press, 1920.
- Steegmuller, Francis. Maupassant: A Lion in the Path. New York: Random House, 1949.
- Sullivan, Edward. Maupassant: The Short Stories. Great Neck, N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series, 1962.
- Wallace, A. H. Guy de Maupassant. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973.
- LibriVox: Acoustical Liberation of Works in the Public Domain. Retrieved April 24, 2008, from http://librivox.org/newcatalog/search.php? title=&author=Guy+de+Maupassant& action=Search.
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