“Boule de Suif,” a famous short story written by Guy de Maupassant, was first published in the anthology Les Soirées de Medan
The anthology follows the Franco-Prussian War, and “Boule de Suif” is often considered his greatest work. He is well known in this story for praising the passion and patriotism of the inhabitants he writes about, while most of his contemporaries were accusing provincial French citizens of being apathetic and cowardly. There is a significant theme throughout of the French resistance to the German occupiers during the war. There is a stark contrast between what the occupants of the stagecoach talk about, specifically their intention to resist the invaders, versus their actual actions—running away from the conflict in a cowardly fashion. Another significant characterization that de Maupassant utilizes in this story is the stereotype of the German soldiers. He portrays them as dull and slow-witted, the soldier at the inn as being arrogant and immoral. He is shown to be uncultured, almost barbaric, and needlessly destructive. Then, conversely, he shows the regular humanized version of the German soldier, in many passages describing the troops longing to return home to their families. Another significant theme is that of class barriers. The upper class is portrayed as greedy, weak, corrupt, and materialistic.
The story begins during the time period of the Franco-Prussian war, and it follows the journey of a group of French residents from Rouen, which was recently occupied by the Prussian army. There are ten travelers in the group, all of whom have their own various reasons for deciding to leave Rouen. They plan to flee to Le Havre in a stagecoach. The travelers are described briefly. Boule de Suif, which can be translated as butterball, suet dumpling, or ball of fat, is the main character and a prostitute. Her real name is Elisabeth Rousset. She was always an unpopular person in Rouen because of her social standing. Surprisingly, Boule de Suif is established as the most patriotic passenger. This is compared to the aristocrats, who would be happy to betray their country in order to return to their comfortable lives. There is the strict Democrat, Cornudet; a couple named M. and Mme. Loiseau, who owns a shop and who come from the petty bourgeoisie; another couple, M. and Mme. Carré-Lamadon, a wealthy upper-bourgeoisie factory owning pair; the Comte and Comtesse of Bréville; and finally, two nuns. The carriage contains a wide range of social classes, representing different parts of the French population, and acts as a microcosm of the contemporary French society. In the beginning of the story, the author details the background of all of these characters.
The weather is terrible and unpredictable, and the coach is required to move frustratingly slow. By midday, the coach has only traveled a few miles, and the occupants grow increasingly irritated. Initially, the upper-class passengers snub Boule de Suif, but they change their behavior once she brings out a picnic basket full to the brim with lovely food and offers to share her goods with the rest of them.
The coach stops in the village of Tôtes, taking refuge at a local coaching inn. Suddenly hearing a distinctly German voice, the occupants are frightened to discover they have wandered into Prussian-held territory. A Prussian officer interrogates them, deciding to detain them indefinitely without giving them any reason. Two days go by, and the occupants of the coach grow more and more impatient. Finally, Boule de Suif tells the rest of her comrades that they are being held until she agrees to sleep with the officer in charge. She is called in front of the officer over and over, always refusing his demands. At the beginning, the travelers support her decision, but as time progresses, they become agitated with her. They begin to demand that she sleep with the officer so that they can escape. Boule de Suif is subjected to all manner of pressure, including various examples of logic and morality to convince her that it is the right thing to do. Finally, Boule de Suif is convinced and gives in. She sleeps with the officer, who is true to his word and allows them to leave.
The next morning, the occupants load into the carriage and resume their journey to Le Havre. Though they once relied on Boule de Suif and her picnic basket of food, they now refuse to share their food with her on the way. Though they pleaded with her to sleep with the officer to free them all, they now glance at her scathingly while refusing to even acknowledge her presence. At the end of the story, Boule de Suif seethes with rage against her fellow passengers and their hypocrisy. She finally breaks, weeping over her lost dignity and the self-sacrifice she made for those who do not appreciate it.