classic literature

Over 150 years later, Maupassant’s fiction is remembered for the questions it asked of morality

What was it that Guy de Maupassant, born on this day, August 5, found in the poor that he couldn’t find in respectable people?

Few writers in the realm of literature managed to explore the uncharted regions of the human mind and the dark recesses of the heart as deeply as Guy de Maupassant did. The grim realities which de Maupassant presents, especially in his short stories – a form of which he is considered one of the greatest exponents – include human fatuities and chicaneries of his times.

Born on August 5 in 1850 in Normandy, France, Henri-René-Albert-Guy de Maupassant stripped French society of the nineteenth century naked with his extraordinary literary work. His oeuvre comprises six novels, over 300 short stories, and a great many journalistic pieces and travel writing. His flourishing writing career was tragically cut short by headaches, fits of blindness and maddening melancholia. His deteriorating condition towards the end of his life is often attributed to syphilis, which he had contracted as a youth. He was admitted to a mental asylum in 1892, and died on July 6 the following year, at the age of just 42. Imagine what he could have written had he lived longer!

Maupassant wrote about everyone, the aristocrats as well as the bourgeoise, the rich as well as the poor, highlighting all their flaws and follies. His preoccupation with lowlife in fiction led him to stir the very depth of his own creative power. He had to, however, face a great deal of remonstration from critics for depicting the lower strata of the society, as well as grimaces from his peers for laying their classes bare.

But as long as the artist makes his point, it matters only to a minor degree on whether he dwells on prudery or on immorality to achieve his objective. Maupassant clearly does the latter. Like a true genius, he deals with the most indecent subjects by the standards of his time, but in a way which is never vulgar, shameful or shocking.

It is difficult to escape from the truths that Maupassant practically shoves in the reader’s face. One of his greatest qualities is that he may not state the obvious, or put certain things directly, but as readers we still feel our jaw muscles twitching. He achieves his objective with silence – a quality evident also in Saadat Hasan Manto’s writings, especially in his sketches on the Partition.

The subtle art of storytelling

More often than not, Maupassant relies on the behaviour of his characters – their restlessness or awkwardness – to struck key notes in his stories, without taking the trouble of elucidating the tricky situations. The less the writer says, the more profound is the effect on the reader’s conscience.

This is palpable in his novellete The Legacy (not be confused with the short story of the same title), which depicts a young couple – Lesable and Cora – stuck in a peculiar situation. Cora’s aunt has left her a fat legacy, worth more than a million francs, which she can claim only after the birth of her first child.

In the beginning, we come across Cachelin, Cora’s father, quietly conspiring with his colleague Lesable at the Naval Ministry. Cachelin invites Lesable home for dinner one evening and things take the expected turn soon afterwards – Lesable marries Cora and sometime later Aunt Charlotte dies, bequeathing all her wealth to the future child of Cora and Lesable.

However, the couple’s quest for the legacy comes to nothing despite Lesable’s perseverance and his wife’s cooperation. As time goes by, a crucial date approaches: if Cora and Lesable have been unable to have a child by then, the money will go to a charity.

Lesable is depicted as the cause for the failure of the couple to produce a child. He has to endure constant gibes from both Cora and Cachelin for not being man enough to give them their “right” to the legacy.

Maupassant’s father had helped him with a job at the Ministry of Marine after he finished studying law in Paris. In The Legacy, he uses his experience at work splendidly to depict the unfulfilled lives of civil servants, who live on meagre incomes and constantly jostle among themselves to climb up the ladder. Maupassant has shown great mastery in portraying the monotony of the work life and the atmosphere at the office, while zestfully conveying the petty rivalries and jealousies among clerks.

But the most remarkable quality of the story is the the way Maupassant narrates the complex situation and how the Cachelin family carves its way out of it. He never makes it obvious, leaving the surmise to the reader, who only has the reactions and behaviour of the characters to arrive at the conclusion that Bunny (Lesable’s rival at office), whom Cachelin purposefully befriends, and whom Cora seduces, eventually cuckolds Lesable.

And so, the father and daughter’s avarice wins (interestingly, Lesable seems to be aware of the situation) as Cora gets pregnant and everything falls into place after the birth of her daughter. Towards the end, Cora says: “I consider there ought to be a special punishment for the immoral women.” And it is here that the reader feels the artist has made his point.

His female protagonists

It’s a common opinion that though not a chauvinist, Maupassant held a low opinion of women, and that his obsession with sex made him incapable of understanding the spiritual aspect of love. He admitted that he found it difficult to understand a woman’s psyche.

Yet, many of Maupassant’s best stories are about the lives of women, and some of his strongest characters are those of prostitutes, actresses, working girls and women of nobility. Maupassant’s best novel, as its title A Woman’s Life makes clear, also revolves around the life of a woman, which could easily have been written by Emily or Charlotte Brontë, or Virginia Wolf or George Eliot.

When de Maupassant made his literary debut in 1880 with the story Boule de Suif in a collection which opened with one by Emile Zola, his genius was immediately recognised by the reading public. In fact, Zola himself admitted that Maupassant’s story about a whore’s patriotic modesty was the best in the collection, better than his own.

It was after the publication of Boule de Suif that Flaubert suggested to his pupil: “Try to write a dozen like it and you’ll be a man.” And Maupassant, acting upon the advice of his master produced his first collection of short fiction, titled The House of Madame Tellier and other stories in 1881, which was very well received in France. In his review Zola praised “the style of a born writer” and called him “the solid writer of one of the sanest and heathiest temperaments of the younger generation”.

Zola further wrote: “Why choose such subjects? Can’t writers write about respectable people? Of course. But I think Maupassant chose this subject because he felt it struck a human note.” Maupassant rejected differentiation into classes and declared somewhere: “The writer is and must remain the sole master, the sole judge, of what he feels capable of writing.”

In the brilliant story of Madame Tellier, de Maupassant places the Rouen brothel at the centre of men’s lives in Fecamp. Their deprivation is vividly depicted in the beginning, when they find the brothel closed because of the First Communion of Madame Tellier’s niece. With this story, Maupassant once again proved his capacity to present comedy and farce with a peculiar eloquence, which was quite evident in Boule de suif.

The master of Conte and his style

Short stories such as Miss Harriet and The Two Friends – even the briefest ones like The Jewels and Useless Beauty – seem to be the direct result of a smooth effluxion of creativity. Such is the greatness of Maupassant’s lucid style, which can in part be ascribed to his mentor Flaubert’s inclination towards realism, which made him a realist as well.

Maupassant wrote a great many stories on four specific themes: the life of Normandy’s peasant and lower gentry, the Franco-Prussian war, bourgeois life and the high society of Paris, and the supernatural. A critic of his style wrote somewhere: “At its best, the structure of his work is marked by two things: an economy which gives only the essential elements of character, situation, and development; and an onward movement which combines logic with the maximum of simplicity. Hence a dramatic swiftness, which is Maupassant’s special gift.”

There is no doubt that hopelessness and a morbid feeling pervade many of his stories, whether they be comedies or tragedies. A typical Maupassant story, however, is light and risqué. His limpid style enabled him to employ all forms of storytelling with equal finesse – from a third person narrative to a monologue, from diary entries to letters.

A cultivated reader would never get weary of his writing. His benign influence is always at work. The French critic G Pellissier puts it aptly when she says: “He shows us the things themselves with perfect transparence, so well that, believing that we have them under our eyes, we are unaware of the writer.”

His best novel?

A Woman’s Life is considered to be the most successful of Maupassant’s novels. Leo Tolstoy called it “the best French novel since Les Miserables”. It is about a sensitive young Norman woman named Jeanne, whose friends betray her in her youth. Then, after her marriage at the tender age of 17, her husband cheats on her by having an affair first with her maid and childhood companion, Rosalie (who gives birth to his child as well), and later with her trusted friend.

With faultless craft, Maupassant reveals the secrets of Jeanne’s heart and her miseries. When she discovers her parents’ marital history, she gets further disillusioned. She finds some relief in the birth of her boy, after much manoeuvring due to her husband’s reluctance to bring a child into the world. She devotes herself entirely in bringing the child up.

But when the time comes for young Paul to leave home for a student’s life in Harve, Jeanne begins to feel tortured. The young man adopts a dissolute lifestyle once away from home. Later, he abandons his mother for a prostitute on whom he wastes the family’s fortunes, not showing up at home for seven years.

With this novel, de Maupassant influenced his successors strongly. For instance, after the birth of Jeanne’s child and her husband’s death, the story almost foreshadows DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. There are stark similarities between Jeanne’s love and devotion for Paul and the love that Mrs Morel feels for her son. Coincidentally, both the characters are named Paul.

In A Woman’s Life, life restores a residue of happiness to Jeanne towards the end, when fate brings back not merriment, but Rosalie into her lonely world, and Jeanne also happily adopts Paul’s baby girl. The last sentence of the novel is a memorable one: “Life is, after all, never really as good as or as bad as people would think it is.”

A testament to Maupassant’s reputation and fame after his death lies in the fact that, just like the existence of an abundance of fake Modigliani paintings, some 65 salacious stories were circulated in America for almost 50 years as genuine Maupassant stories. Fortunately, they were recognised as fakes and Maupassant’s reputation was restored.

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