For days, French soldiers with long beards and tattered uniforms have been wandering through town, seeming broken. Their units are disbanded and they march without a flag, seemingly by habit, looking tired and without resolve. Their leaders were once merchants but are now “warriors of circumstance,” elected as officers based on their families or on “the length of their mustaches.” They discuss battle strategy as though they alone are responsible for the fate of France, and they fear their foot-soldiers, whose bravery can quickly give way to debauchery.
The opening descriptions are cinematic, focusing on a group of people rather than specific characters. This demonstrates the way in which these French foot soldiers are united as one miserable unit, beaten down by war. Furthermore, the foot soldiers don’t seem to have a clear allegiance to or investment in any cause (they’re marching “without a flag” due to habit alone), emphasizing that this is just a job for them—albeit a risky and terrible one. This passage also implicitly criticizes military officers as being chosen, absurdly, based on money rather than experience or skill. Maupassant depicts the officers’ strategy discussions as pompous, and he emphasizes the emptiness of their authority by revealing their fear of the foot soldiers they command.
The Prussian army is about to enter the French city of Rouen, and the National Guard has retreated. As the townspeople wait anxiously for the occupying army to arrive, the streets are empty and the shops are closed. When the Prussians arrive, the people of Rouen, who are shut inside their houses, feel oddly excited. It’s the feeling of inevitable catastrophe, of security and law disappearing, leaving people powerless in the face of “unreasoning, ferocious brutality,” destroying faith in justice, god, and reason.
Here, Maupassant shows how war disrupts the lives of everyday people. Those who weren’t conscripted into the terrible job of foot soldier are now hiding inside their homes, unable to continue their lives or business, merely because of some wartime strategy that silly officers have cooked up. Maupassant depicts this as cataclysmic: they’re expecting something so terrible to happen that they’ve lost faith in their bedrock principles, such as religion and justice. However, while their lives are undeniably upended, they are not so affected by the violence of war that they can’t still a feel a little excitement at the prospect of change.
As the invaders become occupiers, the terror dissipates. Soon, Prussian officers eat at French dinner tables, politely expressing their distaste for having conquered Rouen. Some of the townspeople see an advantage in being kind to the Prussians; the Prussians are now in power, after all, and maybe opposing them wouldn’t be brave so much as foolish. Many townspeople are polite to the Prussians in private, within their own homes, but they know not to do this in public. The streets remain empty except for the Prussian soldiers, who—despite their “great weapons of death”—seem to have no contempt for the people they’ve conquered.
The townspeople’s initial fear is quickly shown to be misdirected: the Prussian soldiers are fairly similar to the citizens of Rouen. There is a distinct contrast between the intimidating weapons that the soldiers carry and the good manners that they have inside the homes of the French, complicating the French stereotype that their Prussian enemies are brutal and barbarous. Note the hypocrisy here of feeding and entertaining enemy soldiers at home while pretending not to know them in public. This is perhaps an indication that the French civilians are spineless, but it could also be seen as an acknowledgement that the goals of this war are irrelevant to everyday people. They stand to gain nothing personally from war, so it seems absurd to pretend to hate the Prussian soldiers even in private, especially when friendliness might benefit them.
Life continues, but there’s a strange atmosphere in town: the “odor of invasion” affects everything. The Prussians start demanding money from the French, and while the townspeople can afford it, they bristle at this indignity. Prussian soldiers sometimes turn up murdered, since the “hatred of the foreigner” inspires those Frenchmen who are “ready to die for an idea.” Nonetheless, once the Prussians have established order without horror or brutality, the townspeople once again focus on trade and commerce. Some locals with financial interests in the French-occupied city of Le Havre decide to travel there through Prussian territory.
This passage reveals the townspeople of Rouen to be of comfortable means: when the Prussians extort them, they object on principle—not because they don’t have the money to pay. It’s noteworthy that losing money seems to bother the people of Rouen more than the Prussian occupation itself, which they seem to have met with a shrug. This shows most civilians to be clearly unpatriotic, although the ones who uselessly murder Prussian soldiers in support of “an idea” alone also seem silly. In this way, Maupassant critiques both the nationalistic ideologues who fuel conflict and the self-interested civilians who will accept anything besides financial loss.
On a cold, frosty morning before daybreak, ten travelers meet by a small carriage. They are covered in blankets, but a few men recognize each other and comment that they are also bringing their wives. These men are Mr. Loiseau, Mr. Carré-Lamadon, and Count Hubert de Breville. All three determine that they will not be returning to Rouen—they’d go over to England if the Prussians ever reach Le Havre—because all three of the men “ha[ve] the same projects” and thus are “of the same mind.”
These men do not care where they end up as long as there is commercial opportunity, showing a lack of patriotism and commitment to their country. They act as though the war were merely a nuisance, rather than devastating, which shows how relatively insulated they have been from the violence. Notably, these men discuss their wives as though they were property—they’re bringing their wives with them in the same way they might bring luggage.
It begins to snow, and the coachman starts harnessing the carriage and suggests that the travelers get inside. The three men “install” their wives into the coach, enter, and are then followed by the four others who are still covered and indistinct. The three married women—Mrs. Loiseau, Mrs. Carré-Lamadon, and Countess Hubert de Breville—sit towards the back and bring out foot stoves. The carriage finally leaves, but it moves slowly because of the snow. Day breaks, and light enters the carriage, illuminating all of the travelers.
When Maupassant says that the men “install” their wives into the carriage, he emphasizes how little power the married women have. The women aren’t depicted entering the carriage of their own volition; rather, their husbands place them there, as though they were inanimate. It's also immediately clear, when the married women sit together, that they are a group united only by their status as wives. After all, these women seem not to know each other, but they’re expected to become companions nonetheless.
Aside from the three married couples there are four other travelers, and in the light of day they all eye each other curiously. Sitting next to the other women are two nuns who hold rosary beads and mutter a series of prayers. One has smallpox all over her face and the other is gaunt and has lung disease. Besides these nuns, there are two single travelers: a man and a woman, Cornudet and Miss Elizabeth Rousset. Cornudet is immediately identified as a democrat, angering and irritating the other men, and Miss Rousset is recognized as a prostitute, horrifying the married women.
By calling attention to the nuns’ noticeable physical ailments, Maupassant shows that they have sacrificed many human comforts for their religion. But Maupassant does not suggest that this is a worthwhile trade: the nuns do not seem particularly happy, and being unmarried doesn’t seem to make them any more free than the married women in the coach—the nuns, after all, are embedded in a Church hierarchy that expects them to submit to men. Along with the nuns, Cornudet and Miss Rousset are quickly identified as outliers in the carriage—just as they are outliers in genteel society. For Miss Rousset this is because of her “scandalous” profession as prostitute, and for Cornudet it is because of his politics (the other men, already shown to prioritize commercial interests over any particular ideology, have no patience for politics). The married travelers’ immediate rejection of Cornudet and Miss Rousset demonstrates high society’s self-importance and rigid adherence social hierarchy.
Mrs. Loiseau, Mrs. Carré-Lamadon, and the Countess start to whisper things like “public shame,” loud enough so that Miss Rousset can hear it. She throws them a fierce look, though, and everybody averts their eyes (except for Mr. Loiseau, who cannot look away). The married “honest” women draw together, forming a group based on “married dignity,” and they quickly start chatting as though they had always been excellent friends.
By shaming Miss Rousset, the married women hope to embarrass her while also distancing themselves from her. These women choose to act like fast friends, bonding in a clearly superficial way just to make sure Miss Rousset feels unwelcomed. This highlights the shallowness of these women; moments ago, they were strangers, but now they use the “insult” of Miss Rousset’s presence to align themselves. In the face of this cruelty, Miss Rousset’s strong will is evident and she refuses to be humiliated. The loud whispering designed to embarrass her instead causes her to bravely stand up for herself (by staring the others down). Mr. Loiseau is the only character who doesn’t avoid looking at Miss Rousset, establishing his pattern of ignoring social niceties out of impulse or curiosity.
Cornudet, too, draws the married men together against his rabble-rousing democratic ideas. The Count discusses the “havoc” that the war has caused, such as losing cattle and crops (although he’ll hardly feel the financial loss). Mr. Carré-Lamadon talks about large amount of money he has stashed away as a reserve. Mr. Loiseau, it turns out, sold the French government all of the leftover wine he’d had in his cellars, and he is looking to collect on this when he arrives in Le Havre. The three are “brothers through money.”
Again, the three married men disapprove of the democrat Cornudet because their only focus is on commercial projects. This selfishness is highlighted by the shallow conversation that they have while intentionally excluding Cornudet. The Count talking about the perils of war shows how removed he is from the men on the ground, Mr. Carré-Lamadon bragging about his savings shows how he was never under any real threat during the war, and Mr. Loiseau making a huge sale to the French government when it was in disarray shows how he used the chaos of war to profit. Maupassant is reiterating the married men’s inclination towards valuing personal comfort over the needs of their country.
Most of the group expects to eat lunch on their way in the town of Tôtes. But the carriage has moved so slowly that it now looks as though they’ll be lucky to make it there by nightfall. Mr. Loiseau, Mr. Carré-Lamadon, and Count Hubert expect to find some small eating-house or bar, but the Prussian occupation has scared away businesses in the area. The three men leave the coach and run up to farms along road in search of food, but the peasants of the French countryside have learned to hide their food so that Prussian soldiers don’t come and take provisions by force.
These wealthy men—used to trade and commerce—expected to be able to buy their food along the way and are completely stumped when they cannot get what they want. In this moment, titles and money have no effect, and it is telling how disorientated and confused this makes these men. Their belief that they could buy or even take food from the French country people shows how accustomed they are to having access to resources and getting their way; it also shows that they do not mind exploiting people who clearly have less.
By now it is one o’clock in the afternoon, and everybody in the carriage is extremely hungry. Mr. Loiseau says loudly that there is a “hollow in [his] stomach.” Nobody is in the mood to speak anymore because they are thinking about how much they’d like to eat. Miss Rousset keeps checking something underneath her seat, but then straightening up and looking around at her traveling companions. Mr. Loiseau makes a joke about giving “a thousand francs” for a piece of ham—a joke that his wife Mrs. Loiseau does not appreciate, as she is not interested in wasting money, even in jest. The Count says that he cannot understand why he didn’t think to bring food. Everyone else “reproach[es]” themselves in the same way.
Although it is not known yet in the narrative, Maupassant later shows that, in this scene, Miss Rousset is specifically not eating because the rest of the characters do not have food. This selflessness sets her apart from the other characters, who never show that level of caring. Mr. Loiseau demonstrates his usual pattern of making a joke during tense times; his wife, however, does not appreciate jokes about money, which subtly demonstrates that the Loiseaus have less money than the Carré-Lamadons and the Hubert de Brevilles. This reaffirms that there is a hierarchy even among the wealthy.
Cornudet, however, at least has rum. He offers it to the group, but everybody coldly refuses him, except for Mr. Loiseau who takes two gulps. The merchant is now in a good mood, as the alcohol warms him up, and he makes a joke about eating the “fattest of the passengers.” Cornudet laughs, but everyone else is a little horrified, as they think it is a reference to Miss Rousset. The nuns stop mumbling into their roseries but keep their eyes cast downwards.
Mr. Loiseau, again, demonstrates his typical brashness by making a tasteless joke during an uneasy situation. Although most of the carriage doesn’t laugh, nobody stands up for Miss Rousset—not even the nuns, who one might assume would disapprove of cruel behavior. Everyone else’s unwillingness to come to her defense further divides Miss Rousset from her traveling peers.
The coach trudges on—it is now three o’clock, and the passengers are in pain they are so hungry. Unable to resist any longer, Miss Rousset bends down and pulls out a basket from under her seat. Beneath a clean white napkin, there is a feast—chickens, pates, fruits, along with four bottles of wine; she packed three whole days’ worth of food in case they did not reach an inn. Miss Rousset starts quietly eating the food. As the smell fills the carriage, everyone’s mouth waters and resentment grows. Some of the other women begin to have violent thoughts towards Miss Rousset.
Miss Rousset is not part of upper-class “civilized” society and she is used to providing for herself—this is clear because of how much food she packed, and because she did not simply expect to buy food along the way. This resourcefulness momentarily makes her the most powerful traveler in the carriage, and the other travelers—many of whom are used to feeling superior—resent her viciously because of this shifted power dynamic.
Mr. Loiseau cannot stop looking at Miss Rousset’s chicken, and he finally speaks to her, praising her foresight. Miss Rousset immediately offers him some food. He says that he could not possibly refuse. “Everything goes in time of war, does it not, Madame?” he says. He starts to eat so happily that the rest of the carriage becomes even more distressed that they themselves are not eating.
Although everyone wants some of Miss Rousset’s food, Mr. Loiseau is the only person to put aside his pride and pay her a compliment to get what he wants. His assertion that “everything goes” shows how he would typically not be speaking so freely with a prostitute. Miss Rousset’s kindness—she chooses to ignore his joke from earlier—sets the standard for thoughtful behavior in the carriage.
Miss Rousset then offers her food to the two nuns, who also eagerly accept. Cornudet decides to join in and they enjoy a sort of picnic in the carriage while the others watch. The remaining passengers open and close their mouths, sick with hunger and fury. Mr. Loiseau, after a time, convinces Mrs. Loiseau to also accept Miss Rousset’s offer.
Miss Rousset’s willingness to share with the two nuns demonstrate her inclination to sacrifice on their behalf even though they’ve not extended any of the same courtesy. With Cournudet, Miss Rousset, the nuns, and the Loiseaus all eating, it is only the two wealthiest couples who are now suffering from an inability to see Miss Rousset as a worthy companion. At this point it is clear to the reader that Miss Rousset would share from the basket if the wealthier travelers were not ignoring her.
At this point, Mr. Carré-Lamadon and Mrs. Carré-Lamadon and the Count and Countess are in total agony—they can’t believe that food is so close but that they are not eating it. Suddenly, with a sigh, Mrs. Carré-Lamadon goes pale and faints. Her husband panics and nobody knows what to do until one of the nuns offers a bit of wine. Mrs. Carré-Lamadon is revived and urged to finish a whole glass. The group determines that the faint was from hunger.
Mrs. Carré-Lamadon is so hungry that she faints—and still she won’t consider sharing food with a prostitute. This rigid adherence to class separation is shown to be excessive, and even dangerous. The nun’s revival of Mrs. Carré-Lamadon is reminiscent of a religious ceremony, but the scene is turned on its head because the woman is not drinking the blood of Christ but the wine of a prostitute.
Miss Rousset is very upset, and she stammers how she absolutely would have given her food to the “ladies and gentlemen” if she’d “dared.” Mr. Loiseau implores the rest of the group to abandon normal customs and accept the young woman’s offer of food. The four hungry travelers still do not agree, until, after hesitation, the Count finally says that they will accept, with much thanks.
When she refers to the Carré-Lamadons and the Count and Countess as the “ladies and gentlemen,” Miss Rousset is acknowledging her lower status in the carriage. She wants to be kind and share the food among the group, but she is intimidated by the barriers of wealth and class that the others clearly take so seriously. Mr. Loiseau is unable to convince the others to eat from the basket, but the Count (who has the highest status of any traveler) easily convinces them, demonstrating again a clear hierarchy between all travelers.
The whole group descends on the basket and quickly empties it. Mrs. Carré-Lamadon and the Countess now allow themselves to talk to Miss Rousset (feeling an obligation because they’ve eaten her food). Although they speak casually at first, Miss Rousset carries herself very well, in the opinion of the fancier women, and soon they talk “with more abandon.” Mrs. Loiseau, though, is a bit surly; she remains quiet and eats.
In swiftly devouring the contents of Miss Rousset’s basket, the group is perhaps parallel to a pack of hungry animals, suggesting that the wealthier characters are not as poised as they might like to think. Still, Mrs. Carré-Lamadon and the Countess feel socially obligated to talk to Miss Rousset after they’ve finished eating, preserving some vague social niceties. Mrs. Loiseau, as the poorest married woman, doesn’t feel the need to do this—but she also appears momentarily left out of the group. This, again, shows divisions even within the wealthy travelers and suggests that the wealthiest characters are more cunning and calculating.
Discussing the war, the group contrasts the Prussians’ horrible acts with French bravery. As they share personal stories, Miss Rousset says that, despite having a house stocked with food (and by all accounts a thriving career), she left Rouen because she could not bear the sight of the Prussians descending on her city. The Prussians make her “blood boil” and she’d even tried to choke one of them. The others are impressed by her fortitude.
Miss Rousset reveals that she is the only traveler who has ever attacked a Prussian; she also is the only character who gave up personal comfort on account of patriotic pride. These two things are contrasted with the shallow earlier conversations, when the others had mostly suffered simple financial inconveniences and had still found a way to be upset.
Hearing her story, Cornudet adopts a smug smile, as though he himself had fought a Prussian. He gives a short but didactic political lecture, then makes an insulting comment about Napoleon Bonaparte III. Because Miss Rousset is a Bonapartist, she lashes out at him, demanding exactly what he would have done if he’d been in charge—would he have ever gone into battle himself? The Count then steps in to “calm” the “exasperated” young woman. Although there is awkwardness in the carriage afterwards, Mrs. Carré-Lamadon and the Countess are even more impressed by Miss Rousset’s outburst.
Cornudet sees himself as some sort of political messiah, but Miss Rousset’s outburst shows that she sees the hypocrisy in him (after all, she has done more for her country than Cornudet has) and it also shows that she is unafraid to speak her mind. The Count believes he can always act as a voice of reason, because of his status, and by coming into the conversation to quiet Miss Rousset he attempts to take control; he simply sees her as an “exasperated” woman, not as a lively equal. The wealthy Mrs. Carré-Lamadon and the Countess’s silent appreciation of Miss Rousset show their inability to ever say what they are feeling.
It is now ten o’clock and they’re still in the carriage. The food is gone, night falls, and the group stops talking as they digest. They feel the cold again. The Countess gives her foot stove to Miss Rousset, and Mrs. Loiseau and Mrs. Carré-Lamadon give theirs to the two nuns.
For these brief moments there appears to be an egalitarian atmosphere in the carriage—particularly among the women—which is clearly prompted by Miss Rousset’s sharing of her food.
At long last, the carriage arrives in the town of Tôtes. The group traveled thirteen hours in one day; they are exhausted, and it is late. The coach pulls up in front of an inn, but before the group can take shelter inside, they hear a German voice in the darkness and the sound of a sword on the ground. Everyone is frightened. The driver opens the carriage door and shines a lantern on the group, who all look wide-eyed and fearful. Next to the driver they see a Prussian officer—an “excessively tall” young man who is “squeezed into his uniform” and with “an enormous mustache.” He asks them all to descend.
The Prussian officer is reminiscent of the French commanders chosen “on account of…the lengths of their mustaches.” The reference to the Prussian’s mustache suggests that this officer, too, is unfit for his position. The rest of this description emphasizes this point and makes him a conundrum—a character who shouldn’t physically be intimidating but who is nonetheless intimidating, on account of his power and station alone. Maupassant once again shows the arbitrary way that commanders are chosen at wartime.
The two nuns obey the order first, followed by the Count and Countess, then Mr. Carré-Lamadon and Mrs. Carré-Lamadon then Mr. Loiseau and Mr. Loiseau. Mr. Loiseau greets the officer, who looks right through him. Although they are closest to the door, Miss Rousset and Cornudet leave the carriage last. Miss Rousset is dismayed and even a little “disgusted” at her companions’ docility.
Miss Rousset leaving the carriage last is a small act of patriotic defiance, contrasted again with the other characters' willingness to privilege personal safety over expressing their patriotism by resisting the order.
Finally, the group can enter the kitchen of the inn. The German officer asks the driver for the travelers’ papers (which state their names and professions) and determines that they all have clearances to travel. Since everything is in order, he leaves, and the group breathes a collective sigh of relief. They even get their appetite back.
That the documents include mention of everyone’s profession foreshadows what is to come, when the Prussian officer will demand Miss Rousset sleep with him before the rest of the group leaves. Maupassant creates a sense of foreboding around the officer—so unqualified for his status but yet with so much power—and it is not difficult to feel uneasy because he now knows that Miss Rousset is a prostitute.
They group orders dinner. A little while later, before the food is ready, the inn keeper Mr. Follenvie comes down. Slightly out of breath, he lets the group know that the Prussian officer wishes to see Miss Rousset. She bristles and insists that she will not go. The group is clearly bothered, but the Count says to her that she would be wrong to “resist those in power.” He makes the argument that it must be about some very small matter, and the rest of the group begs her to comply with the officer’s order. She does, but not before telling the group “[i]t is for you that I do this.” The Countess grasps Miss Rousset’s hands in thanks.
Here, the Prussian officer exercises the power he has over Miss Rousset when he makes this request; he has the upper hand both because of his gender and because of his status as commanding officer of the victorious army. Miss Rousset shows her unflinching devotion to her country by refusing to see him; the Count, though, does not value her firm stance and he essentially chides her for it. Speaking for the group, the Count demonstrates how the others are already willing to ask Miss Rousset to sacrifice for them. The Countess’s hand-grabbing is a nice touch, but Maupassant makes sure it reads as an empty gesture—if she really cared about Miss Rousset in the fond way that she suggests, she would not ask her to bend to the officer’s will.
The group is nervous because they now fear the possible repercussions of Miss Rousset’s hot temper. But ten minutes later she returns, flustered and angry but uninterested in sharing what happened. Even the Count cannot get it out of her. So, the group sits down to dinner. Despite their initial alarm, the travelers enjoy a merry meal, full of cider and wine and, for Cornudet, beer—the drink of revolutionary democrats.
The group is already showing signs of their characteristic hypocrisy; earlier they had valued Miss Rousset’s determination, but when their personal safety is at risk, they change their minds. Cornudet is in his element at this dinner—drinking and talking politics, far away from any fighting.
Before dinner is over, the war comes up in conversation again. Mr. Follenvie and Mrs. Follenvie join the other travelers, and the innkeeper’s wife quite enjoys talking. She is livid about the war—she has two sons in the army, plus Prussian soldiers took some money from her. She calls the Prussians lazy, dirty, greedy, and useless. But she also makes a point about how countries, when at war, treat soldiers “as if they were game.” Cornudet and Mrs. Follenvie agree on something substantial: that the kings and rulers of empire who make war should be punished.
Mrs. Follenvie’s comments mirror the sentiment of many French citizens: that the other side is full of horrible people. But, her observation that people at the top levels make decisions that mostly affect the lives of poorer people spells out Maupassant’s message of class inequity in wartime: the young men, as foot soldiers, get treated like “game,” and the kings and commanders make decisions without ever feeling their full effect.
Meanwhile, in a corner, Mr. Loiseau sells the innkeeper six cases of wine. Later that night, for fun, he spies on the hallway after everybody has gone to bed. Mr. Loiseau sees Miss Rousset appear in the corridor—then, he also sees Cornudet. The two are outside Miss Rousset’s room, and she seems to be pushing Cornudet away. She says no, no, not “[w]hen there are Prussians in the house, in the very next room, perhaps.” Cornudet, rejected, leaves Miss Rousset alone.
Mr. Loiseau is always looking for a good trade opportunity, and for a bit of fun. When Miss Rousset turns down Cornudet, she does it because of her unwavering patriotism—she couldn’t imagine sleeping with anyone when there are Prussians “in the very next room, perhaps,” and even the self-serving Cornudet respects this. Mr. Loiseau will later recount this scene after Miss Rousset sleeps with the Prussian officer and, instead of finding anything sad about it, think it is hilarious.
At the agreed-upon time the next morning, all of the travelers are ready to leave Tôtes. Inexplicably, however, the carriage is not prepared. They are certain they told the driver eight o’clock; mystified, Mr. Loiseau, Mr. Carré-Lamadon, and the Count walk into town to try to sort it out. In town, they come across Prussian foot soldiers helping the townspeople with their daily tasks—paring potatoes, doing laundry, even looking after little children. The Count asks a townsperson about the strange co-habitation, and the villager explains that these Prussian soldiers are victims of the war too, just like the French, and that they, too, “weep for their homes.” The three traveling men are incredulous. Mr. Loiseau makes a joke about the French and the Prussians “repopulating the land.”
Here, the Prussian soldiers are so much kinder than any of the French travelers anticipated. Mr. Loiseau, Mr. Carré-Lamadon, and the Count show how removed they are from working-class people when they are shocked that enemies of the same social class might have something in common. When a townsperson says that the Prussians “weep for their homes,” he engenders deep sympathy for all the young soldiers who have been displaced by a war they did not choose to fight.
They finally locate their driver, who informs the men that he’s been given instructions not to prepare the carriage. Again, the men are mystified. The driver explains that he’d been handed strict orders from the Prussian officer. None of these men know why.
The three wealthy men are not used to having trouble getting what they want. The Prussian officer is leveraging all the power that he has over these men, who are bewildered that they are being treated so commonly.
Returning to the inn, the only thing the travelers can do is wait. Two hours later, when the innkeeper wakes up, they ask him what happened. But Mr. Follenvie knows as much as the driver—only that there were explicit orders from the Prussian officer not to let the group go. The Count requests to see the commander; he and Mr. Carré-Lamadon attempt to leverage their status and their titles for a meeting. The officer says he will see them after lunch, around one o’clock; the men must wait.
Again, the Prussian officer is putting the wealthy men in a position they are not used to being in: the position of a common person. By making them wait, he is leveraging even more power from his status as commander, further emphasizing how he, unlike the poor Prussian foot soldiers, almost enjoys the effects of this war on his life and status.
When the Prussian officer finally receives the Count, Mr. Carré-Lamadon, and Mr. Loiseau, the officer has his feet up on his desk, he is draped in a garish silk robe, and he is smoking a pipe. Despite the travelers’ inquiries, the officer will neither allow them to leave nor tell them why they cannot go. The men leave the office stunned.
Maupassant hammers home the contrast between the hard-working Prussian foot soldiers and this lazy Prussian commander by highlighting the insulting, excessive behavior of the officer. Instead of fighting the war, he’s holed up at an inn wearing silk, lounging in an armchair and abusing his power. It’s profane to think that this man is giving foot soldiers orders that might lead to their deaths. The discomfort of Mr. Loiseau, Mr. Carré-Lamadon, and particularly the Count again shows how they are used to getting whatever they ask for because of their wealth and class.
The group is now wallowing in boredom at the inn. They nervously try to piece together why they are being detained; the “richest [are] the most frightened,” as they feel that they might be held for ransom.
Unable to leverage their wealth to get what they want, their money now becomes a burden. These travelers refuse to see the irony that there are much poorer members of society being extorted; each one is only focused on themselves.
That night, before dinner, Mr. Follenvie appears and asks if Miss Rousset has “changed her mind.” Even more forcefully than before, Miss Rousset insists that she will never, ever change her mind. As the innkeeper leaves, the group crowds around her, asking her to explain what is going on. Miss Rousset relays that the Prussian officer wants to sleep with her. The group responds with total indignation. Cornudet even breaks his glass. But the next morning, everyone’s shock has worn off and the travelers start to wonder what the fastest way out of the situation is.
The group’s initial support of Miss Rousset shows the last gasp of goodwill left over from the carriage ride. However, the change in tone the next morning demonstrates how the wealthier characters ultimately prioritize personal protection over the wants and needs of people in lower social stations. Again, by resenting Miss Rousset for her strong-willed resistance to giving into the officer, they are now upset about a trait they had previously admired, only because they are now negatively impacted by it.
Bored to death, the group wanders around the town with a growing feeling of helplessness. The married men discuss escape plans (none of which are possible). When the Prussian officer passes the group out on their walk, the three married women are mortified that they’re in the presence of Miss Rousset. Mrs. Carré-Lamadon thinks to herself that the officer is even kind of attractive (she’d know—she’s been friendly with a few officers) and that if he were French there’d be nothing wrong with him.
This passage shows the married women in the group re-assuming the superiority over Miss Rousset that they’d felt when she first entered the carriage. Mrs. Carré-Lamadon reverts to class solidarity rather than gender solidarity when she muses about how the officer is handsome, implying that it wouldn’t be a big deal at all to sleep with him. Rather than feel animosity towards the Prussian officer who is attempting to extort Miss Rousset, the women revert to their classist way of thinking when they are embarrassed to be associated with Miss Rousset.
The next morning, the group can hardly speak to each other, since they are so full of boredom and despair. When Miss Rousset heads into town by herself for a christening, the married travelers immediately put their heads together and try to figure out how to get out of this situation. Mr. Loiseau comes up with the idea of leaving Miss Rousset if the Prussian will let the rest of them go. However, since the officer “under[stands] human nature” and knows that if he keeps everyone he’s more likely to get what he wants, they abandon this idea. Mrs. Loiseau—who has had enough—asks why Miss Rousset “has the right to refuse one [man] more than another.” She insists that the officer “respects married women” and he really could just take any of the women in the inn by force if he wanted to.
By talking about Miss Rousset as soon as she is out of the room, the group is reaffirming what they decided in the beginning of the story: that she is not one of them. Mr. Loiseau’s suggestion is harsh but true to his character; although the group does not often listen to him, they do this time, almost happy that he’d come up with the suggestion so that the others didn’t have to. Mrs. Loiseau’s outburst is indicative of the overall mindset in the room. Her focus on the distinction between married and single women shows how little autonomy women are allowed in this society. The Prussian’s decision to keep the whole group shows that even he understands how determined and strong-willed Miss Rousset is, and that she will only bend to his pressure if the others are suffering because of her kindness and resolve.
The group, still conspiring, finds some bleak humor in all of this. They decide that, in order to leave, they will have to convince Miss Rousset to do the officer’s bidding. However, they are determined to present the idea so slyly that Miss Rousset will think she has come up with it herself.
By devising this plan, the group shows that they are cunning and willing to use manipulation to get what they want. This cruel behavior does not match the principled airs that they put on during the rest of the trip.
During lunch, this plan takes form. Mrs. Loiseau, Mrs. Carré-Lamadon, and the Countess are kind to Miss Rousset only to “increase her docility and her confidence in their council.” The group talks an awful lot about sacrifice, and over and over they reiterate that sacrifice is perfect and natural and expected, especially of a woman in society. But Miss Rousset once again says no to the innkeeper when he comes down to pose the usual question before dinner.
Again, this intentional and calculated manipulation demonstrates the wealthier travelers’ true character. It is especially jarring to see the Count and Mrs. Carré-Lamadon use Miss Rousset’s trust in them against her; it reaffirms the slight power these two women have socially, and how they are fine with using this power only to solidify the class hierarchy.
Spirits plummet. No one in the group knows what to do. The Countess, who has no more useful dialogue about duty, absently asks the nuns to tell a religious story. Although they’d not been part of any of the earlier conversations, the two women tell a story that “len[ds] a formidable support to the conspiracy.” They choose to talk about Abraham blindly following orders because of faith. The Countess seizes this opportunity and summarizes: “the need justifies the means.”
Here, the nuns’ religious zeal ultimately causes Miss Rousset’s resolve to break—an ironic twist, as religion is Miss Rousset’s undoing rather than her salvation. Maupassant is clearly illustrating the limits of what faith can do for a person. When the Countess easily manipulates the moral of the story to apply it directly to Miss Rousset’s predicament, she shows her true colors; she’ll not only sell Miss Rousset out, but also use the devotion of others as a vehicle to get what she wants.
The group goes to bed and wakes late in the afternoon the next day. They all go for a walk. The Count takes Miss Rousset’s arm and speaks to her in a tone that is at once “paternal,” “familiar,” and “a little disdainful.” He tries both flattery and guilt, telling Miss Rousset how lucky the officer would be to sleep with such a pretty woman, but also making it clear that it is cruel of her to allow the rest of the group to remain hostages. That night, Miss Rousset does not come down for dinner.
The Count expects Miss Rousset to bend to his wishes, because he is a figure of power and influence. By trying to flatter her while also subtly calling her cruel, the Count, like his wife before him, clearly has no specific belief and will do whatever it takes to get Miss Rousset to change her mind.
Everyone is ecstatic. Mr. Loiseau cries out that he will “pay for the champagne.” The group becomes “communicative and buoyant.” They fill with joy. Everyone compliments each other, admires each other, and starts to drink heavily. Even the nuns share in a toast. Cornudet is the only traveler not wildly partying, and he leaves the room in a huff towards the end of the night. Mr. Loiseau calls Cornudet’s discontent “very green,” and he tells the others about Miss Rousset’s rejection of Cornudet. The Count and Mr. Carré-Lamadon double over in laughter.
The group’s cheer is horrifying, as they’ve literally just sacrificed a woman who has been nothing but kind to them and they are celebrating her downfall for their benefit. The intensity of everyone’s happiness is juxtaposed with the likely suffering that Miss Rousset must be going through at the same time in the very same building. Cornudet not participating in the celebration warms the reader to him slightly, but Mr. Loiseau suggests that Cornudet is mostly just jealous that Miss Rousset wouldn’t sleep with him. Again, when the wealthy Count and Mr. Carré-Lamadon find Miss Rousset’s fate hilarious instead of tragic, they are removing the masks of genteel civility and showing their true colors.
Later that night, Mrs. Loiseau says to Mr. Loiseau: “some women will take to a uniform, whether it be French or Prussian. It is all the same to them! What a pity!”
The cruel irony of Mrs. Loiseau’s statement is clear because Miss Rousset desperately did not want to sleep with the officer. Even after doing what the group wanted her to do, Miss Rousset is looked down on and scorned.
The next morning, the carriage is ready and waiting for the travelers. A cold and sunny day greets nine passengers, all packed and ready to go; the group waits only on Miss Rousset. When she arrives, she looks flustered. She approaches the Countess—and the Count leads his wife away from Miss Rousset immediately. Miss Rousset tries to greet Mrs. Carré-Lamadon but she is met with silence. The group acts as though she is not there, refusing to look in her direction, acting like she has “some infectious disease.”
By not looking at or speaking to Miss Rousset, the wealthier travelers are treating her even worse than when she first arrived in the carriage. This proves that all previous acts of kindness were just aberrations. Maupassant uses the image of an “infectious disease” to describe Miss Rousset because the wealthier travelers see her—and by extension all those of a lower social class—as things to be avoided for their own well-being.
The carriage moves towards Le Havre with an atmosphere of cold awkwardness. The Countess turns to Mrs. Carré-Lamadon and, breaking the silence, asks about a society friend of theirs. The women chatter about other ladies, and the married men talk more of money.
The empty talk between the wealthier women is, once again, designed to exclude and even punish Miss Rousset. Maupassant reminds the reader of the shallow way that these wealthier travelers choose to see the world—and how no act of kindness or sacrifice will shatter social hierarchy.
As the nuns lower their heads and pray, the carriage moves on. Mr. Loiseau declares that he is hungry and his wife takes out a large basket of food which they share. The Count and Countess follow suit. Soon nine travelers are all eating the food that they have brought—everybody except Miss Rousset, who forgot to pack since she was in a hurry. Nobody will share—nobody even looks at her. Although she tries desperately to prevent it, Miss Rousset starts to quietly cry.
The other travelers eating right in front of Miss Rousset and refusing to share shows how this time she has to rely on their generosity, and it is finally clear they have none. This moment is akin to a test that every single character fails. Their cruelty could have been limited to simply ignoring Miss Rousset, but Maupassant employs the image of a basket of food to emphasize that it is not only social kindness these characters withhold from Miss Rousset, but all of their resources as well. Maupassant shows that, in the carriage (as in life), people from a lower class cannot rely on the goodwill of people in higher social positions.
Mrs. Loiseau mutters that Miss Rousset “weeps for shame.” Then Cornudet begins to hum the French national anthem. The carriage grows dark, as nobody is interested in hearing the song. The carriage rolls on towards Le Havre as Cornudet keeps whistling and Miss Rousset continues to weep.
The social hierarchy of the carriage now matches the one outside of it, just like the wealthier characters always wanted. Miss Rousset is weeping because she is devastated by her companions’ hypocrisy, but Mrs. Loiseau’s statement shows that the others refuse to acknowledge this insincerity in themselves. By whistling the national anthem, the ostracized Cornudet is shaming Miss Rousset, who has just slept with an adversary, as well as the rest of the carriage, who’ve betrayed their country by bending to the will of the Prussian officer. Maupassant one last time shows the tragedy of his story: that kindness and virtue cannot overcome money and status in such a hierarchical society.