“Elle se sentait en même temps indignée contre tous ses voisins et humiliée d’avoir cédé, souillée par les baisers de ce Prussien entre les bras duquel on l’avait hypocritement jetée.”
– She was conscious at the same time of anger against all her neighbours and humiliation at having given way, as if she had been defiled by the embraces of the Prussian, into whose arms their hypocrisy had cast her.
Maupassant’s 19th Century ‘Boule de Suif’ centres around the character of Élisabeth Rousset, or Boule de Suif as she is more famously known. Arguably his most celebrated work, in it Maupassant uses the interactions of a French prostitute with members of higher society to explore social attitudes in France post-Franco-Prussian war, and tell of a selfishness and moral corruption widespread amongst the wealthy at the time.
And so he begins by setting the scene, describing a faltering French army as they pass through Boule de Suif’s hometown of Rouen. Maupassant writes:
“They were not disciplined units, but hordes of stragglers.”
and later follows on with:
“Guerilla units with high sounding names, the Death or Glory Boys, the Diehards, the Legion of Death, passed through, looking like brigands.”
Here, what is evident from the offset is a sense of complete disarray amongst France’s military forces, the concept of ‘stragglers’ at stark odds with the ‘disciplined units’ an army typically consists of. This bleak portrayal of defeat is compounded upon twofold when the reader considers the sheer number affected, ‘hordes’ more akin to describing vast numbers of swarming insects than a battalion of military men, and perhaps more importantly, the ranking of soldiers torn apart by battle. It is in the description of strong tactical teams being reduced to little more than common bandits that a real sense of despondency, if not already present, certainly now begins creeping into the narrative, for if those with the fiercest of names to mirror the toughest of reputations too had been broken, what would the nation do next?
Enter Boule de Suif who, though no marksman or soldier, finds herself on a coach leaving Rouen, heady patriotism forcing her on the run for already once having tried to strangle the Prussian enemy. Accompanied by passengers supposedly loftier than she, whose disdainful aloofness only begins to soften with starvation and her offer of food, Boule de Suif recounts the tale with fervour:
“But when I saw these Prussians, I couldn’t stick it. Everything in me revolted, and I cried with shame all day. Oh! If only I were a man!”
This opening of her recounting past events the reason for her leaving offers the reader a real insight into Boule de Suif, and tells of a strength of character perhaps not automatically attributed to her due to previous hostility towards her from her travelling companions. In the first instance, a sense of deep-rooted patriotism is introduced here, with Boule de Suif’s tears of shame highlighting a personal anguish at having even considered entertaining the enemy by providing food. With her exclamations though, Boule de Suif then takes national pride one step further. By wishing she was a man, if even only for a moment, she accepts the shortcomings of the female role in 19th Century post-war France, and tells of a fierce loyalty would that she could surpass this. Though no marksman or soldier, it is in these very exclamations that Boule de Suif tells of the damage she could do if only she were.
It is with this very same demonstration of patriotic sentiment, both within and whilst recounting the tale of that which came to pass, that Boule de Suif begins to earn a reluctant respect and solidarity from her fellow travelers. And as her sympathies for Bonaparte too become apparent, she finds herself allied with the two highest ranking ladies in the coach who:
“…felt attracted in spite of themselves to this dignified prostitute, whose sentiments bore such a strong resemblance to their own.”
What is interesting to note here is that as attitudes towards Boule de Suif grow warmer and less hostile, Maupassant reflects this change in tone through the language used to describe his protagonist – ‘dignified prostitute’ is a far cry from the ‘shameless hussy’ the reader is introduced to at the start of the coach ride. Indeed one could go as far as saying that throughout the rest of the story, it is in fact lexical choice on the part of Boule de Suif’s description that is more telling of attitudes towards her at the time than Maupassant’s description of events. Below is a case in point where, soon after the arrival of the coach at Tôtes, Boule de Suif is sent for by a Prussian officer:
“Everyone regretted that it was not one of the others who had been sent for instead of this quick-tempered, uncompromising harlot…”
Not long after winning them over with her fierce national pride, Boule de Suif once again finds herself on the receiving end of the scorn of her travelling companions as her absence keeps them waiting. Here, it is not in Maupassant’s telling of their actions, but rather his use of descriptive language when indicating their attitudes towards her which makes this clear. Whilst regret conveys a mild sort of sorrow, this is offset by the harshness of the words that follow next. In the case of ‘quick-tempered’ for example, this brings to mind a fiery spirit whose presence is ‘quick’ to appear, and perhaps thus is not always justified. This no doubt negative attribute sets the tone for the knocking Boule de Suif takes once again, and it is the continuation with the word ‘uncompromising’ which goes on to highlight attitudes harsher still. Here, Boule de Suif is repackaged as a headstrong and blinded character, unwilling to bend to accept circumstance or change; ironically, it is the exact same sentiment which, in the tale of her unwavering French loyalty, allied the party to her that is now a source of frustration to those who sang her praises. Perhaps most telling of all though, when highlighting the change in attitude towards her through her description, is the almost complete reversion to derogatory terminology when referring to Boule de Suif, ‘harlot’ arguably somewhat less crude than ‘shameless hussy’, but no doubt at odds with when she was a once ‘dignified prostitute’.
This is the first of many instances where attitudes towards Boule de Suif freeze and thaw depending on the impact her presence has on social circumstance, and it is in this that Maupassant introduces the concepts of selfishness and questionable morality into his affluent characters. This can be more clearly seen in the sequence of changing attitudes following her visit to the Prussian officer. When Boule de Suif tells of the reason for her summons for example, as initially there is no immediate negative impact of this news, outraged sentiment from her companions flows free and instant:
“There was a chorus of execration against this contemptible soldier, a burst of anger which united the whole party to resist, as if each was involved in the sacrifice demanded.”
Where moments before the travelling party were united in their attitudes against her, in this example there is no doubting the inclusive unity of the group, with Boule de Suif very much a part of it. Further, following her passionate outburst when telling of what the Prussian wanted, it seems Boule de Suif’s heightened emotional state is at least in some part responsible, becoming infectious and passing from one person to another to ally them all in her favour. This much is evident on considering the end of the aforementioned example:
“…as if each was involved in the sacrifice demanded.’
For the collective strength of the objection to appear so, where once Boule de Suif’s line of work rendered her so far outside the realms of dignity she was considered a pariah, it is clear that some kind of heightened emotion is a driving force here. One could even go as far as saying it is more a patriotic fervour than some infectious passion which is at play, causing the group to denounce the same type of proposition with moral outrage from the offset whilst simultaneously overlooking the hypocrisy of their attitudes. The importance of this is twofold. In the first instance, Maupassant highlights that the travelling party is capable of solidarity with his protagonist by way of patriotism for a second time, suggesting that for all their hostility, there are still some values to which they hold true. As these shows of unity are interspersed with cold disdain though when her presence causes inconvenience, the solidarity here only serves to reinforce its absence at earlier points in the narrative. The resultant portrayal then is that of a group of people who, at best, are faltering in their ideals, and at worst, possess only self-interest, making Boule de Suif seem steadfast and principled in comparison. Secondly, it is in this recognition of heightened emotion dictating attitude that Maupassant seems to also introduce an element of foreshadowing into his narrative; with the fickle nature of the company already once demonstrated, it is almost as if the reader is being warned this show of unity with Boule de Suif is not set to last, particularly as it stems from such intense emotion.
This indication of a possible later downfall of Boule de Suif becomes evident not long afterwards, as by the next morning, we see the flames of moral outrage have been abruptly doused with time:
“There was now a feeling of annoyance with the prostitute for not having gone secretly to the Prussian, in order to have a pleasant surprise for her companions in the morning.”
Though also explicitly clear here, again it is through the use of descriptive language surrounding Boule de Suif we see solidarity slip away from her travelling companions – once more the inconvenience of her presence serves to highlight the class divide and she becomes nothing but ‘the prostitute’ yet again. In addition, whereas before she was at least given a quality used to offset the label when she was referred to as ‘this dignified prostitute’, this time not only is this not the case, but here ‘this’ is replaced with ‘the’ also. With this Maupassant creates further distance between his protagonist and her companions, as if they have nothing to do with her and a problem of her supposed making. Having already laid the groundwork for a group whose first concern seems to be themselves, this further dissociation in turn serves to reinforce the selfish nature of the travelling party. This negative portrayal is then compounded upon as the concept of questionable morality is also introduced here through lexical choice when Maupassant writes:
“…in order to have a pleasant surprise for her companions…”
At first glance, the inclusion of the word ‘pleasant’ merely seems to be an innocent reference to the freedom they would all be afforded if Boule de Suif were to accept the condition the Prussian officer had imposed. When though this is considered alongside their strong objection to Boule de Suif being so propositioned just the night before, something else becomes clear. On being given an explanation behind the Prussian’s summons, in the earlier quote he is described by the travelling party as despicable in no uncertain terms. This patriotic anger unites the group so well that there is no further talk of the freedom that could be bought with Boule de Suif’s favours, and therein lies the rub. For her companions to now consider it a ‘pleasant surprise’, which thus far is described as only obtainable through Boule de Suif’s actions, this suggests the prospect of freedom has become more enticing and important than the compromises or sacrifices she would have to make to secure it. In short then, it is Maupassant’s use of the word ‘pleasant’ which indicates the desire to move on from Tôtes weighs more heavily than any honour of Boule de Suif’s they had moments before been all too ready to defend. This reconsideration and undermining of patriotic principles begins to paint the travelling party as even more unscrupulous than first portrayed, as moral ambiguity amongst them becomes clear and the hypocrisies of their attitudes are brought to light once again.
From this point onwards, the group’s depiction goes from bad to worse as they begin to discuss amongst themselves the trouble Boule de Suif has supposedly created. Maupassant first broaches this discussion by way of the Loiseau couple, crooked wholesale wine merchants closer in social standing to Boule de Suif than any of the others. He writes of Loiseau the husband:
“Loiseau, gauging the general feeling, suddenly asked if “that bitch” intended to make them stay much longer in such a hole.”
Through Loiseau’s use of language here, and as he is described as almost speaking for the group, the reader is presented with a further evolution of their position on the Prussian’s offer. In the first instance, himself and his companions were disgusted by it, and what it demanded of Boule de Suif. Then, as explored with the previous quote, her sacrifice is implied as being less important than the freedom they all would gain. Finally, through the use of this quote, we see them occupy a position Maupassant describes them as maintaining until the end of the narrative. In this example, through his use of crude language, not only does Loiseau betray an absence of class, but he takes Boule de Suif down another peg as she goes from being ‘the prostitute’ to ‘that bitch’. By replacing the definite article with a pronoun here, again the concept of dissociation comes into play as Loiseau further distances himself from Boule de Suif, making his crude reference to her perhaps somewhat easier to swallow. In addition, though many a time she has been referred to in less than flattering terms, the quotation marks surrounding Loiseau’s reference is indicative of language that was spoken and not merely collective thought, as some of the aforementioned examples read as. This combination of further dissociation, crude referring and spoken language demonstrates the most outright hostility towards Maupassant’s protagonist thus far, and it is this in turn that tells of an evolution of group thought. As Loiseau is described as ‘gauging the general feeling’ before speaking, his outright hostility indicates the travelling party’s belief that Boule de Suif holds the cards to their freedom and is intentionally preventing them from leaving, any compromises she would have to make of such insignificance they have all but been forgotten.
Such a view does not bode well for Boule de Suif and the future of her patriotic refusal. Having already used changing circumstance to show his wealthier characters as selfish, and of questionable morality, Maupassant then uses the remainder of the narrative to go on to explicitly highlight moral corruption in them as well. This turning point is primarily achieved through the discussion had in Boule de Suif’s absence on how best to offer her up to the Prussian, as the resultant plan implemented not long afterwards and its aftermath serve to reinforce this. An early example can be seen on considering the womenfolk of the group, and the second half of the Loiseau couple, Mme Loiseau. If the crude language of her husband was a shock amongst a travelling party attempting to portray themselves as comparative sophistication to Maupassant’s protagonist, Mme Loiseau’s rhetoric is jaw-dropping in its explicit vulgarity:
“Since it is the slut’s job to do this with any man, I don’t consider how she has the right to refuse one man rather than another.”
And thus the floodgates open. Like her husband before her, Mme Loiseau vents her frustrations to her companions, her language too betraying an absence of class, but it is in how far she takes her speech that the concept of moral corruption becomes clear. On the one hand, Mme Loiseau left Rouen with her husband to evade Prussian forces, and was also party to the solidarity offered to Boule de Suif in both cases of patriotic demonstration. And yet on the other, as soon as her selfish liberties are threatened, not only does she find blame in Boule de Suif like her husband before her, but she goes a step further and actively allies herself with the Prussian opposition. This newfound allegiance is not so much evidenced through the use of derogatory terminology towards Maupassant’s protagonist, but rather is seen when Mme Loiseau refers to the Prussian solider as ‘one man’ in comparison. Here, she effectively normalises his character from of the same ilk as the enemy soldiers she once fled to a fellow human being, and in doing so, Mme Loiseau begins to normalise in turn his proposition also. This, coupled with her refuting Boule de Suif’s very right to her own body, makes clear that the two women are no longer on the same team. It is in unveiling this darker aspect to Mme Loiseau that Maupassant explicitly tells of the moral corruption in her character, as the complete abandonment of patriotism combined with the eagerness of self-preservation and personal advancement paint a damning picture.
As the majority of the rest of the group join the conversation, so much can also be said of them as well. Maupassant writes:
“They quickly recovered their spirits, so entertaining did the discussion become in the end.”
Here, as the reader is told of the conversation being ‘entertaining’, the resultant atmosphere conjured up is one of light-hearted conviviality, despite the fact that the loss of a woman’s dignity and principles are the topic of conversation. This real lack of gravitas surrounding the discussion not only highlights yet again of how little importance Maupassant’s protagonist is to the rest of the group, but also further demonstrates the true nature of the other wealthy characters who join in. For them to have an easy and open discussion on how Boule de Suif could be made to give in paints the group an uglier hue than they already appear, as not content with ignoring the weight of her sacrifice through complaint, they turn to actively trying to force her hand. In addition, as Maupassant’s ‘entertaining’ also presents the conversation as a source of amusement to all who partake in it, he explicitly tells of a festering moral corruption within them as well. This is because here, by taking delight in the concoction of plans designed first and foremost to rip Boule de Suif’s ideals from her, a perverse lack of morality is seen jostling for first place beside self-interest, as they revel in her downfall as much as their own freedom. And therein lies the crux of Maupassant’s narrative.
As he continues with the remainder of his tale, the reader is presented with duplicity from his wealthy characters as they try to portray themselves as allies of Boule de Suif to put their plans into motion. Unlike before though, where this hand of friendship may have been believed as genuine, we have seen enough of their true natures to know better, and this leaves the reader with one last thought to consider. Having already highlighted the selfish and corrupt driving forces of affluent characters in the post-war period, Maupassant concludes by ultimately telling of a society also able to present a front when needed, and act in accordance with it as long as necessary. This begs the question, did Boule de Suif ever really find allies in her travelling companions, or was each episode of solidarity a politely restrained façade? Because as Maupassant reminds us, in 19th Century post-war France at least,
“l’amour légal le prend toujours de haut avec son libre confrère.”
– Legitimate love is always scornful of its free-lance sister.