A Duel: Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant uses duel as farce in Bel Ami. His main character, Georges (the Bel Ami of the title) is more or less pushed into a duel against a rival journalist, and in order to go through with it, Bel Ami polishes off a bottle of brandy. Of course, the danger is exaggerated, later, with each subsequent retelling of the almost comical event.

In the short story, A Duel, Maupassant presents an entirely different scenario. It’s post Franco-Prussian war, and France is overrun with the victors.

The war was over. The Germans occupied France. The whole country was pulsating like a conquered wrestler beneath the knee of his victorious opponent.

On a train going to join his wife and children who are safe in Switzerland, is a certain M. Dubois “who during the entire siege had served as one of the National Guard in Paris.” Dubois is an unprepossessing figure:

Famine and hardship had not diminished his big paunch so characteristic of the rich, peace-loving merchant. He had gone through the terrible events of the past year with sorrowful resignation and bitter complaints at the savagery of men. Now that he was journeying to the frontier at the close of the war, he saw the Prussians for the first time, although he had done his duty on the ramparts and mounted guard on many a cold night.

Dubois isn’t happy to find himself surrounded by Prussians, and “he stared with mingled fear and anger at those bearded armed men, installed all over French soil as if they were at home, and he felt in his soul a kind of fever of impotent patriotism.” Also in the same railway carriage are two Englishmen who are there as sightseers.  The train stops at a village and a Prussian officer enters. The Englishmen stare with interest at the Prussian while Dubois pretends to read the newspaper. But in spite of Dubois’ attempts to avoid conflict, he’s provoked repeatedly by the Prussian officer who goads and insults Dubois until he can take no more. Given that the title of the story is A Duel, it’s easy to guess where the action goes.

But while the story touches on patriotism (from the author as well as from the characters), the story is also a piece on temperament. The Prussian is spoiling for his next fight while the “impassive” Englishmen are caught in the middle as spectators:

The Englishmen seemed to have become indifferent to all that was going on, as if they were suddenly shut up in their own island, far from the din of the world.

Maupassant volunteered during the Franco-Prussian war and many of his stories, including the unforgettable Boule de Suif (Butterball) are set during the period. While A Duel isn’t one of Maupassant’s  best short stories, it’s interesting for how Maupassant portrays the duel in this instance. A duel is a means of obtaining satisfaction, settling arguments, and while Bel Ami’s duel was really an empty, meaningless event, the duel here is brisk and brutal.

7 pages

Translated by A.E. Henderson & Mme Louise Quesada

 

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6 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Maupassant, Guy de

6 responses to “A Duel: Guy de Maupassant

  1. I love the pacing of this story. Just perfect, Also, the hilarious Englishmen,

  2. I have not read anything from Guy de Maupassant but I want to. This sounds very good.

    Dueling itself is interesting when one looks at real life cases as well as when it is portrayed in fiction. In regards to fiction. It seems to be a ripe source of stories.

  3. It may not be one of his best, but it does still sound worth reading. Butterball was brilliant, one of the first books I read due to your blog I think.

  4. Flaubert to Guy De Maupassant [his protege, working as a clerk for the Navy at the time]

    You must—do you hear me, young man?–you must work more than you do. I’ve come to suspect you of being something of a loafer. Too many whores! Too much rowing! Too much exercise! Yes, sir: civilized man doesn’t need as much locomotion as the doctors pretend. …You are living in an inferno of shit, I know, and I pity you from the bottom of my heart. … sacrifice everything to Art. Life must be considered by the artist as a means, nothing more, and the first person he shouldn’t give a hang about is himself.

  5. Doesn’t mince words, does he?

  6. I wouldn’t mind reading this at all since I have a fondness for the topic. There should be a duel anthology. Maybe that exists.

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