“Boule de Suif” is fundamentally a story about power, and the women Maupassant depicts enjoy very little of it. Six of the story’s ten French travelers are women: two nuns, three married ladies, and a single prostitute—Miss Rousset, or “Ball-of-Fat.” All of these characters suffer for being female, although they suffer differently based on their class background. Miss Rousset, who is poor, disreputable, and unmarried initially has more autonomy than the married women around her because she has no husband to control her life. However, being unmarried also makes her vulnerable; the group targets her, first with their scorn and then with their demand that she sacrifice herself by sleeping with the Prussian officer—both of which would be unimaginable were she traveling with a husband. By showing men manipulating and exploiting Miss Rousset—and by showing the wealthier women around her aligning with the men—Maupassant suggests that male power damages women twofold: by subjecting them to manipulation and violence, and by undermining the possibility of female solidarity.
The initial carriage ride depicts Miss Rousset as having more autonomy than the married women around her, since she has no man to control her. The three married women in this story are literally “installed” into the carriages by their husbands. They have no say as to whether or not they leave their homes in Rouen—instead, they are uprooting their lives because their husbands decided that they should. By contrast, Miss Rousset herself has chosen to leave, and she explains this choice to others, showing that she is independent in her actions and thoughts. That the married women do not weigh in suggests that their opinions about the move don’t matter. In addition to being more autonomous than the married women, Miss Rousset seems to have more power than the two other single women in the carriage, who are nuns. These women have given their lives to religion (and to a church hierarchy controlled by men). One is “pitted with smallpox” while the other has “a disease of the lungs,” descriptions that make them “appear like martyrs” for their religion. Maupassant does not develop the characters of these women beyond their martyrdom, which draws out Miss Rousset’s vivacity and self-sufficiency by contrast. Perhaps most important, when Miss Rousset produces a basket of food that everyone eventually shares, she experiences a brief moment of unusual power, as the whole group—even the wealthier men—are dependent on her.
While Miss Rousset initially appears to be the most powerful woman in the party, her unmarried status eventually makes her vulnerable to predatory men. When the slimy German officer demands that Miss Rousset sleep with him, he is not seeing her as an autonomous businesswoman: he sees her as a lowly prostitute, a woman without a man to defend her. He does not care that she despises him, demonstrating how he places no importance on her desires or opinions. The Count—a member of her own traveling party—degrades Miss Rousset in a similar, albeit subtler, way. He consistently reminds Miss Rousset of her “place,” bending her to his will by emphasizing how little power she actually has compared to the men around her. When she at first refuses to even meet with the Prussian officer, the Count says “[i]t is never worth while to resist those in power.” He is referring to the officer, but he also means himself. This foreshadows when, towards the end of the story, the Count is the critical voice pressuring Miss Rousset to sleep with the officer for the benefit of the group.
As the men exploit and manipulate Miss Rousset, the other women never stick up for her; in fact, they support the men. Mrs. Loiseau, for example, tries to justify the situation by saying that the Prussian officer “respects married women.” This implies that Miss Rousset, as a single woman, has no right to her own body. Implicitly, Mrs. Loiseau wants to believe that her marriage protects her from male violation, so it’s not in her interest to stick up for Miss Rousset. In addition, Mrs. Loiseau says of the officer that “we must remember too that he is master. He has only to say ‘I wish,’ and could take us by force with his soldiers.” This shows that, deep down, Mrs. Loiseau understands the gendered aspect of the officer’s demand; he is simply asking from Miss Rousset what he could otherwise violently take from any of the women. In the face of this threat, though, the women choose not to stand up for their collective interest, but rather to protect themselves by justifying Miss Rousset’s sacrifice. Mrs. Carré-Lamadon, for instance, tries to convince herself that sleeping with the officer isn’t so bad: she thinks to herself that it is a pity the German is “not French, because he would make a pretty [well-dressed commander], one all the women would rave over.”
While the married women’s choice to throw Miss Rousset to the wolves is cynical and self-serving, it does, sadly, protect them: by sacrificing Miss Rousset and aligning with the more powerful men, all of the married women emerge with their bodies and dignity intact. This bleak ending, in which Miss Rousset has lost control of her body while the married women still cannot control their lives, shows how men maintain power. They encourage the divisions between women, all the while controlling those women for their own benefit.
Gender, Power, and Sacrifice ThemeTracker
Gender, Power, and Sacrifice Quotes in Boule de Suif
The three men installed their wives at the back [of the carriage] and then followed them. Then the other forms, undecided and veiled, took in their turn the last places without exchanging a word.
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.
“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.