As I mentioned, Maupassant was a best-seller in his day. What makes his stories resonate with the modern reader is the attention to our own natural wants.
His stories capture greed (a woman wanting to look elegant for a party, no matter the cost; a man in need of money selling his wife; a parent in need of money selling his child; etc.), self-interest (a young man escaping from his pregnant girlfriend; society shunning prostitutes while yet accepting them; a family having the funeral before the loved one died for convenience), desire for power (a man lusting after a woman; a man trying to politically overtake a city), and so forth.
For a specific example, in “The Devil,” Maupassant captures our natural impatience. The son of a dying woman needs to plant his crop, so he hires a peasant woman to sit with his dying mother. But as the hired woman has been hired for a set pay, she doesn’t feel like waiting for the woman to die. I won’t tell you how this is resolved, but I will tell you I laughed out loud, horrid as it was! Humans are impatient by nature, and Maupassant wonderfully captured us.
I’ve now read between 80 and 100 stories (probably about 400 pages, skipping around the huge volume I have). As I’m moving this weekend, I had to return the book to the library.
I think I’ve had a good taste of Maupassant’s great stories. I’m sure there are other great ones out there. Tell me if I missed your favorite! (Links below are to the stories on the web; all are in the public domain.)
Stories I Would Reread
- The Necklace: A middle-class woman really wants to look nice at a social gathering so she borrows a diamond necklace from her friend….and loses it.
- The Piece of String: A stingy man finds a piece of string in the middle of the town square and stops to pick it up, changing his life.
- The False Gems: When his beloved wife dies, the man eventually must sell her cherished-but-false jewels.
- The Horla: An invisible creature follows a man, driving him crazy.
- Was it a Dream?: A man’s beloved wife died, and he morns over her grave, only to be “haunted.”
- The Father: A man abandons his girlfriend once she becomes pregnant; only later does he realize what that meant for him.
- The Devil: A peasant woman is hired to sit with a dying woman and gets impatient for her to die.
- A Sale: Why did he dump his wife in a barrel of water? The judge wants to know.
- Simon’s Papa: Simon doesn’t have a papa, and the boys in the school yard are making fun of him. He is determined to find a papa.
- Clair de Lune: A priest hates women because they are only temptresses, and nothing good can come from women. And then he learns something.
Other Good Stories
- Boule de Suif: A group of citizens, including Boule de Suif (a local prostitute), travel in a carriage together during a heavy snowstorm in the midst of the Franco-Prussian war.
- Yvette: Yvette is the daughter of a high-class prostitute, but she wants to find love and marriage in her life. (I cannot find this online; the Yvette story credited to Maupassant that I find online is different!)
- Mouche – A Boating Man’s Reminiscence: Mouche is the only woman on the boating crew and they all love her.
- A Family: A bachelor visits a long-unvisited friend whose life now “disgusts” him (he has a wife and children and certainly must be miserable).
- Moonlight: A woman has the beginning of an affair.
- In the Wood: A couple is discovered making love in a forest…
- The Kiss: An old aunt sends a young girl a letter about why kisses are so important.
Harold Bloom selected as his favorites “Madame Tellier’s Establishment” and “The Horla.”
While I didn’t really love reading “Madame Tellier’s Establishment,” it did fit in to the pattern of Maupassant’s stories that I mention above in terms of addressing aspects of human’s carnal desires. Madame Tellier’s “establishment” is a whorehouse. They all take a holiday to visit Madame Tellier’s niece’s first communion. I had an odd sense as I read it that the prostitutes weren’t really people in the society, and yet we find that they were.
“The Horla,” on the other hand, was wonderfully weird. It was written during Maupassant’s own “going crazy” stage, as were a few of his stories. As I mention above, it is about a man being followed by an invisible man, and slowing going crazy. There were some great passages in it, and I really enjoyed the sense of “is this really happening?”.
In How to Read and Why, Bloom compares and contrasts Maupassant and Chekhov, much as I did in my previous post. He has some interesting comments. (Again, he has no respect for Poe, which makes me want to go read Poe again just to prove him wrong.) He concludes with this:
Why read Maupassant? At his best, he will hold you as few others do.
Yes, Maupassant really does capture your attention!
What are you waiting for? Many Maupassant stories are very short. Read some of his stories online right now (links to specific stories above):