Guy de Maupassant was a patriot; he fought in the Franco-Prussian war and, in “Boule de Suif,” he extends the most sympathy towards characters who have strong patriotic beliefs. Still, this short story is in no way a celebration of war. Set in 1880 as the war is ending, with the Prussians victorious, “Boule de Suif” demonstrates how the gaping class divides within an army make the concept of “victory” empty, since the poor foot soldiers on both sides suffer greatly and gain nothing, even if they ostensibly win. Maupassant’s most evident takeaway concerning war, likely inspired by his own experience, is that soldiers on both sides of a conflict have more in common with each other than with their wealthier leaders. In wartime, no matter who is victorious, it will always be the poor who suffer the most.
Maupassant’s depiction of the Prussian general shows how the wealthier officers (as opposed to the poorer soldiers) are cruelly exploiting war for their own gain. When the carriage first encounters the arrogant commander, he is described as having “an enormous mustache of long straight hairs…seem[ing] to weigh heavily on the corners of his mouth.” Since Maupassant had earlier mocked the French generals for being chosen as officers “on account of the length of their mustaches,” it is clear that this description is meant to signal that the Prussian officer (like the French generals) is decadent and unqualified for his position. Maupassant underscores this when the three wealthy men from the carriage confront the officer and ask him why he won’t allow them to leave Tôtes. The officer receives them “stretched out in an armchair, his feet on the mantelpiece…enveloped in a flamboyant dressing gown.” This image of an officer during wartime is striking: he is idle, disrespectful, and luxuriating while his troops are suffering tremendous violence. The French already see the Prussians as insolent invaders, and this general is confirming their beliefs. Finally, Maupassant shows the dynamic of wealthy officers exploiting the poor in wartime through the officer’s demand that Miss Rousset—the poorest and most vulnerable among the travelers—sleep with him. Since he refuses to free the other travelers until she does, it’s clear that this upper-level military commander is abusing his power and profiting from war in a totally inappropriate way.
However, Maupassant makes it clear that there is another side to the Prussians: unlike the cruel, exploitative general, the poorer foot soldiers act kindly towards the French townspeople. Despite their perception that the Prussians are an awful enemy, a group from the carriage come across soldiers in Tôtes being extremely helpful to the working-class French people with whom they’re supposedly at war. They see soldiers “paring potatoes…cleaning the hairdresser’s shop…even washing the linen of…an impotent old grandmother.” None of these images line up with the stereotype of a cruel and lazy enemy. In fact, when the richest traveler questions a poorer townsperson about what is going on, the French townsman replies “those men are not wicked; they are not the Prussians we hear about…they have left wives and children…it is not amusing to them, this war…they work [here] as if they were in their own homes.” By showing the kindness and sacrifice of these soldiers, Maupassant contrasts the cavalier, disgusting behavior of the privileged German commander with the hardworking and solemn attitude of the poorer Prussian soldiers.
This dynamic of the poor suffering disproportionately while the wealthy profit does not only exist on the Prussian side; it’s true for the French, as well. For example, the poorer Miss Rousset left Rouen for very different reasons than her wealthier traveling companions. Her house was stocked with food and she could have stayed, but she felt so patriotic that looking at the Prussians made her “blood boil with anger.” Her choice to leave her life behind was, in other words, a sacrifice made for moral reasons. By contrast, the wealthier travelers talk vainly about the “havoc” the war had caused on their businesses and the “losses” they suffered. They are leaving because they think there are better commercial opportunities in La Havre, which shows the wealthy finding ways to profit in wartime. In terms of the French army, Maupassant opens “Boule de Suif” by describing the “long and filthy” beards of the French army men—with their “uniforms in tatters,” their bodies “worn-out and back-broken.” This physical suffering parallels the grief of the Prussian foot soldiers in Tôtes, who have left their families and “weep for their homes.” This demonstrates how there is shared pain among the poorer members of both countries in times of war. In the army, as in the carriage, the wealthy have only selfish concerns while the more moral poor suffer physically and mentally.
War is complicated and horrible, but Maupassant wants to make it clear that it is far worse for some than it is for others. The Prussian and French foot soldiers leave behind their lives to wear ragged clothes, bear the brunt of the fighting, and serve lazy, selfish generals—all without the promise of any personal gain. Meanwhile, the French and Prussian officers are underqualified for their jobs, spared the worst of the fighting, and they personally benefit from the luxuries that their roles afford. From this, it’s clear that the main division in the story is not one of nationality, but of class. The poor French and Prussian foot soldiers, in other words, are collectively the victims of a war fought for the benefit of the wealthy.
Class Division in Wartime ThemeTracker
Class Division in Wartime Quotes in Boule de Suif
They were not troops, but a disbanded horde. The beards of the men were long and filthy, their uniforms in tatters, and they advanced at an easy pace without flag or regiment. All seem worn-out and back-broken […] in short they were a mobilized, pacific people, bending under the weight of the gun…
Their leaders were former cloth or grain merchants, ex-merchants in tallow or sap, warriors of circumstance, elected officers on account of…the length of their mustaches…
It was occupation after invasion. Then the duty commences for the conquered to show themselves gracious toward the conquerors. After some time […] the Prussian officer eats at the table. He is sometimes well bred and, through politeness, pities France, and speaks of his repugnance in taking part in the affair.
“I believed at first that I could remain,” she said. “I had my house full of provisions, and I preferred to feed a few soldiers rather than expatriate myself, to go I knew not where. But as soon as I saw them, those Prussians, that was too much for me! They made my blood boil with anger, and I wept for very shame all day long.”
They found themselves in a square […] where they perceived some Prussian soldiers. The first one they saw was paring potatoes. The second, further off, was cleaning the hairdresser’s shop. Another, bearded to the eyes, was tending a troublesome brat, cradling it and trying to appease it […]. One of them was even washing the linen of his hostess, an impotent old grandmother […]. Loiseau had a joke for the occasion: “They will repopulate the land!”
The three men mounted the staircase and were introduced to the best room of the inn, where the officer received them, stretched out in an armchair, his feet on the mantelpiece, smoking a long, porcelain pipe, and enveloped in a flamboyant dressing-gown, appropriated, without doubt, from some dwelling belonging to a common citizen of bad taste. He did not rise, nor greet them in any way, not even looking at them.
“Well, we are not going to stay here and die of old age. Since it is the trade of this creature to accommodate herself to all kinds, I fail to see how she has the right to refuse one more than another…and to think that to-day we should be drawn into this embarrassment by this affected woman, this minx! For my part, I find that this officer conducts himself very well…and we must remember too that he is master. He has only to say ‘I wish,’ and he could take us by force with his soldiers.”