28 pages 56 minutes read

Guy de Maupassant

Boule De Suif

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1880

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Boule de Suif”

“Boule de Suif,” which translates to “ball of fat” in English, is a short story by 19th-century French Naturalist writer Guy de Maupassant. Published in 1880, it was his first published story and is considered one of his greatest works. The story explores the power dynamics of class and gender while also painting a picture of the dismal final days of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 in Prussian-occupied France. All told, Maupassant wrote some 300 short stories as well as six novels and is regarded as the greatest French short story writer.

This guide refers to the version published in The Works of Guy de Maupassant, Vol. 1: Boule de Suif and Other Stories, originally published in 1909 by Bigelow, Smith and Co. and freely available on Project Gutenberg.

Content Warning: This guide discusses sexual assault and exploitation.

The story opens with a description of French soldiers retreating as the Prussian army advances on Rouen. When the Prussians arrive, the citizens of Rouen are obliged to give them quarter in their homes. An uneasy peace settles over the town: Most of Rouen’s inhabitants find it easier to behave courteously to the occupying forces, but occasionally a Prussian soldier turns up murdered.

Mademoiselle Elizabeth Rousset, nicknamed Boule de Suif, is part of a group of 10 travelers that has obtained permission from the Prussians to travel overland to Dieppe and ultimately to the port of Havre, still occupied by the French army. The group departs in a horse-drawn coach. However, the journey is slowed by snowy weather that blankets the road and countryside. The occupants begin to inspect one another. Among them are Monsieur Loiseau, a wholesale wine merchant, and his wife; Monsieur Carré-Lamadon, a cotton merchant, and his wife; and Count and Countess Hubert de Breville. These six passengers are representatives of “revenued society […] honest well-to-do people possessed of Religion and Principles” (11). Also in the coach are two nuns, a democrat named Cornudet, and Boule de Suif, “a little roly-poly creature […] her skin tightly stretched and shiny, her bust enormous, and yet with it all so wholesomely, temptingly fresh and appetizing” (12).

The tension in the coach rises when the wives in the traveling group realize Boule de Suif is a sex worker and start whispering disparagingly about her among themselves. Boule de Suif silences the women with a look, and half the day passes. The occupants of the coach grow hungry—all the more so as they realize the coach’s slow pace means they will not reach Tôtes, where they had planned to have lunch, until after nightfall. While the others are unprepared, Boule de Suif produces from under her seat a large basket filled with food and drink and begins to eat. Knowing the group is hungry, Boule de Suif offers to share her meal. Some are reluctant, but Loiseau implores them, saying, “[W]e are all companions in misfortune […]. Come, ladies, don’t stand on ceremony—take what you can get and be thankful” (18-19). As they eat, they talk about the war. Boule de Suif explains how she tried to strangle a Prussian soldier who had come to her home to be quartered; she is leaving to avoid repercussions. Cornudet congratulates her on her patriotism, but an argument nearly breaks out when he realizes she is a Bonapartist.

Night falls. Through the darkness, Loiseau notices “a sudden movement between Boule de Suif and Cornudet, […] as if [Cornudet] had received a well-directed but noiseless blow” (22). After 13 hours on the road, the group arrives in Tôtes, which they are dismayed to find occupied by Prussian troops. An officer confronts the group, asking them to get out of the coach. They comply, and the officer examines their passport, which lists each traveler’s name and description; he then leaves.

The travelers find rooms at an inn and wait for supper. Just as they are about to eat, the innkeeper, Monsieur Follenvie, appears, asking for “Elizabeth Rousset.” He tells her that the Prussian officer wants to speak to her. Boule de Suif refuses. The count tells Boule de Suif that refusing to speak to the officer is a mistake that could put her and the rest of the group in danger. Boule de Suif leaves to speak with the officer and returns 10 minutes later visibly angry. The other travelers ask her what happened, but she refuses to tell them.

After dinner, they all retire for the night. Loiseau’s wife goes to bed while he remains awake, using the keyhole of their room to peek out into the hallway. He eventually sees Boule de Suif standing outside her room and barring Cornudet from entering.

The group plans to leave the next day. In the morning, however, the coach driver tells the count and the two merchants that the Prussian officer has ordered them to stay. The count and Monsieur Carré-Lamadon ask to speak with the officer, who tells them the group cannot leave simply because he says so. During the afternoon, the men discuss all sorts of theories concerning their detainment, wondering if they are being kept as hostages or taken prisoner. Just before dinner, the innkeeper appears and brings a message to Boule de Suif from the Prussian officer asking if she has changed her mind. She says no. The other travelers confront Boule de Suif, and she finally tells them that the officer is demanding sex from her.

Initially the travelers are indignant and disgusted by the Prussian officer’s demands. By the next evening, however, their moods change. The following morning, Boule de Suif attends a child’s christening at a nearby church. While she is gone, the other travelers plot how to convince Boule de Suif to give in to the Prussian officer so they can continue their journey.

When Boule de Suif returns, the wives of the group try convincing her to change her mind by speaking about all of the women of history and myth who have made similar sacrifices for their country. The older nun suggests that an apparent sin may not be sinful if its purpose is moral. She also says that she and the younger nun have been sent for to nurse hundreds of soldiers at Havre who are afflicted with smallpox. These soldiers might die because the nuns are unable to continue the journey. Later in the afternoon, the count takes Boule de Suif for a walk, exalting “the sacrifice she would be making for them, [and] touch[ing] upon their gratitude” (46). At dinner, the travelers are told Boule de Suif will not be joining them: She has agreed to the Prussian officer’s demands.

The travelers celebrate with champagne—all except Cornudet, who says that their behavior is disgraceful. However, the travelers poke fun at Cornudet when Loiseau tells them about seeing him seemingly propositioning Boule de Suif and being rebuffed.

The following morning, the travelers are ready to depart. Boule de Suif is the last to appear, looking unhappy and flustered. As she gets into the coach, everybody avoids her “as if she had brought the plague in her skirts” (50). Boule de Suif sits quietly, humiliated.

After a few hours on the road, Loiseau mentions that he is hungry. The travelers all pull out food. This time, Boule de Suif is the only one who did not bring provisions for the road, as she left in a hurry. However, no one offers her anything or pays her any attention at all. Boule de Suif begins silently crying. Madame Loiseau attributes her tears to “shame.” The story ends with Cornudet whistling and singing the “Marseillaise” while Boule de Suif cries.