Miss Harriet by Guy de Maupassant, 1883
The magic trick:
Presenting a narrator who is both sensitive but cruel
This is our second of the three Guy de Maupassant stories featured in the Isaac Babel story “Guy De Maupassant.”
I think it’s inarguably the best story of the bunch on its own merit. Very Chekhovianly modern. If that makes any sense.
I’m probably sometimes guilty of lumping Maupassant in with the O. Henry lineage of cutesy, pop short stories. But he really did a lot of different things. “Miss Harriet” surely ranks among his very best and most nuanced. It’s definitively not cutesy.
Maupassant does an interesting thing here with his narrator. He is filled with guilt and remorse about the way he once led a woman on into falling in love with him. This sensitive recognition mixes, though, with a lack of action. He doesn’t do anything to remedy the situation, even as he’s aware of it, and the brief framing device around this memory suggests that he hasn’t necessarily changed his rambling, carefree lifestyle.
This, then, becomes a very conflicted character for the reader. We see him as good and bad, complete and complicated.
And that’s quite a trick on Maupassant’s part.
“Miss Harriet gazed in rapture at the last gleams of the dying day. She seemed longing to embrace the sky, the sea, the whole landscape.
“She murmured: ‘Aoh! I love–I love’ I saw a tear in her eye. She continued: ‘I wish I were a little bird, so that I could mount up into the firmament.’
“She remained standing as I had often before seen her, perched on the cliff, her face as red as her shawl. I should have liked to have sketched her in my album. It would have been a caricature of ecstasy.
“I turned away so as not to laugh.
“I then spoke to her of painting as I would have done to a fellow artist, using the technical terms common among the devotees of the profession. She listened attentively, eagerly seeking to divine the meaning of the terms, so as to understand my thoughts. From time to time she would exclaim:
‘Oh! I understand, I understand. It is very interesting.’
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