Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant, 1880
The magic trick:
Setting up a large, representative cast of charcters, and then using adversity to expose their flaws
A story so famous it’s better known in America by its French title rather than the translation. Certainly, it lays out the template for the classic John Ford western Stagecoach.
I concede almost total ignorance regarding the Franco-Prussian War. So this is another neat instance where fiction can teach history. The story neatly portrays a cross-section of 1870s French society. It’s wartime, so, naturally, there is a level of stress established from the start of the story. But the characters each seem to maintain an air of bourgeois calm. They’ve made a decision to ensure their own comfort, so they still have a sense of control.
As the story goes on, adversity hits. And this really is the heart of the narrative. Maupassant exposes his characters as hypocrites. They do not pass the test presented them when problems arise on their journey. It’s a perfect way to illustrate your social critique.
And that’s quite a trick on Maupassant’s part.
Beside them, dignified in bearing, belonging to a superior caste, sat Monsieur Carre-Lamadon, a man of considerable importance, a king in the cotton trade, proprietor of three spinning-mills, officer of the Legion of Honor, and member of the General Council. During the whole time the Empire was in the ascendancy he remained the chief of the well-disposed Opposition, merely in order to command a higher value for his devotion when he should rally to the cause which he meanwhile opposed with “courteous weapons,” to use his own expression.
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