A Duel: Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant uses duel as farce in Bel Ami. His main character, Georges (the Bel Ami of the title) is more or less pushed into a duel against a rival journalist, and in order to go through with it, Bel Ami polishes off a bottle of brandy. Of course, the danger is exaggerated, later, with each subsequent retelling of the almost comical event.

In the short story, A Duel, Maupassant presents an entirely different scenario. It’s post Franco-Prussian war, and France is overrun with the victors.

The war was over. The Germans occupied France. The whole country was pulsating like a conquered wrestler beneath the knee of his victorious opponent.

On a train going to join his wife and children who are safe in Switzerland, is a certain M. Dubois “who during the entire siege had served as one of the National Guard in Paris.” Dubois is an unprepossessing figure:

Famine and hardship had not diminished his big paunch so characteristic of the rich, peace-loving merchant. He had gone through the terrible events of the past year with sorrowful resignation and bitter complaints at the savagery of men. Now that he was journeying to the frontier at the close of the war, he saw the Prussians for the first time, although he had done his duty on the ramparts and mounted guard on many a cold night.

Dubois isn’t happy to find himself surrounded by Prussians, and “he stared with mingled fear and anger at those bearded armed men, installed all over French soil as if they were at home, and he felt in his soul a kind of fever of impotent patriotism.” Also in the same railway carriage are two Englishmen who are there as sightseers.  The train stops at a village and a Prussian officer enters. The Englishmen stare with interest at the Prussian while Dubois pretends to read the newspaper. But in spite of Dubois’ attempts to avoid conflict, he’s provoked repeatedly by the Prussian officer who goads and insults Dubois until he can take no more. Given that the title of the story is A Duel, it’s easy to guess where the action goes.

But while the story touches on patriotism (from the author as well as from the characters), the story is also a piece on temperament. The Prussian is spoiling for his next fight while the “impassive” Englishmen are caught in the middle as spectators:

The Englishmen seemed to have become indifferent to all that was going on, as if they were suddenly shut up in their own island, far from the din of the world.

Maupassant volunteered during the Franco-Prussian war and many of his stories, including the unforgettable Boule de Suif (Butterball) are set during the period. While A Duel isn’t one of Maupassant’s  best short stories, it’s interesting for how Maupassant portrays the duel in this instance. A duel is a means of obtaining satisfaction, settling arguments, and while Bel Ami’s duel was really an empty, meaningless event, the duel here is brisk and brutal.

7 pages

Translated by A.E. Henderson & Mme Louise Quesada

4 thoughts on “A Duel: Guy de Maupassant

  1. The role of the Englishmen puzzled me. Is this just slightly Anglophobic satire? Or do they also represent neutral outsiders who witness atrocities but don’t intervene- just watch pruriently? I like this ambiguity

  2. PS to that comment about the English bystanders: they seem to me to be more morally atrophied versions of the two comical cricket-mad characters, Caldicott and Charters, played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, also co-passengers who witness nasty events and victimisation on a dangerous train journey, in Hitchcock’s 1938 film The Lady Vanishes. They’re so intent on getting back to England for a test match that they selfishly pretend not to have seen what the heroine claims has happened: the abduction of Miss Froy. Towards the end they abandon their toxic neutrality and commit themselves to the anti-Fascist cause. Maupassant’s Englishmen serve to heighten the sense of isolation of the little, insignificant, unbellicose Frenchman, who we’re told at the start of the duel has never even fired a gun; he’s up against a seasoned soldier, presumably a crack shot and veteran of other such duels. The odds against him are immense, but still the Englishmen do nothing to help or intervene…

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