Boule de Suif by Maupassant: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we will learn about the context, plot, and characters in Guy de Maupassant's short story ''Boule de Suif.'' After gathering some important information about circumstances in France during the Franco-German War, we will follow ten French travelers on their journey from Rouen to Le Havre.

German Invasion!

Guy Maupassant's short story ''Boule de Suif'' requires a little bit of historical context. The story takes place during the Franco-German war (AKA the Franco-Prussian war, 1870-1); Otto Van Bismark sought to expand the territory of his German empire south into France. A series of battles and political upheavals commenced. In France, the people were divided between social, economic, and political classes; those who sided with the presiding Republican government, and those who supported the Napoleonic Monarchy.

It also helps to have a primer on the geography of France, since the story concerns a journey cross-country. The story is set in Normandy, on the northwestern coast of France. We'll travel from Rouen, a small town 125 km NW of Paris, to the coastal town of Le Havre.

Rouen, France

The story opens with a depressing procession of the defeated French National Guard, returning home following their surrender. The soldiers pass through German-occupied Rouen, France. The townsfolk solemnly observe the trudging soldiers.

The bulk of the story concerns ten travelers, united in their goals of fleeing German-occupied territory. After securing travel passports, ten Rouen townsfolk disembark on a horse-drawn carriage. Destination: French-controlled Le Havre, a 90km ride to the coast.

Boule de Suif journey, Lower Normandy marked in darker blue
map of france

Day 1

We meet the non-distinct driver and his ten passengers as they board the carriage. The travelers consist of:

  • Monsieur and Madame Loiseau, unscrupulous wine merchants.
  • Monsieur and Madame Carre-Lamadon, cotton manufacturers.
  • Comte and Comtesse Hubert de Breville, wealthy nobles.
  • Two nuns.
  • Monsieur Cornudet, a politician.
  • Mademoiselle Elisabeth Rousset, nicknamed Boule de Suif ('ball of fat,' or 'suet dumpling'). The others recognize her as the famously obese local prostitute.

Imagine Boule de Suif as one of Henri Toulouse-Lautrecs prostitutes seated in his painting, The Sofa
french prostitutes

They make slow progress. They hoped to reach Totes by noon, but their progress is stalled by weather and poor road conditions. By midday, the travelers get hungry. The men joke about cannibalizing Boule de Suif, while she surreptitiously plucks treats from the basket hidden in her frock.

Later in the afternoon, Boule de Suif pulls out her picnic. Showing mercy on her companions, she offers them her delectable meal. In ''amiable condescension,' they reluctantly oblige. 'It was impossible to accept her food without talking to the woman.'' Over lunch, Boule de Suif reveals that she left Roune because she had grown so contemptuous of the Prussian invaders. She tried to strangle one of them. The others applaud her zeal. Together, the ten travelers empty the picnic basket.

Totes, France

The carriage reaches Totes after a 13-hour journey. They find lodging at an inn run by Monsieur and Madame Follenvie. A German officer takes their passports and interrogates the travelers. They are allowed to settle in, but the officer submits Boule de Suif to further questioning. At first, she refuses to go with the officer, but the others urge her along. She hesitantly acquiesces. Ten minutes later, she returns, enraged. She refuses to explain what happened. The other travelers jump to conclusions; the officer must have solicited her company. Given Boule de Suif's dislike of the Prussians, she certainly would have refused.

They dine and drink. They discuss the war and politics, and life is pleasant for a time. They all go to bed after a good meal and much drink. That night, Loiseau witnesses Corundet trying to seduce Boule de Suif. She refuses his request because there are still soldiers in the house.

Day 2

The next morning, the innkeeper, M. Follenvie, informs the travelers that the officers are prohibiting their departure. They pass time by playing cards. At dinner time, the same officer returns with a renewed request for the presence of Boule de Suif. She again refuses. When the officer leaves, Boule de Suif admits that the officer is detaining their party because she refused to go to bed with him.

Day 3

Travel is delayed again. In the afternoon, the travelers take a walk around town. Though they had supported her decision the night before, now some begin to waver. They speak ill of Boule. She holds all the cards. Dinner is silent, and they go to bed early.

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