Maupassant, Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories

Guy de Maupassant (1850-93), Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories. Oxford World’s Classics, 1993. Translated by David Coward.

Photo of Guy de Maupassant

Photo by Nadar, from Gallica Digital Library and is available under the digital ID btv1b53155773n, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w /index.php?curid=1250918

Born near Dieppe, Normandy in 1850, Maupassant lived from the age of eleven with his mother at Étretat, on the Normandy coast, after she obtained a legal separation from her abusive husband. This setting and background may well have influenced the largely cruel stories in this collection, notable for their unrelieved cynicism, misanthropy and depiction of shabby, mendacious, sensual Norman peasants and bourgeoisie as grasping, venal, cunning, violent and selfish.

Two years later he was placed at a school in Rouen, and hated it (I started reading this collection on the train back from my recent visit to Rouen and Normandy). This school became the basis for the characteristically bleak story here, ‘The Question of Latin’. At seventeen he met Flaubert, who as I posted recently was born in Rouen (they both attended the Lycée Corneille there, at different times), and was to become a mentor to the younger man when his writing career began, and through him was introduced to other literary figures like Zola and Turgenev, who also influenced his style and themes.

Soon after graduating in 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out; several of the stories in this collection are set during or soon after this traumatic time for the humiliated, defeated French. Although he enlisted in the military, Maupassant saw no action personally. But as David Coward points out in his introduction to this edition of selected stories, Maupassant would have seen first-hand examples of the arrogance of the conquerors – a feature of the war and post-war stories here – and the ‘spineless collaboration of local bourgeois notables.’

This misanthropic tendency is seen in most of the stories here. His view of humanity is that we’re a pretty hapless, grotesque lot, driven by implacable lusts and forces beyond our control, while religion is a fantasy to disguise the futility of existence. Morality and higher feelings are an illusion. Coward concludes that Maupassant’s bleak and cynical view of the human condition is that it’s a ‘ghastly comic farce’.

The opening story sets the tone. An apparently fanatically zealous, but deeply hypocritical priest is so outraged by the carnality of his flock – a tendency which he secretly shares – that he murders a young couple he finds fornicating in a shepherd’s wheeled hut by pushing it over a high cliff with them inside it. He’d earlier kicked a whelping bitch to death because a group of curious village children were watching this shameful scene with interest.

The ‘Fifi’ of the title story is the nickname of one of the stereotypically boorish occupying Prussian officers during the war. Despite his effeminate ways, he’s the most outrageously boastful, violently destructive and arrogant of the lot of them. His favourite pastime is gratuitously to destroy or vandalise the priceless artefacts the owners of the château in which they’re billeted had left behind. When he hires a group of girls from the local brothel to a debauched ‘party’ to entertain himself and his bored fellow officers, he goads and degrades one of the girls too far, with horrifying murderous consequences. But the girl’s desperate act of patriotism isn’t portrayed as entirely noble.

Several of the stories remind me of Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’; ‘Call it Madness?’ is narrated as a first-person rant by a madman who insists repeatedly that his murderous, irrationality isn’t mad…’ In Who Can Tell?’ the narrator believes he’s seen his furniture leaving his house one night as if animated. When it later reappears, as if by magic, in an antique shop, his precarious hold on reality finally gives way.

‘Two Friends’ appears to set up a tale destined to be less nasty as two drunken city chums set out behind enemy lines to enjoy some peaceful fishing at their favourite pitch on a river. It doesn’t end well for them.

Maupassant Fifi and Henry James lit crit coverOne of the longest and best stories is ‘Miss Harriet’. Henry James even found a vestige of ‘tenderness’ in it (it doesn’t last). She’s an ageing English spinster who catches the eye at a farmhouse inn of a philandering young artist. When he realises this religiously fanatical, virginal spinster is falling in love with him he behaves less than chivalrously, and her suffering destroys her.

So it goes on. Vengeful violence is exacted on Prussians by some French patriots, goaded out of their passivity by grief or the arrogance of their oppressors. A pretty artist’s model becomes the subject of local gossip at a holiday haunt as the story of her having to use a wheelchair reveals a sordid secret.

Women generally fare even worse than the flawed men in these tales. They are scheming and devious, intent on snaring any man foolish enough to fall for their tawdry charms, or too stupid or besotted to perceive their duplicitous greed.

‘Monsieur Parent’ is the longest and probably the nastiest in this selection. Henry James refers to its ‘triumphant ugliness’. He characterised Maupassant’s ‘most general quality’ as ‘hardness’, and the stories, which he acknowledges as ‘masterpieces’, are filled with ‘pessimism’ and are ‘extremely brutal’:

His vision of the world is for the most part a vision of ugliness…[with] a certain absence of love, a sort of bird’s-eye-view contempt.

Maupassant’s literary method involves little attempt at psychological exploration; his characters act on instinct, unreflectingly, as they feel impelled to, and that’s it. He was at pains not to reveal motivation – beyond the usual greed and cruelty. He pokes the teeming antheap of his world with his authorial stick and describes the ensuing furious turmoil – which is ‘mean, narrow and sordid’, a ‘picture of unmitigated suffering’ (James again).

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16 thoughts on “Maupassant, Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories

  1. I really like this collection. I don’t find Maupassant bleak (I’ve read books a lot bleaker) instead I find him quite fun….with a hard edge to his humour.

      • Madame Husson’s May King is probably my favourite. I especially like the description of the drunk they meet in the street (p. 172 in my edition) which initiates the main story.

        • Jonathan: I just read your piece on this story at Marvellous Maupassant, from the Everyman version where it’s translated as ‘Madame Husson’s Rose-King’ (not ‘May King’ as Coward has it – perhaps more culturally recognisable for an English reader). I presume the passage you quote there is the one you mean; you’re right, it’s a brilliant observation of a drunk’s erratic progress down the street. The accompanying yellow dog, imitating him, is a great touch.

          • Yes, it’s great isn’t it? I visualise it in the style of a ’20s silent comedy.

          • Or Dean Martin doing his imitation of a lush’s lurching back-and-forth walk (maybe not an imitation, being him) – as I said on your site. It’s interesting, too, how the comic story of the innocent virgin becoming a hopeless drunk is framed by the interminable boasting by one of the two frame narrators about his dreary small town’s imagined former glories. I suppose it’s another symptom of the provincial’s skewed, myopic world view, and inflated sense of importance. And the moral sense is the most fragile part of it all.

    • I’ve not read that yet, but understand it’s in the same vein as ‘Mlle Fifi’ in tone and theme. French resistance to Prussian oppression. Maupassant understood pain, it seems to me. Saw the humour in the human comedy…

  2. Fascinating background to put these stories into a broader context. I must admit that I’ve read very little Maupassant, certainly not enough to have formed a view of his overriding style or themes. This sounds like a particularly bruising read – downright brutal in fact. I think I would find the lack of psychological exploration somewhat vexing. Simenon can be incredibly brutal and bleak, but he does delve into the psychology of his characters and their underlying frustrations.

    • Coward (and HJ) perhaps understate M’s capacity for psychological exploration. I suppose what they mean is that there’s little narrative commentary on characters’ actions, motivations, etc. We have to figure this out for ourselves. Nothing wrong with that. But at times it seems the case that people just behave like animals – instinctive, no introspection or later reflection on consequences. But in Miss Harriet, for example, it’s there, not just implicitly. So maybe I need to look at some of the stories (and others from his oeuvre of some 300) more closely after this general overview of the collection. I’ve been doing it with HJ (though not for a while; must get back to it now I have more time on my hands) and made a desultory effort with Cheever some time back. Best laid plans, etc.

  3. I’ve read a little Maupassant and agree that he really does have a dark view of humanity. He’s fascinating reading, but I’m interested in what you say about the female characters. In the stories I’ve read I sensed a sympathy for the women’s plight often seeping through. Maybe that’s missing here. Definitely for when you’re feeling in the mood for misanthropy! 😀

    • Mostly his women characters are pretty despicable, but some are more worthy, like Miss Harriet – and even she is a fanatically evangelical puritan, her solitary weirdness mitigated by her genuine love of nature. Her treatment by the artist is done sympathetically, too. Maybe there’s a slight sense that women have to be scheming and single-minded, given their lack of agency and status in society – and let’s face it, most of the men characters are just downright nasty or stupid. Must return to some of the other stories I read decades ago; maybe this collection focused on the darker stuff. There are glimmers of light in there, though, as Jonathan pointed out in his comment (and on the Marvellous Maupassant blog – which I’d recommend)

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