Maupassant: The father of modern irony?
Guy de Maupassant, a famous 19th century French writer, certainly had a lot of opportunities to unleash the power of irony into his short stories. He set his stories in many locations within France, and he created different plots and scenarios in which irony revealed his interpretation of the contrasting elements of French life.
First of all, let me define irony for you. Irony is a conflict between what is expected in the story and what really happens. Irony takes three forms in language: situational, dramatic, and verbal. Situational irony occurs when the setting and characters undergo experiences that seem to be the entire opposite of the intended effect. Dramatic irony is when the actions of characters have an effect that is different for the reader: the reader knows more about the situation in the story than the character, and thereby is hooked to find out the character’s reaction. Verbal irony is irony that is used in conversations and most often presented as a metaphor for the double meaning, because in fiction, the action is featured, often, in dialogue.
The first story that I want to talk about that has ironical moments in it is one of Maupassant’s short stories called “My Uncle Jules”. In the story, the main character’s father has a brother named Jules who went to America to make a living after he “squandered“ all of his money in France. Uncle Jules traveled to New York for work to pay off his debts. The problem was that Uncle Jules took money from his brother (the main character’s father) and this chunk of money was important for the family back home. Uncle Jules traveled to New York to make money, and he reported that he was doing fine in New York and hoped to visit South America soon. At a later time, the family decided to go on a short boat trip to the island of Jersey, which belongs to England and France. They met a man who was offering oysters to the passengers. Even though he thought Jules was in South America, the father thought the oyster vendor looked a lot like Uncle Jules. He approaches the captain, who tells him that the oyster vendor is actually in fact the one and only Uncle Jules. The captain reveals that Jules made some money in New York, but something happened to him that left him selling oysters on a ship. He doesn’t want to visit his relatives because he still owes them money. When Maupassant puts the family on a ship to Jersey, he positions them so that seeing Uncle Jules would be the last thing they would think, much less on the exact same boat that they were traveling on. They certainly wouldn’t have expected him selling oysters, because the family thought that he was striking it rich in New York, or even South America.
In “At Sea”, Maupassant describes the agony and stress a sailor went through when his arm was snagged by a net, which required an amputation because the sailor’s brother, the captain, decided that his net was worth more than his brother. The brother’s arm could be saved, if the net was cut. The brother’s life is not in danger without the net being cut, but this requires an amputation of his arm. After the younger brother’s arm is cut, he insists in preserving it in brine, and he buries it in a little coffin when he gets home. The younger brother quits fishing and later starts to work for the port, holding a small position. The irony in this story is that the older brother sacrificed his younger brother’s arm for his property, but in the end, he had the ultimate price to pay. Sometimes, throwing away property in order to save someone’s life is the best thing to do. The older brother valued his property over his younger brother’s arm. However, he had to pay a price for his greed, which was that his fishing vessel later got wrecked on some rocks. This shows that you can be greedy and value your property, but at the end, you’re the one who will pay the biggest price of all.
In “The Beggar”, the beggar was always begging for money in the same three or four villages. However, most of the people in the villages had gotten tired of seeing him, so they would never give him the money and food that he was always looking and searching for. One day, the beggar was very hungry, and killed a chicken on Farmer Chiquet’s farm. Farmer Chiquet thought he saw the beggar stealing one of his chickens, and he proceeded to beat the him. The beggar was taken to the police, and was accused of stealing. He was shut up in jail, but the next day, he died of starvation. Maupassant gives us a big insight into how limited the range of options for the beggar were. The beggar had both of his legs crushed by a carriage, and from then on he was forced to beg for money. Most people in the small number of villages in which he begged already knew him, and they were too selfish to give him money or food. Maupassant tells us that the beggar only stayed in this small section of the world, and he never ventured out of it. The beggar apparently didn’t even know that the world extended from the trees that had always “bounded his vision”. This is an example of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows something more about a certain situation or thing than the main character does. In this case, we know that the world extends far beyond the usual grove of tall oak trees that bind our vision. However, the beggar does not know if the world beyond the trees existed, much less what that world was like. The beggar didn’t receive much stuff because most people in these villages didn’t want to give him anything because he was too well known. Maupassant reveals how miserable the life of the beggar was, but he also addresses a vice – how people in their selfishness won’t give money to those in need, such as the beggar.
And last but not least, I am also going to talk about Maupassant’s “The Blind Man”. In this story, a blind man was treated unkindly, by everyone, especially when his parents died. At every meal, he was called names, such as “drone” and “clown”. The relatives of the blind man take this to another level, as they had animals eat the blind man’s food and they laugh as the blind man blindly tries to shoo the animals away. They also try to make him eat inedible objects, such as corks, leaves, wood, and even garbage. The blind man is eventually forced to beg for food and money, like the beggar. One night, the blind man cannot find his way back to the road, so he goes on walking until he reaches the middle of a field, and he sits down to rest there. He does not get up again, as it was too cold. The ironic part in this story is: after the blind man is found missing, his relatives make a show of asking about him, searching for him, and even “weeping” about the loss of him. This is dramatic irony, because we know that the blind man has died in a field, but his relatives obviously did not know of this, since they are still making a show of searching for him, which indicates that he has not been found dead yet. A very sad story, “The Blind Man” shows readers about how a man had cruel jokes played on him because of his disability, how he was forced to beg for food and money, and his unfortunate death.
Guy de Maupassant was a writer who created many short stories during his lifetime, the most famous one being “The Necklace”. He is often referred to “the father of modern short stories,” because he wrote so many of them, and for his intriguing style of writing, which brings his pieces to life. 19th century France was a time when most people in the country were poor, but not as poor as described in “The Beggar”. However, most people living outside of Paris generally had a hard time trying to sustain the family and making ends meet. The four stories analyzed above give a sense of how Maupassant added irony to enhance his stories, making them more dramatic and interesting to read. Irony gives readers a sense of excitement leading up to the climax, but the plot entirely changes when the reader is expecting something specific. Irony is a very useful tool when writing stories, as it can greatly capture the reader’s interest. Guy de Maupassant clearly had a thing for irony – it was the building block that made his stories intriguing and interesting.