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Mademoiselle Fifi: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

'Mademoiselle Fifi' is about a young French woman's bold defiance of a brutish Prussian soldier during the Franco-Prussian War. We'll summarize and analyze this gritty short story by Guy de Maupassant.

Setting

''Mademoiselle Fifi'' takes place in Normandy, France near the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). A group of German states (the leader of which was Prussia) waged war on France and won, leading to a unified Germany and the end of France's status as the most powerful European nation. During this period, the Prussians/Germans occupied France. That's why there are Prussian soldiers living in the château (manor) of Urville, which belongs to a French count who was forced to flee from his home.

Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck with other key military figures from the war
German soldiers

Summary

In this short story, Maupassant describes the Prussian soldiers who have seized the château as crude, destructive, and rather stupid men who don't value the manor or its beautiful furniture and costly paintings and art objects. Nearly all of them are violent, brutish womanizers, but the story's narrator explains that possibly the worst of these men is the short and slender Count Wilhelm von Eyrick, whom the other soldiers nickname ''Mademoiselle Fifi.''

Although the French people in the Rouen, Normandy area are otherwise surprisingly congenial toward their conquerors, Fifi is angry that the priest of the local church won't ring the bell at the usual times. It's the town's only form of non-compliance toward the soldiers, and the locals are quite proud of it.

The soldiers, who apparently have no further instructions, amuse themselves by getting extremely drunk and shooting or vandalizing various objects. Eventually they get tired of that, too, and their captain proposes that they hire some local prostitutes to attend a ''dinner party'' at the wrecked manor. The soldiers love the idea, and the arrangements are made. However, Mademoiselle Fifi is still angry about not getting his way regarding the church bell, so he makes an explosive using a teapot and blows up the drawing-room. This ominous act hints at further violence to come.

When the prostitutes arrive, everyone gets drunk. The soldiers crack dirty jokes in bad French then start making disparaging remarks about the French people in general and toasting their own victory over the country. Most of the prostitutes are too drunk to protest much.

Rachel and Mademoiselle Fifi in a romanticized 1944 film production of the short story
Rachel and Mademoiselle Fifi

One Jewish girl named Rachel, however, is furious at Mademoiselle Fifi for having bitten her during a kiss. She tells him: ''You will have to pay for that!'' Later, she gets in an insult of her own, declaring that these men can't have any real French women since ''[prostitutes are] all that Prussians want.'' When she can't take it anymore, she stabs Fifi in the neck with a dessert knife and jumps out the window to escape. Fifi dies within minutes. The Prussians search the château and grounds and later the entire town for Rachel but can't find her.

The priest is ordered to ring the church bells for Mademoiselle Fifi's funeral, and he complies. Afterward, the bells mysteriously ring out every day. When the war is over, it's revealed that the priest hid Rachel in his church, and she rang the bells as a celebration of her victory over Mademoiselle Fifi.

Yelena Yakovlevna Tvetkova as Rachel in Cesar Cuis opera version of Mademoiselle Fifi
Rachel in Mlle Fifi opera

Analysis

Civility vs. Brutality

One major theme in ''Mademoiselle Fifi'' is civility vs. brutality. Even though the people in Rouen endure both defeat in war and the occupation of their town, they behave civilly toward their enemies and don't present a threat or even a nuisance to them. Maupassant writes that ''the whole country round showed themselves obliging and compliant toward [the Germans].''

Conversely, the German soldiers needlessly destroy and desecrate much of the château of Urville, not because they've been provoked in any way but simply because they're bored and they can. In this story, the vanquished behave much more decently than the victors.

Masculinity vs. Femininity

Another major theme is challenged notions of masculinity vs. femininity. The German soldiers act like ''manly men'' in terms of brute strength and sexual appetite, yet the main character has the effeminate nickname of ''Mademoiselle Fifi.'' He also asks to have the bell rung ''like a wheedling woman.''

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