Boule de Suif is one of Maupassant’s more famous stories and it is the one that first made him famous. The story first appeared in the 1880 collection of stories called Les Soirées de Médan which were all centred around the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1. The collection also included stories by Zola and Huysmans. When Flaubert, Maupassant’s mentor, read it he was ecstatic, he wrote:
I am impatient to tell you that I consider Boule de Suif a masterpiece. Yes, young man! Nothing more, nothing less. It is the work of a master. It is original in conception, well constructed from beginning to end, and written in excellent style.
I think that most people who read the story today will agree with Flaubert as did the readers at the time of publication.
The story opens with the defeated French army passing through Rouen. The Prussians soon occupy the town and the soldiers are billeted with the townspeople. Le Havre is still in the hands of the French and several of the wealthy inhabitants of Rouen, with the Prussians’ permission, arrange a carriage destined for Le Havre. They leave at daybreak while snow is still falling. The occupants of the coach consist of a petits bourgeois couple, a bourgeois couple, an aristocratic couple, two nuns, a democrat Cornudet and hidden away in the corner is someone that the others disapprove of:
The woman, one of those usually known as a good-time girl, was famous for the premature portliness which had earned her the nickname Boule de Suif. Small, round as a barrel, fat as butter and with fingers tightly jointed like strings of small sausages, her glowing skin and the enormous bosom which strained under the constraints of her dress — as well as her freshness, which was a delight to the eye — made her hugely desirable and much sought after. She had a rosy apple of a face, a peony bud about to burst into bloom. Out of it looked two magnificent dark eyes shaded by thick black lashes. Further down was a charming little mouth complete with invitingly moist lips and tiny, gleaming pearly-white teeth. She was said to possess a variety of other inestimable qualities.
The respectable women disapprovingly discuss her presence in the carriage whilst the businessmen talk of business matters. The carriage makes slow progress through the snow and because of the war there are no inns open. Everyone becomes hungry, and it turns out that Boule de Suif is the only one who has brought along provisions. Slowly, they accept her offers of food and as a result they become friendly towards her. Although the others are leaving Rouen mostly for monetary reasons, Boule de Suif is leaving because she can’t bear to see the sight of Prussian soldiers occupying a French town.
They arrive at Tôtes in the evening. They are greeted by a Prussian officer and allowed to take rooms in a hotel. Once they are settled the innkeeper tells Boule de Suif that the officer would like to see her. She reluctantly goes but returns, cursing the officer. The following day the travellers are prevented from continuing their journey by order of the officer. It turns out that the officer will only allow them to continue their journey once Boule de Suif has slept with him. The officer sends the innkeeper to find out if she has changed her mind but she indignantly refuses to capitulate:
Boule de Suif remained standing. At first very pale, she suddenly turned crimson, choking so much with rage that she was unable to speak. Finally she burst out: ‘Tell that bastard, that sod of a Prussian, that I never will, d’you hear? Never, never, never!’
If you don’t want to know the ending of the story you may wish to stop reading at this point.
The others are initially shocked and angrily disapprove of the officer’s uncouth behaviour and sympathise with Boule de Suif’s position. But, as the days drag on they become less sympathetic towards her. They begin to resent her, a lowly prostitute, preventing them from continuing their journey. After all, they reason, all she’s being asked to do is what she does for a living anyway. They try to convince her to give in to the officer’s demands but have little luck at first. When the nuns reveal that they are trying to get to Le Havre to nurse French soldiers Boule de Suif eventually goes to see the officer. Meanwhile, the other travellers celebrate, getting drunk and telling risqué stories. Only Cornudet, the democrat, seems to be concerned over the way they’re behaving.
The following day the carriage is allowed to leave. Boule de Suif enters the carriage timidly and everyone is embarrased.
At first no one spoke. Boule de Suif dared not look up. She felt simultaneously angry with her neighbours, humiliated by having given in to them, and defiled by the caresses of the Prussian into whose arms they had so hypocritically thrown her.
But her humiliation is not over yet. Now, with normality restored, they can ignore Boule de Suif completely and to really dig the knife in they all get their parcels of food out and start tucking in. Boule de Suif of course has not got any food with her; the others ignore her as they eat and chat away. Their incredible hypocrisy angers her but she is soon overcome with tears; Mme Loiseau tells the others that she’s crying ‘from shame, that’s all’.
The travellers are a good cross-section of French ‘civilised society’, with the exception of Boule de Suif of course, but it is only she that is patriotic, honest and honourable. The others are revealed to be mean-spirited, callous, greedy and self-centred. Even the nuns are shown in a bad light as it is their story of helping the wounded soldiers that was the final argument that convinced Boule de Suif to go against her own decision. And in the final scene no-one, not even Cornudet, shows her any compassion or shares any food with her. Instead, she just sits in the carriage sobbing ashamed of herself and angry at the others.
The Flaubert quotation was taken from Maupassant (1950) by Francis Steegmuller and the Boule de Suif quotations were taken from Siân Miles’ translation from the Penguin collection, A Parisian Affair and Other Stories (2004).
This was cross-posted on my blog, Intermittencies of the Mind.