The beginning of “Boule de Suif” is tepidly optimistic about class mobility. While the ten French travelers sharing a carriage adhere to their society’s strict class hierarchy, the lowest among them—the plucky and defiant Miss Rousset—nevertheless earns the grudging admiration of the others. For a moment, it seems that she might be included in higher society by sheer force of personality. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the class hierarchy will not be bent. The wealthy include Miss Rousset when she can be useful to them, manipulate her into a devastating decision that benefits them, and then discard her when she is no longer of use. By showing the wealthy exploiting a poor and vulnerable woman so ruthlessly, Maupassant suggests that class mobility is an illusion, and that the exploitation of the poor for the benefit of the rich is at the very heart of class hierarchy.
The prostitute, Miss Rousset, begins the story passionate, resourceful, and defiant, giving the impression that her inferior class position does not define her. While one might expect that Miss Rousset would be shy in the presence of wealthier companions, she “[thows] her neighbors…a provoking, courageous look” when she hears them whispering belittling things about her. This stuns them all into silence, which suggests that her fortitude might change their behavior. Additionally, when Miss Rousset speaks up about political issues in the carriage, her courage earns the admiration of some of her companions. The wealthy women “[feel] themselves drawn, in spite of themselves, toward this prostitute so full of dignity.” In this moment, Maupassant leads the reader to believe that perhaps the force of Miss Rousset’s personality will transcend her class, convincing others to treat her as an equal. This seems, for a moment, to be possible when the German officer first proposes that Miss Rousset sleep with him in exchange for the group’s freedom. Initially, “indignation is rife” among the group, and there is a “blast of anger, a union of all for resistance, as if a demand had been made on each one of the party.” In this fleeting moment of solidarity, it seems that Miss Rousset’s wealthier companions see their fates and interests as shared, despite Miss Rousset’s lower class status.
Quickly, though, the wealthy close rank, deciding to make Miss Rousset sleep with the officer in order to protect themselves. The morning after their show of solidarity, “it [becomes] apparent that a coldness had arisen toward Ball-of-Fat.” The travelers all resent the very determination and defiance that just days before they had admired. Hypocritically, they now wish to tame that defiance to serve their own desires. To manipulate her into doing as they wish, the group attempts to reason with her while simultaneously isolating her. The women take to calling her “mademoiselle” instead of “madame” to show their disdain for her refusal to do the group’s bidding. Meanwhile, the wealthiest traveler, the Count, asks Miss Rousset “you prefer to leave us here, exposed to…violences…rather than consent to a favor which you have so often given your life?” reminding her of her inferior social position and framing her resistance as immoral. The group’s crowning achievement is creating an explicit “plan of attack, [a] ruse to employ” to manipulate Miss Rousset into sleeping with the officer. They pretend they’re having a regular conversation in front of Miss Rousset, while steering the discussion towards ethics and making the pointed suggestion that “any action blamable in itself often becomes meritorious by the thought it springs from” (in other words, that a seemingly immoral act is moral if done for the right reasons, or that the ends justify the means). The group pretends that they are allowing Miss Rousset to make up her own mind, but truly they are telling her that she must make the choice to harm herself for the collective good. After this, Miss Rousset caves.
Miss Rousset’s sacrifice earns the French travelers their freedom, but it does not earn Miss Rousset an equal place among them; in fact, as they travel home, the others treat her coldly and she is devastated by shame. The ending, then, makes it clear that Miss Rousset was exploited: she made a horrific choice for the benefit of a group to which she presumably believed she now belonged. In the aftermath, though, it becomes clear that her companions—despite her sacrifice on their behalf—have no plans to reward or include her, even with the basic kindness of sharing their food. As the wealthier members of the traveling party stand in for French elites overall, this ending can be seen as a commentary on the predatory nature of rigid class hierarchy, which offers the false promise of social mobility so that the poor are willing to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the wealthy.
Exploitation and Class Hierarchy ThemeTracker
Exploitation and Class Hierarchy Quotes in Boule de Suif
These six persons formed the foundation of the carriage company, the society side, serene and strong, honest, established people, who had both religion and principle.
As soon as she was recognized, a whisper went around among the honest women, and the words “prostitute” and “public shame” were whispered so loud that she raised her head. Then she threw her neighbors such a provoking, courageous look that a great silence reigned […then] conversation began among the three ladies, whom the presence of this girl had suddenly rendered friendly, almost intimate. It seemed to them they should bring their married dignity into union in opposition to that sold without shame; for legal love always takes on a tone of contempt for its free confrère.
[…] Loiseau with his eyes devoured the dish of chicken. He said: “Fortunately Madame had more precaution than we. There are some people who know how to think ahead always.”
She turned toward him, saying: “If you would like some of it, sir? It is hard to go without breakfast so long.”
He saluted her and replied: “Faith, I frankly cannot refuse; I can stand it no longer. Everything goes in time of war, does it not, Madame?”
They could not eat this girl’s provisions without speaking to her. And so they chatted, with reserve at first; then, as she carried herself well, with more abandon. The ladies De Breville and Carré-Lamadon, who were acquainted with the ins and outs of good-breeding, were gracious with a certain delicacy. The Countess, especially, showed that amiable condescension of very noble ladies who do not fear being spoiled by contact with anyone, and was charming. But the great Madame Loiseau, who had the soul of a plebian, remained crabbed, saying little and eating much.
A stir was felt around her […]. The Count approached her, saying:
“You are wrong, Madame, for your refusal may lead to considerable difficulty, not only for yourself but for all your companions. It is never worth while to resist those in power”
Everybody agreed with him, asking, begging, beseeching her to go […] they all feared the complications that might result from disobedience.
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 breakfast was very doleful; and it became apparent that a coldness had arisen toward Ball-of-Fat, and that the night, which brings counsel, had slightly modified their judgements. They almost wished now that the Prussian has secretly found this girl, in order to give her companions a pleasant surprise in the morning. What could be more simple? Besides, who would know anything about it? She could save appearances by telling the officer that she took pity on their distress. To her, it would make little difference!
“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.”
The Countess put to use the authority of her unwitting accomplice, and added to it the edifying paraphrase and axiom of Jesuit morals: “The needs justify the means.”
No one looked at her or even thought of her. She felt herself drowned in the scorn of these honest scoundrels, who had first sacrificed her and then rejected her, like some improper or useless article. She thought of her great basket full of good things which they had greedily devoured…she felt ready to weep.