Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant: Analysis & Themes

Instructor: Joelle Mumley
In this lesson, we will analyze the short story ''Boule de Suif'' by Guy de Maupassant. Further, we will examine the themes of moral relativism and social order from this story. Updated: 06/10/2021

Fleeing a War

If you sacrificed yourself for others, what would you expect in return? In the short story ''Boule de Suif'' by Guy de Maupassant, first published in 1880, the character of Boule de Suif asks for nothing more than a little compassion, but she is unable to find it from her fellow passengers. Let's analyze this story and discuss the themes.

This is the story of ten French citizens who are fleeing their homes to move to a safer location within France as the Prussian army advances towards the end of the Franco-Prussian War. Each of the ten passengers comes from different backgrounds and would likely never interact in another setting.

Boule de Suif is a prostitute, so originally she is rejected, at least by the women in the group. However, when the others are hungry, she shares her food and eventually they warm up to her. They are further impressed when Boule de Suif states that her patriotism towards France has prevented her from accepting Prussian customers.

A Forced Sacrifice

Along the way, their coach is stopped and Prussian soldiers pull Boule de Suif aside. When she returns, she is visibly offended. The other passengers learn that the Prussian soldiers refuse to allow the group to continue until Boule de Suif consents to relations with their commander.

After four days, the others in the group, concerned about their own safety, convince Boule de Suif to make the sacrifice. The two nuns on board even convince her that it is the Christian thing to do. Reluctantly, Boule de Suif agrees. When she returns to the group, she is shunned and mocked by the others for what she has done. As the coach moves forward, Boule de Suif cries while the others laugh uncaringly.


The major characters in this story are two nuns, one liberal (Cornudet), six aristocrats, and one prostitute (Boule de Suif). The setting is on a coach traveling to Le Havre from Rouen at the end of the Franco-Prussian War during the early 1870s. The setting is important because it creates an opportunity for these diverse characters to interact, as well as an element of fear that challenges the moral beliefs of each of the characters. The story is told by a third person narrator, who is able to describe the story objectively from a bird's-eye view without reading the minds of any characters. Dialogue is heavily used to explain the thoughts and feelings of all ten passengers.

The story of ''Boule de Suif'' is considered an example of naturalism, a literary movement from the late 1800s that depicts social behavior as being heavily influenced by environmental factors. It is an off-shoot of Darwin's concept of survival of the fittest. How does this work in Guy de Maupassant's story? Under normal situations, Boule de Suif would not agree to sleep with the enemy, nor would the other passengers, especially the nuns, think it appropriate to ask a woman to sacrifice herself this way. However, because of the fear of losing their lives or their money to the Prussians, normal ethics do not apply.

Social Class Theme

Guy de Maupassant uses the actions of the Prussian soldiers to explore social class in the story. As the soldiers invade the towns, those with money or clout are able to leave while those of lower rank are forced to stay behind in unsafe conditions. The six passengers who represent nobility ''occupied the farther end of the coach, and represented Society—with an income—the strong, established society of good people with religion and principle.'' If it were not for Boule de Suif, it is likely that the Prussian soldiers would have required some sacrifice from the travelers. Because they rank higher than the other four passengers due to their social status, less is required from them.

The nuns are classified lower than the aristocrats, but higher than the other passengers because of their religious service. The next rank goes to Cornudet. Even though his political beliefs are in opposition to the nobility, Cornudet might be useful in the next town because of his experience building trenches to keep out the enemy.

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