Guy de Maupassant, Bel-Ami
Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1982
The life of French writer Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) is not unlike the fictional life of the characters in his novels. De Maupassant, who socializes with other big names of his time, is friends with Emile Zolá and personal mentee of Flaubert, likes to consort with all kinds of women in Paris, among them such that he pays for their services. He contracts syphilis as a young man and dies at the age of only 43.
His novel “Bel-Ami”, published in 1885, is an immediate success and republished in 50 editions in only two years. Part of the success is surely due the scandalous nature of the story. We are in fin-de-siècle Paris, where the cafés and vaudevilles are teeming with cocottes. We are witness to the story of George Duroy, a handsome but penniless soldier who is trying to make it in Paris. It’s the story of a parvenu, of rapid social advancement which Duroy accomplishes with the help of several rich, beautiful women. After being admitted to society by an old acquaintance, Duroy quite literally sleeps his way up, seducing (or being seduced by) most of the women in that particular circle of acquaintances in a very short time. First victim of his youthful charms is Clotilde de Marelle, a young married woman, who rents a love nest for their secret rendezvous. Then there is Madeleine Forestier, to whom he proposes without any sense of decency on the deathbed of her first husband, Virginie Walter, whom he uses to get back to his wife Madeleine, and, finally, Walter’s daughter Suzanne, which he uses to get back at Monsieur Walter.
The motivation for his actions is not love, but rather desire and, above all, the desire for money. Because money is the central theme in this novel. We read about the price of things on almost every page: five francs, 60 francs, two louisdor. At first, poor George is over the moon about the two louisdor; later, even two million cannot make him happy, when he learns that his adversary has 20 million. On the one hand, this draws an ugly portrait of the protagonist’s character. On the other hand, this understanding of the world, in which the meaning of every object and every person is derived from its monetary value is the result of Duroy’s grinding poverty, a poverty that most people in the Western world today do not know. For Duroy money has a very specific meaning, and that meaning is born out of necessity. It’s the end of the month and he is broke. There are two days left to the month, but only money enough for two meals. So he does the math: Either he can buy two dinners but no lunches, or two lunches and no dinner. Albeit fictional, the scenario describes the very real historical experience of wanting enough to eat. For Duroy money is above all a means to participate in society: Without it he can sit in no café, drink no beer, buy no love.
Although Duroy’s success story is indeed remarkable, the true heroine of the story is someone else: Madeleine Forestier. Not only is she smarter than all the men in this novel together, she also gives a speech that, as a proto-feminist manifesto, deserves to be quoted at some length: “Marriage, to me, is not a chain but an association. I must be free, entirely unfettered, in all my actions – my coming and my going; I can tolerate neither control, jealousy, nor criticism as to my conduct. [...] the man I marry [...] must promise to look upon me as an equal, an ally, and not as an inferior, or as an obedient, submissive wife. My ideas, I know, are not like those of other people, but I shall never change them.”
by Teresa Teklić