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The Piece of String Setting

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson we will explore how the small-town setting in 'The Piece of String' affected the main conflict, allowing everyone to quickly pass around a false story and embarrass the main character.

Small Town Gossip

A typical small town where everyone quickly hears the most recent gossip: this is the setting for Guy de Maupassant's short story 'The Piece of String.' In this story, Maitre Hauchecorne is falsely accused of stealing a wallet. The misunderstanding stems from a small misstep: he stops to pick up a piece of string on the road, and, embarrassed to be seen stopping to pick up such a small item, he hides what he is doing.

However, around the same time a wallet also goes missing, and someone who saw Hauchecorne sneakily picking up the piece of string quickly spreads a rumor that it was the wallet he was picking up. Despite his insistence that he was innocent no one believes him, and soon the entire town thinks he is guilty--even after the missing wallet is found! His insistence that he is innocent soon becomes a local joke, and the distress eventually kills him, leaving him to carry his declarations of innocence to his grave.

The small town setting made the events in this story possible. If this had occurred in a large city, he may have been shunned by those who were closest to the issue, but he easily could have found a new group of people who had no knowledge of the matter and probably would never hear of the matter. He probably could have eventually gotten back to a normal life, with just the slight memory of annoyance at those people who believed him to be guilty. Instead, he has nowhere to escape: his entire world (the entire town) knows of the incidence and everyone he knew and came in contact with believed him to be guilty.

The Town

Goderville, France, is a small town in the Normandy region. This is an actual city, and today has a population of about 2,800 people.

This small town has a marketplace, an inn, a tavern, a church, and a mayor's office and is deep in the country. Maupassant describes the town as 'a mingled multitude of men and beasts...which gave 'off that half-human, half-animal odor which is peculiar to country folks.' Everyone knows everyone, and there really isn't much to do to pass the time other than gossip about each other. So when a juicy bit of gossip comes along it is quickly passed along--and you can imagine that a local stealing someone's wallet and then 'making up' a ridiculous story about it only being a piece of string is a very juicy bit of gossip.

Market day

This story takes place in the late 1800s on market day. Since it was market day, 'from all the country round Goderville the peasants and their wives were coming toward the town.' The atmosphere is pleasant. Up until the moment that Hauchecorne is accused of stealing the wallet it is a happy, joyful occasion for everyone. Aristocracy are intermingled with animals and peasants. Everyone talks and laughs together, just enjoying their time.

People from all around coming to the market
Everyone gathering to town

Everyone was there, which means all the more people to hear and pass around the story. When the public crier first came around town with new of the missing wallet everyone was immediately interested--they were all 'on their feet at once and ran to the door, to the windows, their mouths full and napkins in their hand.' This is the most interesting news they have had all day, certainly much more interesting than their usual discussions of 'purchases and...sales…The weather was good for greens, but too wet for grain.' From the moment of this news, 'they all began to talk of this incident.'

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