My Uncle Jules: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Celeste Bright

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

Guy de Maupassant is a novelist and short story writer who specializes in surprise, irony, and tragedy. 'My Uncle Jules' is no exception. In this lesson, we'll summarize and analyze the events in this short story.

Summary

Outer Frame Narrative, or Premise

''My Uncle Jules'' is a frame narrative, or a story within a story. In Maupassant's tale, the outer frame introduces an unnamed narrator and Joseph Davranche, who gives an old beggar five francs. In Maupassant's lifetime (1850-1893), this was fairly generous. Joseph explains his act by telling the story about his uncle, Jules.

Main Narrative

The main narrative is about Joseph's immediate family and his uncle, Jules. His family lives in Le Havre, a coastal town in Normandy, France.

A painting of the docks of Le Havre, France, by Camille Pissaro
A painting of the docks of Le Havre, France, by Camille Pissaro

The Davranche family is fairly poor, a condition which Joseph's mother passive-aggressively blames on his father. His two adult sisters sew their own clothes, and the family survives on plain, monotonous meals. Joseph's uncle Jules, whom Joseph has never met, has squandered the Davranche inheritance. However, he's emigrated to New York and written to the family twice, explaining that he's doing well and hopes to return to Le Havre one day. He plans to repay Philippe, Joseph's father, his share of the inheritance, leaving the family to place all their hope in Jules to secure their financial future.

Every Sunday, the family members dress in their best clothes and walk along the docks of Le Havre, watching the steamships come in and hoping to attract marriage prospects for the sisters. Each week, Joseph's father muses how wonderful it would be if Jules happened to be on one of the steamers.

A Sunday crowd of Havre residents watching steamships arrive (illustration for My Uncle Jules)
A Sunday crowd of Havre residents watching steamships arrive (illustration for My Uncle Jules)

Based on Jules' promise of financial recompense, a young man marries the younger sister, and the Davranche family celebrates by taking a trip on a steamship to nearby Jersey, England. On the way, they observe an ''old, ragged sailor'' selling oysters to passengers as light refreshment. Philippe thinks he resembles Jules, and they soon learn from the captain that, indeed, he is — and that he's been avoiding returning to Le Havre because he owes the family money.

Humiliated and afraid Jules might ask for their help, most of the family make themselves scarce so he won't see and recognize them. However, Joseph approaches his destitute uncle, pays him for the oysters, and gives him ten cents as a tip. His family is outraged, but Joseph pities his uncle, noting that he disappeared afterward ''below to the dirty hold [lower cargo area] which was the home of the poor wretch.''

Some shucked (opened) oysters on a stone slab
Some shucked (opened) oysters on a stone slab

Analysis

Among other devices, Guy de Maupassant is known for his ironic plot twists, and ''My Uncle Jules'' is no exception. (An outcome directly opposite of the one expected is ironic.) The main irony of the story is that the Davranche family consider themselves very badly off financially, and are counting on Jules — whom they've been led to believe has gone from broke to successful — to improve their lives. The husband of the younger Davranche sister is counting on this too; it's the reason he proposed.

However, Jules turns out to be little more than a beggar peddling snacks, and is clearly much worse off than they are. Further, while they've looked forward to seeing him for so many years, they consider it a ''catastrophe'' when they finally do. Jules is destitute not only financially, but emotionally, as well. Whereas the other Davranche family members have each other, he is alone in the world, marginalized by his rock-bottom social status and fear of facing his own family.

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