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.
Cornudet is only slightly more ethical than the others because he originally opposes sacrificing Boule de Suif, but does not treat her any better afterwards. The lowest rank is carried by Boule de Suif. She is expected to do whatever it takes to prevent the upper class from suffering in any way.
Moral Relativism Theme
Utilitarianism is the belief that whatever benefits the majority is the most ethical choice. This story examines utilitarianism as the basis for moral decisions. As the group works to persuade Boule de Suif to sleep with the Prussian commander, even the nuns added to the conversation, stating that, ''many. . . had committed acts which would be crimes in our eyes, but the Church readily pardons such deeds when they are accomplished for the glory of God or the good of mankind.'' In reality, the group would have never done for Boule de Suif what they expected her to do for them, but when they find themselves at risk of having to endure any suffering themselves, they convince Boule de Suif that abandoning her principles is the only moral thing to do in this situation.
In Guy de Maupassant's ''Boule de Suif,'' a third-person narrator describes ten passengers attempting to flee their French town as Prussian soldiers advance at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. One passenger, Boule de Suif, is looked down upon because she is a prostitute, while the others are higher ranking in social class. However, they think a bit better of her when she shares her food and proclaims not to take enemy clients. But when the Prussian commander demands sex from Boule de Suif before they can go any further, the other passengers convince her to make the sacrifice, then mock and shun her when she does.
The story is an example of naturalism because ethics are examined as being subject to the environment. Further, utilitarianism is explored, which is the belief that whatever benefits the majority is the most ethical choice. The immoral decision to force the prostitute to sleep with the Prussian commander becomes moral because it is for the good of the majority, particularly those in the upper class.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack