Maupassant: A take on Irony

Guy de Maupassant was a significant contributor to the development of the modern short story. Some of his work is painfully real, and other parts of it cause one to question the ability of authors to entertain, especially in a twisted way. What is the role of shock when it comes to entertaining the reader? Where is the line when an author goes too far? Reading Maupassant, one sometimes has a feeling that the author is throwing horrors in one’s face, and it doesn’t seem to be realistic – until one considers that such things could be possible, and such deprivation does sometimes exist. In “The Beggar” and “The Blind Man”, one grapples with extreme situations, delivered unflinchingly.

“The Beggar” is about a disabled man who lives in a rural part of France, and is about the final moments of his life. A foundling, he lost his legs when, as a teen, working his first job as a baker’s assistant, the baker gave him several glasses of cooking brandy, and, drunk, he wandered outside where “both his legs [were] crushed by a carriage on the Varville highway”. He had begged since then, for 40-50 years of his life. From “the age of fifteen… he begged, dragging himself along the roads and through the farmyards, supported by crutches which forced his shoulders up to his ears”. Can you picture this? Maupassant adds that, “his head looked as if it were squeezed in between two mountains… He looked abnormal having shoulders up to his ears, and his nose was thin between large cheekbones.”

Maupassant, to me, creates a twinning effect through irony and situations, in that I like to pair off his stories. So, in another story, “The Blind Man”, Maupassant reveals another disabled man with similar conditions. Living in rural France, the blind man is unable to support himself – no one but his mom and dad ever showed him any love. His parents treated him kindly for his disability and take care of him, but once they died, he was out of his safe haven. In fact, he was treated like poultry, scraps being thrown at him, as his siblings allowed it to be a time for the neighbors to make fun of him. Before, others had not dared to mistreat him, to make sure his parents would not lose face. Upon the death of his parents, others could finally let go. The thought of him was as to an inconvenience. Without support from anyone, the blind man could only lamely resist the insults and unkindness shown towards him.

As in “The Blind Man”, the beggar has a limited social network which, when further limited, causes great catastrophe. The villages in the area that he begs from all have developed a hate towards the beggar, thinking him as a pest: “Everybody had grown tired of seeing him, day after day for forty years, dragging his deformed and tattered person from door to door on his wooden crutches”. Many of the villagers viewed him differently from the others too, and made hateful remarks. One person exclaimed upon seeing him: “Be off with you, you good-for-nothing vagabond! Why I gave you a piece of bread only three days ago!” The person thinks of him as a spoiled man, and that giving him food three days ago was a hefty gift.


Maupassant was born on August 5th, 1850, in the rural farming village of Tourvillesur-Arques. Maupassant was fatherless at an early age but was taken care of by his Shakespeare-loving mother. Maupassant showed good potential as a scholar, and eventually met the famous Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary and other great stories. Through Flaubert’s guidance, Maupassant learned many different techniques and evolved his writing ability through these years. In his spare time, he would write short stories and wrote his first masterpiece, “Boule de Suif”, published in April, 1880. Many of his stories tell of rural life in France. “Boule de Suif” was set during the Franco-Prussian war, which Maupassant served in. Maupassant loved traveling, and was avid in social life. He would travel to other countries, and bring back new stories relating what he had experienced. Sadly Maupassant died at the young age of 42, of syphilis. Maupassant tried committing suicide but was ultimately brought to an asylum, where he sadly perished.

Have you been paranoid, or highly suspicious, and then done in by your friends’ elaborate, cunning plans? Then you need advice. Advice from who… well, the master of irony: Guy de Maupassant. There is a great story to learn from your mistakes. Maupassant’s tone changes: from dealing with beggars and blind men who ignominiously die, he turns to wedding parties and bachelor weekends in Normandy. “An Uncomfortable Bed” is about an unexpected prank. The narrator is going to a party with his friends at a chateâu.  After he is situated, they all have a nice dinner, and the narrator is surrounded by his happy friends who he suspects want to prank him for his return, as he’s been traveling for some time. He knows his friends are very tricky, and he already suspects it when they all (yes, the entire dinner party) escort him to his room. Now, while the blind man and the beggar get insulted and people keep a distance from them in their stories, Maupassant reveals the nature of northern France’s tradition of hilarity in these stories. The narrator is very keen to even the smallest of noises and suspects anything and everything. He hears small laughter outside his door, and every creak alerts him. Since the beginning of the night, he has been already very suspicious, trying to find clues: “All the same, there was danger… I searched in my memory for all the practical jokes of which I ever had experience. And I did not want to be caught.” He was thinking of any way to find out what the prank was, but ultimately fails to do so, perhaps because he is so thorough! He decides that he’ll trick his would-be assailants, and that the best way to this would be to sleep on the floor. He therefore takes all of the bedclothes off of the bed, to avoid being punked. Under constant stress of fear of the prank, the protagonist continuously struggles to sleep. He twists and turns, but no matter what, it was so uncomfortable! He did not understand why, but he could not happily fall asleep. Later he would know that his makeshift bed facilitates the prank, and that an unsuspecting piece of furniture was his downfall.

“A Normandy Joke” is also about pranking, though at a whole new level. The story centers around a marriage in a village, of a rich young farmer and a pretty girl. The farmer, named Jean Patu, is an avid hunter. He is going to get married to Rosalie Roussel, a pretty woman, courted by many men. Jean uses a lot of his money on his love of the sport of hunting. The wedding day is lively – everyone was eating a big feast. During this happy time, his friends talk up the hunt to happen that night within earshot of Jean, even though it is his wedding night. Later, in sacred hour of holy matrimonial consummation, he hears his friends preparing; his wife begs him to stay, and to not go outside to hunt, to which he does not listen. He leaves through the window in mad pursuit of who he considers poachers, who he is infuriated at for stealing his game. What happens to him? “They found him two leagues from the farm, tied hand and foot, half dead with rage, his gun broken, his trousers turned inside out, and with three dead hares hanging round his neck, and a placard on his chest with these words: ‘Who goes on the chase loses his place.'” His friends tricked him because of his hobby. Similarly, in “An Uncomfortable Bed”, the protagonist was also tricked by his friends because of paranoia. Both protagonists were tricked because they do not see the deeper tricks at play.

Maupassant shows mood change again, but in a more horrifying approach: from blind men and beggars, to parties and weddings, to wraiths and hidden horrors. “On the River” is about an experienced boatman, and about one frightening story he tells Maupassant that chills his soul, and the souls of many. “On the River” is about something terrifying that the boatman faced. The story is very eerie and dark. There is something unexpected behind the calm beautiful waters of the river, while the sea tells the truth. The river boatman understands this and carefully tells of it. The sea is different, and though thrashing and claiming many lives, it is honest and tells its tale. “A sailor has not the same feeling for the sea. It is often remorseless and cruel, it is true, but it shrieks, it roars, it is honest, the great sea; while the river is silent and perfidious.” The river does not say anything and is always so calm and beautiful, but hides behind many frightening secrets. In setting up his story for Maupassant, the river boatman quotes an unnamed poet, who discusses the sea for its knowledge of death:

O waves, what mournful tragedies ye know–
Deep waves, the dread of kneeling mothers’ hearts!
Ye tell them to each other as ye roll
On flowing tide, and this it is that gives
The sad despairing tones unto your voice
As on ye roll at eve by mounting tide.

The river boatman contrasts this, though, with the river and its power to conceal death. He adds, “Well, I think that the stories whispered by the slender reeds, with their little soft voices, must be more sinister than the lugubrious tragedies told by the roaring of the waves.” The river boatman states that the “eternal motion of flowing water is more terrible to me than the high waves of the ocean”; as he talks to Maupassant, the reader has a distinct sensation of a split personality – though the river boatman is always “beside the water, on the water, or in the water… he must have been born in a boat, and he will certainly die in a boat at the last,” he seems to loathe the way the river conceals things. What is the reason for this? And how does this discussion of the contrasts between the river and the sea pay off for the reader?

On the way back from dining with his friend one night, rowing his 12-foot boat, the boatman takes a rest. “It was a magnificent night, the moon shone brightly, the river gleamed, the air was calm and soft. This peacefulness tempted me. I thought to myself that it would be pleasant to smoke a pipe in this
spot. I took up my anchor and cast it into the river.” He sets his anchor and allows the boat to drift downstream a little bit, and sitting back to relax and puff on his pipe, ostensibly to enjoy the beauty of the night, he is surprised by a number of odd impressions. First, all the nocturnal sounds disappear: “The river was perfectly calm, but I felt myself affected by the unusual silence that surrounded me. All the creatures, frogs and toads, those nocturnal singers of the marsh, were silent.” Then, surprisingly, as he is “a noted colorer of pipes”, the act of smoking becomes impossible to him! He simply cannot inhale his tobacco, and on top of that, he gets the distinct sensation that a tempest has suddenly come up: “It seemed to me as if she [his boat] were making huge lurches, from bank to bank of the river, touching each bank alternately. Then I felt as though an invisible force, or being, were drawing her to the surface of the water and lifting her out, to let her fall again. I was tossed about as in a tempest. I heard noises around me. I sprang to my feet with a single bound.” And what does he see over the boat’s gunwale? “The water was glistening, all was calm.” This river boatman seems to be hallucinating – what is going on? Seeing that his nerves are shaky, he “resolves to leave the spot.”

After setting down his anchor, but ultimately not being able to bring it back up, the boatman senses danger. Fear (and a little rum) brings him to sleep. His knowledge of that fear comes from his experience as he feels danger lurking under his vessel. “All at once there was a little knock at the side of the boat. I gave a start, and a cold sweat broke out all over me… but that was enough, and I again became a prey to a strange nervous agitation.” He rests on his boat having the fear inside him, only to be woken by the alluring bright surroundings. “I was dazzled by the most marvelous… one of those phantasmagoria of fairyland, one of those sights described by travellers on their return from distant lands, whom we listen to without believing.” Maupassant keeps nudging the reader towards something dark while describing the beauty of the night; the story is following what the boatman intimates, about the river’s dark secrets. Readers keep guessing during this story, expecting a scary and impactful ending.

“The Ghost” is about a confident young man helping out an old friend on a task. The man is told to go to an abandoned mansion, (which was once a home of the friend, when he was married). His friend tells of some papers that he needed, to which the protagonist goes to fetch. When he arrives, he sees a gatekeeper, who knows and understands the horrors inside the mansion. “He no longer knew what to say. ‘Then, monsieur, I will show you the way.’ ‘Show me the stairs and leave me alone. I can find it without your help.’ ‘But — still — monsieur — — ‘ Then I lost my temper.’’Now be quiet! Else you’ll be sorry!’” The gatekeeper warns the young man, to which the man refuses, and tells the gatekeeper to leave. This sternness towards the keeper would eventually come back at him as karma. An existence within the mansion, hinted by the title, “The Ghost” awaits the protagonist. The gatekeeper could only stand by and watch the man go inside the haunted mansion. The protagonist goes into the darkened mansion, full of rust and molding. Everything is mysterious.

“The chairs seemed all in confusion.” In the mansion, he unsuccessfully tries to get a light on, and sits to find the packages he needs. But “a minute later, another movement, almost indistinct, sent a disagreeable little shiver over my skin”. A woman comes and asks if he could comb her hair – being scared, he could only watch in horror until unexpectedly he gives in. Her long cold hair is deadly, and unhuman. She cries out to him, needing him to comb it with more force, which he does. He combs her hair, leaving the house immediately. The memory of the woman is implanted into him for the following years of his life, unable to forget the scene that haunted him forever. Being frightened to his core is as if it was karma for him, treating a task as nothing, and being rude to others: his arrogance affects his fate. This simple errand ultimately changes his life.

Maupassant uses many different techniques in order to show irony in his stories, and this includes using different points of view, bookending his stories with narrators, changing the tone, and abrupt endings. In “The Ghost”, because of the protagonist’s attitude toward the gatekeeper, he is unable to heed the warning. Before the boatman’s mistake, the boatman is hypnotized by the beauty of the river even though the beauty hides a great crime.

After reading a variety of Guy de Maupassant’s short stories, I can appreciate his unique methods to express irony and bitter humor. Some of his work is painfully real, and other parts of it cause one to question the ability of authors to entertain, especially in a twisted way. Maupassant uses unsuspecting things to shock the reader in many of his stories. What’s the most thrilling is this: these events can be true, even possibly, the supernatural ones. Maupassant goes far when he gives the result of the experiences the boatman and rich man face. Due to their karma and unknowingness, the following events remained implanted in their memory for life. This can occur in real life, scaring the reader to the deep meaning of how we need to prepare for the unexpected. Sometimes, writers just give a scare that does not have any deeper meaning to it. But Maupassant uses the mistakes humans would make to highlight the outcomes of the protagonists.

The irony comes easier in some of his stories and is harder to detect in others. One of the many techniques that a writer has is irony, which is used very well by Maupassant. Irony draws in readers, and reminds them of something true. Maupassant strikes heavy at the reader with a strong quiver, through that fact.

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