A Piece Of String by Guy de Maupassant, 1883
The magic trick:
Turning what appears to be light mixup plot into a tragedy
“A Piece Of String” rolls along like a fairly light, little mixup comedy. Sure, the serious themes are there: the poor have no power; the poor have no voice; the system is stacked against them. But I never felt the weight of the message truly until it hits all at once at the story’s end. This isn’t a mixup comedy at all. This is a brutal tragedy. The way that sneaks up on the reader is a theme unto itself. I should have known, thinking back to Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” which manages much the same trick. It’s such a thin margin between mixup and death for the poor. And that’s quite a trick on Maupassant’s part.
“You will not make me believe, Maitre Hauchecorne, that M. Malandain, who is a man whose word can be relied on, has mistaken this string for a pocketbook.”
The peasant, furious, raised his hand and spat on the ground beside him as if to attest his good faith, repeating:
“For all that, it is God’s truth, M’sieu le Maire. There! On my soul’s salvation, I repeat it.”
The mayor continued:
“After you picked up the object in question, you even looked about for some time in the mud to see if a piece of money had not dropped out of it.”
The good man was choking with indignation and fear.
“How can they tell — how can they tell such lies as that to slander an honest man! How can they?”
His protestations were in vain; he was not believed.
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