The story published in 1880 tells of a group of ten people traveling to La Havre during the Franco-Prussian War. The group is bound together for over twelve hours in the cold and snow. All have forgotten to pack any food except for Elizabeth, Ball of Fat, who is a prostitute. No one pays any attention to her until their stomachs growl with hunger pangs. She is magnanimous and shares her food. When they finally arrive in Tôtes, the Prussian soldier decides that he wants to have sex with Elizabeth. She refuses but the rest of the group tease, cajole and trick her into succumbing to the soldier so that they may be able to continue on their trip. She does and as they make their way the entire group, even the religious "sisters," do not offer her any of their food in return. In fact, they act as though she is an untouchable. "But in the place of calling her 'Madame,' as they had up to this time, they simply called her 'Mademoiselle' without knowing exactly why, as if they had a desire to put her down a degree in their esteem, which she had taken by storm, and make her feel her shameful situation." The story indicts the church as well. "But each word of the saintly sister in a cap helped to break down the resistance of the unworthy courtesan." She was used, not only by the Prussian soldier, by her own French people. "No one looked at her or thought of her. She felt herself drowned in the scorn of these honest scoundrels who had first sacrificed her and then rejected her, like some improper or useless article."
I really like how the story, although set in the 1870's, is completely pertinent to today. People have always used and abused others. There have also always been hierarchies of social status.
"The inhabitants, shut up in their rooms, were visited with the kind of excitement that a cataclysm or some fatal upheaval of the earth brings to us, against which all force is useless."
"Then the duty commences for the conquered to show themselves gracious toward the conquerors."
"It seemed to them they should bring their married dignity into union in opposition to that sold without shame; for legal love always takes on a tone of contempt for its free confrere."
20 June, 2010
Maupassant died of syphilis when he was only forty-two years old. He is often called a master of the realist style.
This story is one of 63 stories contained in The Art of the Short Story: 52 Great Authors, Their Best Short Fiction, and Their Insights on Writing.
I enjoyed finding out about the letters Shirley Jackson received upon the publication of "The Lottery" in The New Yorker in 1948. Some of them actually wanted to know where the lotteries were held and whether they could go and watch. Crazy! That story has stuck with me since first reading it in junior high school.