A portrait of meekness, brilliantly drawn.
Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant was born at Château de Miromesnil near Dieppe, Normandy, and educated in Rouen and Yvetot, likewise in that Northern French region bordering on the Channel and the North Sea. Introduced to Gustave Flaubert by his mother, an old friend of Flaubert’s, the creator of “Madame Bovary” soon became Maupassant’s mentor and in turn, introduced him to Émile Zola, Tourgeniev and other proponents of literary realism. And encouraged by Flaubert, the erstwhile volunteer of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 eventually turned to journalism and published his first book, a collection of poetry, in 1880. He soon became known as a masterful short story writer, owing the clarity and concise nature of his prose in no small part to the lessons learned from his fatherly friend. Normandy, the beloved land of his childhood and adolescence, plays a dominant role in much of Maupassant’s writing; both as a backdrop and as a means of highlighting emotions and plot developments.
In six novels, Maupassant condensed the motifs explored in his numerous short stories, which would ultimately count over 300. “Une Vie” (“A Life”) is the first of these novels, published in 1883. It traces the life of Jeanne de Lamare, née Jeanne des Vauds, only daughter and heiress to the fortune of a Norman aristocrat family, from the moment she leaves her convent school at the age of seventeen, to advanced age and grandmotherhood. Naive by nature and sheltered from the harsh realities of life behind the walls of the convent, young Jeanne’s outlook on life upon returning to her parents’ chateau on the Norman coast, les Peuples, which she shall eventually inhabit with her husband, is innocently optimistic. Only a few months after her arrival, she falls in love with the viscount de Lamare whom she marries in very short order. But from here on out her life changes rapidly, because once married, her husband drops any pretence at the charm he has displayed while wooing her. Jeanne, wholly unprepared by nature and education to adequately respond to her husband’s miserly attitude and multiple forms of abuse, nor finding forceful support in her parents, sees no other way than to passively tolerate his behavior; even when she stumbles into proof after proof of the extent of his transgressions against common decency and against his marital vows. And her son, in his childhood her one remaining pride and joy (and therefore, hopelessly spoiled), once grown to manhood turns out another major disappointment. Jeanne grows disillusioned and bitter, frequently complaining that life has treated her excessively unfairly.
“Une Vie” draws, inter alia, on themes developed in seven short stories published in the years 1881 – 1883. The critically acclaimed novel sold 25,000 copies within the first few months after its publication. It has all the features of the writing style for which Maupassant, by then, had already become known: a crisp prose very much to the point being expressed; a sharp eye for the heroine’s social context and the daily life of the Norman aristocracy; a vibrant tableau of Normandy’s sea, fields, woods, seasons and weather; wit, irony, and great insight into human nature. From the torrential rain storm which accompanies Jeanne’s transition from the convent to her familial château at the beginning of the story to a tranquil sunset several decades later when Jeanne finally makes her peace with life, nature is brilliantly used to highlight the heroine’s feelings, trials and tribulations.
In her passivity and weakness, Jeanne is not an easy heroine to like or at least, to emphasize with; nor does Maupassant make the point that she had no alternative to her inert tolerance of her husband’s and her son’s wrongdoings: the image of her bonne Rosalie, pragmatic and down to earth and ultimately much better equipped than Jeanne to deal with life’s uncertainties and deceptions, and the example of several other local noblewomen makes it clear that it is Jeanne’s character more than anything else that renders her unable to adequately respond to her situation in life and to the abuse she suffers. Yet, Maupassant was not interested in those other women – so little, in fact, that their characterization barely exceeds the level of a superficial sketch; including and in particular the portrayal of the one woman with whom Jeanne’s husband is involved in a lasting and profound affair and who claims, nevertheless, to be Jeanne’s friend. Similarly, Jeanne’s husband is almost two-dimensional in his boorishness. Nevertheless, from the first page on there is no denying that this novel was written by one of the master storytellers of his time.
Guy de Maupassant died at the age of only 43 years, of an illness which drove him to madness and alcohol abuse and rendered him unable to write during the last three years of his life, thus forcing him to leave only fragments of his last two novels, L’Âme Étrangère and L’Angélus. Émile Zola said at his funeral that future generations who, unlik––e Maupassant’s numerous friends, would only know him through his literary work, would come to love him for the eternal love song to life which he sang in his writings. Although given the pessimistic outlook to life taken by its heroine, “Une Vie” is an unlikely candidate to put these words to proof, and although it does not quite reach the brilliance of Maupassant’s short stories and later novels, particularly the piercingly accurate and sardonic “Bel Ami,” the writer’s first novel is the manifestation of a unique talent and, yes, a declaration of love to a life which is after all, as Jeanne’s bonne Rosalie muses, “never as good nor as bad as one believes.”
“One sometimes weeps over one’s illusions with as much bitterness as over a death.”
“She realized for the first time that two people can never reach each others deepest feelings and instincts, that they spend their lives side by side, linked it may be, but not mingled, and that each one’s inmost being must go through life eternally alone.”