Boule de Suif

Boule de Suif is a short story by the late-19th century French writer Guy de Maupassant. It is arguably his most famous short-story, and is the title story for his collection on the Franco-Prussian War, entitled "Boule de Suif et Autres Contes de la Guerre" ("Boule de Suif and Other Stories of the War"). It may have been the inspiration for Ernest Haycox's short story The Stage to Lordsburg, which in turn inspired the film Stagecoach. In 2006 the Glimmerglass Opera produced an opera based on the short story The Greater Good or The Passion of Boule de Suif composed by Stephen Hartke with Libretto by Phillip Littell.

Summary

The story is set in the Franco-Prussian War and follows a desperate group of French civilians fleeing Rouen, recently occupied by the Prussians. The ten travellers decide, for various reasons, to leave Rouen and flee to Le Havre in a stagecoach. Sharing the carriage are the prostitute Boule de Suif (Suet Dumpling Butterball - a large lady was particularly attractive at such a time of common hardship), whose real name is Elisabeth Rousset, the strict Republican Cornudet, a shop-owning couple from the petty bourgeoisie, M. and Mme. Loiseau, a wealthy upper-bourgeoisie factory-owner and his wife, M. and Mme. Carré-Lamadon, the Comte and Comtesse of Bréville, and two nuns. Due to the terrible weather, the coach moves very slowly and by midday has only covered a few miles. The occupants initially snub Boule de Suif but their attitudes change when the woman produces a picnic basket full of lovely food and offers to share its contents with the hungry travellers.

At the village of Tôtes, the carriage stops at the local coaching inn, and the occupants, hearing a German voice, realise they have blundered into Prussian-held territory. A Prussian officer detains the party at the inn indefinitely without telling them why. Over the next two days, the travellers become increasingly impatient, and are finally told by Boule de Suif that they are being detained until she agrees to sleep with the officer. She is repeatedly called before the officer, and always returns in a heightened state of agitation. Initially, the travellers support her and are furious at the officer's arrogance, but their indignation soon disappears as they grow angry at Boule de Suif for not sleeping with the officer and allowing their journey to continue. Over the course of the next two days, the travellers use various examples of logic and morality to convince her it is the right thing to do; she finally gives in and sleeps with the officer, who allows them to leave the next morning.

As they continue on their way to Le Havre, these 'representatives of Virtue' ignore Boule de Suif and turn to polite topics of conversation, glancing scathingly at the young woman while refusing to even acknowledge her, and refusing to share their food with her in the same way that she did at the beginning. As the coach travels on into the night, Cornudet starts whistling the Marseillaise while Boule de Suif seethes with rage against the other passengers, and finally weeps for her lost dignity.

Themes

The main theme focuses on French resistance to the German occupiers during the war. During the first half of the story, the narrator explains the background of each of the occupants, with particular emphasis on the petty bourgeois Republican, Cornudet, who is said to have devised all manner of defences for Rouen. The overriding theme is that while the occupants talk a great deal about resisting the invaders, they are ultimately running away in a cowardly fashion rather than staying in the town. This first section of the story also establishes that the most fiercely patriotic passenger is Boule de Suif herself, an insignificant and unpopular character in Rouen, while the aristocrats and bourgeois are portrayed as happier to betray their country in order to end the war and return to their comfortable lives. In this respect, Maupassant praises the patriotic fervour of the inhabitants of the provinces, in sharp contrast to other French writers of the period who accused provincial French citizens of being apathetic and cowardly. Boule de Suif's personal resistance grows throughout the story; when the coach is stopped by the Germans at the village of Tôtes, the other passengers meekly follow the officer's orders while Boule de Suif refuses to co-operate as easily. Boule de Suif's resistance to the officer's sexual advances again shows her patriotism, something which is noticed by the other characters, who comment that although it is Boule de Suif's job to sleep with men, she patriotically refuses to allow herself to be conquered by the German officer.

Like Maupassant's other short stories on the Franco-Prussian War, the story has an underlying theme of stereotyping the Germans. The German troops holding Rouen are hinted at as dull and slow-witted, garrisoning an out-of-the-way town and getting in the way of the French inhabitants, for no apparent purpose. The German officer at the inn is portrayed in the same way as Maupassant depicts German officers throughout his stories; the officer is shown as being arrogant, morally dubious, and unfeeling. The description of the officer in his room at the inn suggests that he is pointlessly destructive, uncultured, and boorish, while his soldiers are portrayed as stereotypical Teutons; they follow his orders blindly and seem to be incapable of independent thought.

The theme of class barrier is also tackled in the story. Throughout the story, Maupassant portrays the inhabitants of the coach in various disparaging ways. The aristocratic Comte and Comtesse are revealed to be weak and cowardly in spite of their position as the chief dignitaries of Rouen. The manufacturer and his wife are constantly portrayed as greedy and materialistic, and the manufacturer's wife in particular is always shown to be shocked whenever her husband spends any money. The petit bourgeois wine-seller and his wife are shown as corrupt and morally reprehensible, the most likely of the party to betray their country simply to return to a life of greed in peace. The two nuns travelling in the coach are at first portrayed as quiet and subservient to God, and later show themselves as fiery, patriotic, and doing more for their country than the other occupants of the coach: the nuns claim to be travelling to a military hospital to treat wounded French soldiers, thus offering the deciding argument towards persuading Boule de Suif to abandon her resistance. The narrator offers to excuse their crafty argumentation as accidental stupidity, but the nuns' base behavior as they fail to share food with the courtesan raises a question mark if not necessarily on their story then on their altruistic motivation. Cornudet, the Republican, is repeatedly shown as a man who talks a lot about Republicanism, but is little more than a drunken, lecherous, and cowardly man who is not prepared to stand up for his vicious anti-German beliefs when the time comes. In contrast to all of these is Boule de Suif herself, revealed to be the most fiercely patriotic, kind-hearted, and morally admirable character, which Maupassant contrasts with the hypocrisy and snobbery of the other travellers. Despite being shunned by the other occupants at first, she gladly shares her picnic basket with the hungry occupants of the coach, but at the end of the novel, when she has no food for the other half of the journey, the coach's other occupants refuse to share their food with her, an ingratitude made even worse by the fact that it was Boule de Suif's personal sacrifice that allowed them to leave. Her self-sacrifice in sleeping with the German officer underlines her personal courage and the blind hypocrisy of the other travellers; the travellers go to great lengths to persuade Boule de Suif to sleep with the officer in order that he will let the coach continue its journey, and the travellers fill Boule de Suif's head with arguments, arguing that it is for the good of the country, that it is not morally wrong to sleep with the officer in order to let the travellers leave, and that the longer she waits, the more young French soldiers will die as the nuns are not there to look after them. When Boule de Suif gives in and sleeps with the officer, the rest of the travellers throw a party without her, and when the coach finally leaves the next morning, they treat her with utter disgust and contempt despite the fact that she has freed them, and that it was they who induced her to lose her dignity.

Publication history

First published in 1884 in Les Soirées de Médan, a collection of Naturalist short stories dealing with the Franco-Prussian war.

References

External links

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