Book Review of Une Vie, by Guy de Maupassant: Sex as Antagonist


Guy de Maupassant Canoeing With Two Ladies
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Image credit: Giuseppe Primoli.1889. Public domain

There is a scene in Guy de Maupassant's Une Vie (A Life), where the village priest, Abbé Tolbiac, beats a dog to death. Not only is the dog chained as it is pummeled into a mangled carcass, but it is also in the process of giving birth. One of the puppies is actually born after its mother has expired.

All the puppies in the litter die, save one. The puppy is adopted, and named. It's name? Massacre. Massacre reappears throughout the book. Its fortunes parallel, to some extent, the fortunes of the main character, Jeane,Vicomtesse de Lamare.

De Maupassant has an agenda. He strips off the veneer that thinly disguises the cruelty of moral hypocrisy. The dog and its puppies represent a “ perfectly pure and natural“ (page 189, Une Vie) biological function-- as natural, Maupassant writes as “apples falling from a tree” (page 189, Une Vie). The priest represents suppression of a natural function: sex. He dedicates all his energy to repressing the natural, biological impulse of people to make love.

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Why is Abbé Tolbiac in an enraged state when he comes upon the dog?

Tolbaic is new to the village. He is replacing a jolly old priest who regarded sexual indiscretion with benign tolerance, and even amusement. He, the former priest, had been in the habit of arranging marriages for young girls who found themselves 'in the family way'. The villagers were fine with this. Life was peaceful and families flourished.

When Tolbaic learned about this custom, he was disgusted. “I shall soon have all that changed," (page 180, Une Vie) he announces. The new regime of intolerance alters the relationship of the church with the peasantry.

De Maupassant writes of the new Abbé (page 183, Une Vie):

Soon he was detested by the whole country-side. With no pity for his own weaknesses, he showed a violent intolerance for those of others. The thing above all others that roused his anger and indignation was—love.

Botteleurs Cauchois, 1827
normandy peasants François Grenier  1827 public.jpg
Image credit: François Grenier. Printed and published by Charles Motte. British Museum. Public domain Under the picture we find this description: "Female farm labourer in the Pays de Caux, Normandy, tying up a bundle of hay while on the left a resting labourer watches"--Perhaps the lascivious gaze of the male labourer would have disgusted Abbé Tolbiac.

On the day that he pummels the dog, it is love that has enraged Tolbiac. He has just learned that Jeanne's husband, the Vicomte de Lamare, is in an adulterous relationship with a neighbor, M. de Fourville . Tolbiac insists that Jeanne immediately expose the lovers.

“I have not the right to do so," Jeanne protests (page 188, Une Vie). She explains that M. de Fourville's husband will kill the adulterers if he finds out about them.

Tolbiac is apoplectic at her refusal. He turns to go, “ furious that he trembled all over “ (page 189, Une Vie) It is thus that he comes upon the dog and her puppies. He vents his rage, and when he was “unable to beat the dog any longer, he jumped on her, and stamped and crushed her under-foot in a perfect frenzy of anger. “ (page 190, Une Vie)

Then Tolbiac informs M. Fourville's husband of his wife's infidelity. The husband finds the lovers together in a hut, rolls the hut off a cliff, and their bodies are found at the bottom of a ravine. Maupassant describes these bodies in much the same way that he described the battered dog: “two bruised and mangled corpses.” (page 190, Une Vie)

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At the end of Une Vie, Jeanne is in mental and physical decline. Her husband is dead. Her parents are dead. Her only child has spent all her money and she is living on a modest sum in a small cottage. She observes in the last chapter of the book:

“I am like Massacre, before he died.” (page 260, Une Vie)

The Lovers at the Bottom of a Ravine
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Image credit: Drawing by A. Leroux, engraving by G. Lemoine, 1883. Public domain.

The role of moral hypocrisy as an antagonist occurs in much of Guy de Maupassant's writing.

In another novel, Pierre and Jean (subtitled The Crucifixion), a destructive obsession with moral rectitude becomes the driving motivation.

The main character, Pierre suspects that his younger brother was the result of an adulterous relationship his mother had with a neighbor. Pierre imagines that gossips are whispering about this disgrace. He is tormented by the thought and by the idea of his mother's transgression.

Pierre's aversion to his mother becomes manifest in everything he does. He wants her to know. He wants her to suffer. She grows distraught, not because she regrets the affair, but because she disgusts her son.

Illustration from Pierre and Jean
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Image credit: scanned from the book Pierre et Jean by Guy de Maupassant. Published 1903. Public domain.

Pierre's obsession destroys his relationship with his family. He can no longer have peace in the home but must leave. He signs up for service on a ship, and it is suggested he may not come back for years, if ever.

A Confirmand in Normandy, 1889
confirmand Elisabeth Keyser Normandy 1889 National museum public.jpg
Image credit: Elisabeth Keyser, National Museum. Public domain. The white dress of the young girl represents purity, chastity.

Guy de Maupassant (August 5, 1850–July 6, 1893) is considered by many to be the best French writer of short stories, and is one of the most influential short story writers in the world. He was a protege of Gustav Flaubert, who was renowned for his precise use of language. Flaubert's best known work, of course, is Madame Bovary. The title character in this novel commits suicide because of the 'disgrace' she has brought on her family after a failed affair with an aristocrat.

Both Flaubert and Maupassant were themselves sexually adventurous. Both contracted syphilis. Both struggled with mental decline because of the disease, and both died prematurely. Maupassant suffered from syphilitic psychosis and Flaubert died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

It is said that as Maupassant wrote Une Vie, he consulted with Flaubert. There is a consistency of theme between Madame Bovary and Une Vie. Both were character-driven novels and both were books in the naturalist school.

In Madame Bovary and Une Vie, the story begins with a young woman who has an idealized, romanticized belief in love. She is eventually destroyed “... in a male-dominated society” and becomes disillusioned “with life, religion and most importantly love.”

View of the Seacoast Near Wargemont in Normandy
Image credit: Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919),1880. Public domain. De Maupassant grew up in Normandy. This area of France is the setting for "Une Vie" and for many of the author's works. The sea figures greatly in Une Vie. Jeanne spends hours looking at the ocean and longs for it as the book nears its conclusion.

I first read stories by Guy de Maupassant when I was in high school. Years later, as a young adult, I read him again. When I rediscovered de Maupassant a few weeks ago, it was a revelation. There was so much I had missed in my earlier readings. The stories are rich in meaning that the author has carefully placed there, if we care to see.

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I recommend any story by Guy de Maupassant. Une Vie is an especially impressive book. It's not very long. You can buy a copy at Amazon for $8.00. (translated *A Woman's Life). Or, you can read it for free at Gutenberg Books. All books referenced here are available online at Gutenberg.

Picture not credited in the blog:
Silhouette accent, adapted from: Pixabay

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