Narrative Technique and Social Portrayal in the Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant
When we hear the name of Guy De Maupassant, it is hard to imagine that the words like “short story” and master wouldn’t spring up. It is also hard to imagine the literature of the 19th century with mentioning his name and his stories. As a matter of fact, many literary historians are considering him one of the best writers of the short story genre, if not the best, that had ever lived. His writing style is known for its high level of adeptness in terms of the economy of words—but still every single word important. He is also a master in the art of breathing life to his characters. A good characterization would mean a good read a characterization is after one of the most important element in fiction writing. The characters of his stories could only be described as unforgettable, as if they are all living people with all their imperfections and too much perfections. Guy De Maupassant is also known for landing the endings of his story like a perfectionist airplane pilot, though many claim that he does this effortlessly. His stories leave imprints of valuable realizations to the readers.
The stories of Guy De Maupassant are mostly about people and the kind of society that are prevalent in 19th century France. Since the stories of Guy De Maupassant are about real people within a real society, those stories are offering the readers generalized truths about the behavior of people and the human living conditions. One of the generalized truths about people and the society is the issue of social classes, which appear to be the one of the favorites of Guy De Maupassant to incorporate in his stories as a theme. It is observable that Guy De Maupassant’s narrative technique ha much to do with comparing and contrasting, within the narrative, his characters so that they would reveal the personalities of other characters that they interact with. Contrasting as a narrative technique proves to be effective since one of Guy De Maupassant’s favorite themes is social classes, certain extremes of human behavior are unearthed from his stories, like how would a wealthy and respectable person and a commoner would interact within a society. That narrative technique proves to be effective in painting a vivid picture of the kind society that 19th-century France have.
For this essay, we would employ several of Guy De Maupassant’s short story masterpieces to analyze his narrative technique. This would include: “Ball of Fat,” “Beside Schopenhauer’s Corpse,” “The Conservatory,” “The Moustache,” “A Duel,” “Friend Patience,” “A Vendetta,” “His Avenger,” “Mother and Son,” “The First Snowfall,” “The Necklace,” and “A Tress of Hair.” This amount of stories is just enough because it would take months of research to analyze them all, and if we use only one or two stories the narrative technique of the author will not surface to expose itself. Narrative techniques are basically the methods or strategies of the author to convey to the readers meanings underlying within the story (Dugan, 12-15). To analyze the narrative technique of Guy De Maupassant by infusing all stories included in the list will just result to a confusing and over-flavored analysis. To resolve that, we will dissect the stories by briefly reviewing the stories’ plot and how the narrative technique of juxtaposing social classes could lead us to Guy De Maupassant’s view of the society. This manner of analyzing such a large amount of texts would prove to be effective as the isolation of the stories would provide different meanings. The members of the society are after all varying in personalities that are generated by their designated social class. The society is after all made up of individuals, so it will also be an effective way of analyzing the texts as also individuals. Therefore, we can’t make a generalization as to how Guy De Maupassant had portrayed the 19th-century French society as a whole, but what we can do is have a bird’s eye view of the kind of people that existed in that society through the narrative technique of contrasting.
It is arguable that “Ball of Fat” is perhaps Guy De Maupassant’s most famous work in the short story genre. In “Ball of Fat,” the story revolved on a set of people, of different social status, in a train for a long ride. Guy De Maupassant had beautifully foreshadowed the theme of the story with the line “Is everybody aboard?” (Maupassant, 4) That line suggests to the readers that “all” means all kind of people, ranging from the poorest to the wealthy and respectable will all be riding the same train. It is also noticeable that only “a voice within answered: Yes.” (Maupassant, 4) The people aboard the train, both rich and poor, were criticizing other people from another different social class. Later in the story, we would be introduced to the character of the prostitute Elisabeth Rousset, who was nicknamed, and called in the whole story, as ball-of-fat because of her plumpness. Everyone snubbed her especially the aristocrats, men could be considered an exception because, although plump, she was considered attractive during those depressed times. She had with her a large basket of food with her. The people aboard the train saw the basket of food and befriended her. But when ball-of-fat really needed their help, the people ignored her. This angered the prostitute and she had wept (Maupassant, 9-26)
The narrative technique of contrasting social classes in this story is successful in portraying selfishness as an intrinsic human trait regardless of social class. In the ending of the story, the reader may feel sympathetic towards the character of ball-of-fat as she was the target of the injustice of those on the better side of the society–but still, the readers are left with the realization that these is one of the general truths about the society. This story could also be described as simply describing being practical and realistic, like manipulation of others and selfishness, as a way of surviving within the society wherein the members of the society are having their own different selfish purposes.
In “Beside Schopenhauer’s Corpse” two characters are contrasted, one is conservative middleclass and the other is a lowly slave whose master is Schopenhauer. The slave recounted his tale claiming Schopenhauer. The two characters were both afraid of Schopenhauer but in differing ways. The slave was afraid because he thinks he saw a ghost. While on the other hand, the other character was afraid because of a different reason. After he was handed the book of Schopenhauer he had said “I took the book from him reverently and as I gazed at the forms ”(Maupassant, 43-46)
The narrative technique of contrasting was able to make the differences in concerns between differing social classes.
“The Mustache” is one of Guy De Maupassant’s funniest criticism to the society that he belonged to. The narrative technique of contrasting reveals the stereotypes that govern the society that they even affect the people’s way of thinking. Jeanne is the only speaking character in the story since it was only about her letter to her friend. That letter focused much on Jeanne’s discomfort because her husband shaved off his mustache “a man is no longer a man without his mustache” (Maupassant, 56-58)
The characters of Jeanne and her husband was contrasted to reveal to us the way of thinking, that is bound by stereotypes, of some people in the 19th-century French society.
In “A Duel,” the war was between France and Germany was already decided; the Frenchmen were overpowered by the Germans. In this context, the Frenchmen were always target of abuse of the German invaders—the Germans were like college bullies picking on the Frenchmen like the latter were defenseless kindergarten toddlers. The protagonist of the story is M. Dubuis, a former national guard in Paris, and the antagonist was a cocky German officer, and there were also Englishmen and Prussians as only characters in the backdrop. M. Dubious was pushed to the limit by the abusive German officer. M. Dubious had won dominatingly their initial duel, the prideful German challenge him to another duel, this time to the death through the use of pitols. M. Dubuis had won the duel for the second and last time. (Maupassant, 183-187)
Through the genius of Guy De Maupassant, he didn’t just used the narrative technique of contrasting in simply juxtaposing the protagonist and the antagonist, he interestingly juxtaposed the Englishmen to the Prussians. When M. Dubuis had successfully won the dual against the German officer, the Englishmen ran to him with celebration, whilst it is not mentioned I the story that the Prussians ran to the wounded officer.
The story “Friend Patience” talks about two college friends reunited as old folks Gontran Lardois and Robert Patience. The former is a government employee and the latter is a successful businessman. They have reunited when Gontran Lardois was fatefully designated to work on the town where Robert Patience resides. Lardois didn’t even recognized his old friend when Patience sat on the next table beside him. He had expresses his dissatisfaction in being a mere employee by his description of Robert Patience, whom he hasn’t recognized yet “he must be a serious man with settled and regular habits…a good bourgeois” (Maupassant, 226-230)
That line could suggest to the reader that the word and concept of being a “bourgeois” or capitalist was always on the mind of M. Dubuis, perhaps because of his dissatisfaction of his unrewarding employee life. Moreover, Robert Patience was characterized as a happy and contented man, as opposed to the pessimistic Gontran Lardois who seems to be suffering from a sort of inferiority complex that is activated when he is around successful men. The narrative technique of contrasting these two characters had revealed to us that there exist a certain inferiority, beyond in the terms of wealth, of the working class to the more privileged stratus of the society.
“A Vendetta,” as the title suggests, is a story about revenge. The protagonists of the story, only referred to as Pablo Saverini’s widow, had plotted a well-devised plan for revenge for the murder of his son. She had trained her dog in the most extraordinary, yet plausible, ways. She conditioned her dog, through the use of a dummy and sausages, to be an attack dog that only targets the throat area of men. (Maupassant, 157-160)
Guy De Maupassant may have wanted for readers to see how the people living the simplest of lives view the concept of justice. In may appear that there is no one in the story to contrast the character of the widow. Actually she can be contrasted, to the readers themselves. Unknowingly, the readers themselves were being contrasted to the widow. The widow’s view of justice is an eye-for-an-eye-tooth-for-a-tooth kind of justice. She has no plans of seeking justice from conventional methods as dictated in the society, like through legal trials in courts. It is assumed the readers are from a society that is very different from the widows. Because it is assumed that the society of the readers would apply the law in cases such as murder. Whereas the society of the widow are the kind of society that only a handful are fortunate enough to access books, Where justice could be served in the most satisfactory manner—it is expressed on the last line of the story “at night fall the widow was home again and she had slept well that night” (Maupassant, 160)
The story “His Avenger” was basically about a married couple, although there is a slight catch. The woman was the former wife of the man. The man was constantly asking the woman about his dead wife, suggesting insecurity towards his dead friend. In the course of the story, the woman would say a “false lie” the she betrayed her former husband, his friend. She just wants to play with his husband’s insecurity. In the end of the story, the husband struck her angrily, he felt sorry but still he was angry for his friend, thus the title “His Avenger” (Maupassant, 84-93)
In this story, the narrative technique is that the character of the husband seems to be contrasting himself to his dead friend. The story also shows us that the kind of society portrayed in the story values the sacredness of marriage.
The story “Mother and Son” is basically a recounting of judge/lawyer M. Le Brument of a job that was given to him by a dying client. His dying client had asked him if he could look for her missing son, who is her heir, who had ran away when he saw his mother with another man—a man that she had loved even before her marriage to her son’s already dead father. The dying client had suffered much because of that incident, after that, she had brain fever. The dying client’s son was nowhere to be found even if his mother is already at her death bed because he was so angered by what he saw. The story ended as M. Le Brument would call a criminal son (Maupassant 163-171).
The narrative technique of contrasting was interesting because there were multiple contrasts within the story. First, is the character of M. Le Brument and the son, they both have differing views regarding the mother. M. Le Brument calls the son as a criminal son, because M. Le Brument thinks that the son is being selfish by leaving his dying mother alone. On the other hand, the son was simply angered because he may have felt that he and his father were betrayed by his disloyal mother. The son may have also felt that a marriage should not be broken just like that. The son had a hard time accepting her mother’s action because he shares that viewpoint that is shared by most of the people in the society. For the son, adultery is just an unacceptable act whilst for M. Le Brument, leaving one’s mother is simply a despicable act that a person could do to one’s mother. Another contrast is between the son and the dying mother. The son could serve as a representative of the conservative side of the society, with all their rules and stereotypes, whilst the dying mother could be a representative of the side of the society who is willing to subvert those rules and stereotypes because they simply have to. Love is after all almost nonexistent in written laws and no judge could ever arrive at a decision that weighs love in an objective manner.
The story “The First Snowfall” was basically about, again, a married couple, and also someone terminally ill. The character of the young woman was diagnosed to have a lung disease and was told by the doctor that she was going to die in just a few months. She was married to a relatively well-off young man. Her husband is somehow has the characteristics of being realistic and practical. Those characteristics were displayed when he talks to his wife about her wanting a better place to live in. Since she was already dying, her husband has supported her in her desire of travelling and seeing new places. (Maupassant, 200-207)
The narrative technique of contrasting is very obvious, if it were a snake it could have bitten the reader. The wife was described as the kind of person who values life, and believes that life should be enjoyed. On the other hand, her husband is characterized as being too practical and realistic, and at times even a boring person. He always tells his wife to be contented with what they have and forget her desire to waste time and money on being a free spirit. Again just like in the other previous stories, the husband could be a representative of the strict and conservative, and at most times pretentious side of the society whilst the wife could be a representative of the side of the society who is willing to go against the flow. It is also notable in the story that the couple was married for financial reasons “they had been united through financial motives which she has no knowledge about” (Maupassant, 201) Again, Guy De Maupassant had supplied us inkling as to how the 19th-century French society approach the issue of marriage. The narrative technique of contrasting was incorporated to surface an issue. This may appear as a rather nonsensical claim as there was no item in the story that its society could be contrasted to. But actually there is. Just like in the previous stories we can contrast the society of 19th century France had viewed the concept of marriage. This narrative technique makes the audience realize what they have now. The narrative technique of contrasting in the story “The First Snowfall” had revealed to us the 19th-century society’s characteristic as portrayed in the story. We can use the story and the realization that comes with it to analyze by also contrasting our society from the time back then.
Another story of Guy De Maupassant that can be also argued as one of his bests is the short story “The Necklace.” This story is considered a staple reference for many schools worldwide. The story is about a materialistic social climber by the name of Mathilde Loisel who, again just like in the other stories, had married for financial purposes simply because she wants to live the life of the wealthy. Mathilde Loisel came from a middle class family, who is not poor considering they are a family of clerks. Mathilde Loisel had married not because of love for his husband, but for the love of fancy things. Mthilde Loisel is such an epitome of the materialistic and a social climber that even simple things like a meagre meal won’t please her anymore. In the course of the story, her husband would be invited to a social gathering that only sophisticated and wealthy people would attend. She seems so spoiled especially in the scene wherein his husband was convincing about wearing a simpler outfit than what she wishes. She had expressed her being materialistic through the lines “there is nothing more humiliating than to look poor among other women who are rich” (Maupassant 274-277) As the story unfolds itself, Mathilde managed to borrow a seemingly expensive jewel. The main complication of the story is that she would lose the jewels on her way home. Mathilde and his husband had given up the relatively well-off life that they have to pay for the jewels, and for that they became real poor. The shocking ending, probably one of Guy De Maupassant’s best endings, would reveal that the jewels were fake.
The narrative technique could be described more as highlighting the interesting and very real character of Mathilde. Then after that contrasting her with every character in the story. When contrasted to her husband, Mathilde’s social climbing will be highlighted as her husband is being practical and thrifty. That is rather ironic because her husband came from a more well-off family but still contented with things of simplicity. When contrasted to the wealthy women, Mathilde would appear as a slave of conformity. She immediately has on her mind what to wear and won’t give up until she wear what she wants. When contrasted to the readers, to readers of any kind of personality, the readers would have a suggestion to review if their just like Mathilde. All people are intrinsically full of wants and desires, although the likes of Mathilde are just special cases.
The story entitled “A Tress of Hair” is basically about a debatably insane prisoner. The prison guard had read the writings of the prisoner that tells a chilling tale. The prisoner found a tress of hair and had fallen deeply in love with the thing. As the writings of the prisoner claim, the tress of hair came to life as a real woman. The prison guard was with mixed emotions of astonishment, horror, and pity for the prisoner. The prison guard had asked if the prisoner’s story could be possible. A doctor answered with the story’s last line “the mind of man is capable of anything” (Maupassant, 61-68)
The strongest contrast in that story is between the mad prisoner and the doctor. The mad prisoner claim could be translated as a representation of the concept of love, whilst the doctor counters that with logic and rational thinking. Although it seems set off, we could relate that relationship to the topic of Guy De Maupassant’s portrayal of the 19th-century society. The doctor, with his education and status, would represent the people who control the society, namely the rich and the powerful. The prisoner would represent the oppressed middle class, as his claim regarding the dead woman is immediately ignored and tagged as insanity. The prison guard was sort of brainwashed and presumptively believed the claim of the doctor.
The narrative technique of contrasting just highlights the adeptness of Guy De Maupassant in terms of his sensitivity towards human behaviour. Through juxtaposing seemingly normal characters with the other characters, exposes the human element called “imperfection” that also helps in making the readers relate more to the characters.
This essay had stated earlier in the introduction that society can’t be generalized since it is made up of individuals, each unique in many immeasurable sense. What makes the works of Guy De Maupassant a very reliable reference for analyzing the society, is its diversity. The character and themes, though some are repeating, sticks to the readers because they are unique like real humans are. The plot, as observed in this essay, is always leaning towards an unforgettable ending that supplies a realization for the reader
This narrative technique makes the audience realize what society they have now. The narrative technique of contrasting in the stories of Guy De Maupassant had revealed to us the 19th-century society’s characteristic as portrayed in the story. We can use the story and the realization that comes with it to analyze by also contrasting our society from the time back then. Moreover, if we are to apply the narrative technique of contrasting to the society back then and the society today, we may be able to unearth imperfections in our society so that we could correct them.
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