Saturday, June 14, 2008


Now that my brain has stopped obsessing about Scottish terrier barrettes, I can talk somewhat intelligently about Maupassant.

Like so many people (or at least the majority of Maupassant reviewers on Amazon), I had read a couple of short stories by Maupassant, the most anthologized being The Necklace, during high school years and then never read him again. What a shortcoming it is of contemporary American culture that Maupassant is not better appreciated!

Reading "Mon oncle Jules et autres contes" (the bilingual Dover edition, even though my French is non-existent except for the usual Mon Ami, Mon Cherie with me being worried as to the feminine/masculine ending on even these slightest usage...and I even took French lessons in high school and college; one of these days, I will put together a post on how to take 5 languages and not retain a single one) was a revelation. Maupassant can take the briefest of descriptions and reveal the psychological makeup of a character. Here's a couple of sentences describing the central character, Hector de Gribelin, in On Horseback:

Then, at twenty, a position had been found for him and he had entered the Navy Department as a clerk with an annual salary of fifteen hundred francs. He had run aground on that reef like all those who hadn't been prepared early on for life's rough combat, like all those who see life through a mist, unaware of the necessary measures and staying power, those in whom no special aptitudes, particular faculties, or fierce energies for the struggle have been inculcated since childhood, all those in whose hand no weapon or implement has been placed.

How many Hector de Gribelins do we know, those who come to life without the necessary faculties and skills to negotiate their way? The description also points to a concern that is scrutinized time and again in this brief volume of stories: the human preference for self-deception and delusion over observation. Such delusions are tied in to notions of societal status (as in On Horseback), the ego, and justification of avarice.

It should be mentioned that Maupassant was part of the Naturalist group. He was mentored by Flaubert and knew both Zola and Huysman well. I assume he must have also been friendly with Balzac, whose analysis of human psychology seems closer to Maupassant than either Flaubert or Zola. Like Balzac, Maupassant uses every single episode, every single detail to show us how greed motivates dishonesty, and leads to justifications of cruel acts. One story that I found horrifying was Pierrot about a little dog that is taken on as a guard dog by an elderly woman when onions are stolen from her garden. The problem, though, is that the woman finds the cost of feeding the dog too dear and decides to throw the dog down a quarry where it seems that dogs were regularly thrown away in this Normandy town (quite a different Normandy than Proust's Normandy). Hearing the dog yelp in fear and in pain (the dog hurt something in falling down the quarry), her feelings are then thrown into guilt and she starts throwing food down to the dog in the quarry. Initially, she tries to get someone to go down the quarry and get the dog out, but the labor charge he cites is too dear. In the end, she finds a way to justify stopping feeding the dog and letting him die.

It's not so much the death of the dog that is horrifying but watching the vacillations of emotions, the vicious cycle of parsimony and self-justification that are the two poles of her true nature and her desire to justify her actions. In the end, it reveals human nature so minutely (the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt talks about) that it's rather horrifying...cynical, yes, but also true.

However, I will also say that not all the stories are so cynical, in the same way that Balzac's novels also contain characters of goodness. There's nothing more charming than the Bohemian friendship in Mouche, the humor in Toine, and nothing more touching than the Frenchmen in Two Friends.

But what is prevalent throughout it all is a close examination of how human beings actually behave, and the inner motivations for such behavior. It's no wonder that Henry James was such an admirer.

1 comment:

Luke said...

Your thoughts on Pierrot are very interesting. Have you found Maupassant focuses on human nature in most of his books? I have just started to read Maupassant's stories?

Have you read Le Petit Prince by St. Experury - his analysis of society is rather amusing!