13 November 2007

Guy de Maupassant - A Woman's Life

Maupassant is known as a short story writer, but he wrote 6 novels, of which this is possibly his best, by reputation. It's a simple story, of a woman who marries when young, has a difficult marriage to a man who betrays her, and a son who wastes all the family money.

It's a rather depressing story, expertly told. Many of Maupassant's stories have the same cynicism about life, the cruelty of events and of people. This novel is full of his greatest virtues - the attention to emotional nuance, the precision and conciseness of the prose, and the indulgence in lyrical beauty - which mean reading it is a delight, even though the emotions evoked are of pity.

The book depicts a fatalistic attitude. Things happen to Jeanne, the innocent are victims of the ruthless, the avaricious and the careless. There's much of that in Balzac too, but he has active protagonists, whereas Jeanne, the woman of the title, is passive, helplessly accepting life's buffeting. She's a pathetic heroine, but we have sympathy for her because of her simplicity - her naive love for her husband and her son leads to her ruin.

Her life is contrasted with that of her previous maid, Rosalie, who she grew up with, and who was seduced by and made pregnant by Jeanne's husband. Rosalie's toughness and rough honesty is part of Maupassant's characterisation of Norman peasantry, who feature in many of his stories, often as comic butts, but here with respect and affection.

Maupassant's attention to minor characters is notable - Aunt Lison, the old maid, is frequently present, but never noticed, and the small cruelty of Jeanne laughing at the idea that anyone might consider marrying her is very touching. This is typical of his short stories, which occasionally are based around just one example of an exquisite moment.


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