A Family Affair
(1881), a domestic novel by French author Guy de Maupassant, is considered one of the first works to investigate and parody the psychological depths of the then-emerging modern bureaucracy and domestic roles of the Western world. An unnamed narrator observes Monsieur Alfred Caravan, an aging government bureaucrat, go about his strict and tedious, but simultaneously circular and fruitless daily life. This routine existence is disrupted when his maid, Rosalie, discovers Caravan’s mother, seemingly dead. The death, which ultimately turns out to be a false alarm, unleashes a cascade of events originating in the other characters’ previously repressed resentments, anxieties, and desires. A novel without a resolution, A Family Affair
has been cited as an anticipatory work of the modernist movement, which emerged in the early twentieth century.
The novel begins with a characterization of Monsieur Alfred Caravan and his trivial existence. The frustratingly lengthy description mirrors the tedium of his routine: working as an anonymous middle-management employee at a government office, he has been floundering in the same bureaucracy for three decades. Ironically, his ability to do nothing of importance has earned him an award from his government branch. He is very overweight and imposing, yet not intimidating or sharp, his senses dulled by his many years of mindless work. One evening in July, he and his friend Dr. Chenet return home to Courbevoie. Caravan greets his wife, who proves to be an archetype of domestic captivity under the male gaze: compulsive, thin, and obsessed with cleanliness. His children are off getting dirty in the gutter. Caravan talks about being removed from consideration for a promotion. His wife gives him a sympathetic kiss, while the ninety-year-old Madame Caravan interjects criticizing both of them.
Just when it seems as though the family will never change, Caravan and his wife and children sit down for dinner; a shrieking Rosalie announces that Mama Caravan has collapsed and is unresponsive upstairs. They summon Dr. Chenet, who pronounces Mama Caravan dead. Everyone reacts differently to the news: Caravan, like the solemn bureaucrat that he is; his wife awkwardly, as if trying to simulate the right emotions. They resume their dinner, drinking far too much. Chenet and Caravan then leave the house to get some fresh air. Caravan recalls some memories of his mother. They travel to their go-to cafe, but none of its patrons have time to give him sympathy.
Caravan returns home, then talks with his wife about their next steps. Since Mama died peacefully and will be buried with her prized heirlooms, they predict that his estranged sister will try to intervene to take them for herself. They decide to salvage her heirlooms in the dead of night, taking her ugly, ornate clock, her marble chest of drawers, and her best clothes. The next day, they announce her death.
Everyone in the neighborhood comes to inspect Mama Caravan, out of intrigue rather than respect or sympathy. Then, Caravan phones his sister, Madame Braux, to tell her and her husband to come. They all sit down to dinner, where the lamp burns out. At the twenty-four-hour-mark since Mama’s death, she suddenly revives. The family chalks it up to another of her chronic fainting fits.
Chaos then takes over the household, as Madame Braux and her husband arrive to reap the rewards of Mama Caravan’s death. After a skirmish at the foot of the stairs, Mama demands that everyone return her possessions; she meets privately with her daughter. Dr. Chenet returns and, elated to see Mama alive, resumes gorging himself on food and drink. Caravan’s wife argues with Madame and Monsieur Braux. Then the Brauxes depart, leaving the Caravans to ponder what has become of things. Yet, ironically, everything returns to as before: Mama remains alive to haunt them, and they live in terror that Caravan will be disciplined for missing a day at the office.