Set during the Franco-Prussian war, Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif” depicts a group of French travelers who become stranded at a Prussian-occupied inn. Stuck in close quarters in a stressful situation, the group’s class tensions come to a boil: they are mostly upper-class couples, except for Boule de Suif (Ball of Fat), a prostitute whose real name is Mademoiselle Elizabeth Rousset. The wealthier members of the party condescend to Miss Rousset and treat her cruelly, only changing their tone when she can be useful to them. Consistently kind yet relentlessly taken advantage of, Miss Rousset is shown to be the only brave, honorable, and generous member of the group. By showing the cruelty and hypocrisy of the wealthy French elite—and the courage and dignity of the poorer Miss Rousset—Maupassant rejects the conventional wisdom of his day that wealth translates to good character.
Even among people of mixed social classes, it is obvious that Miss Rousset, as a prostitute, is at the bottom of the social ladder in the carriage. Because of this, the others treat her with scorn. This is first shown when the three married women quickly take offence to Miss Rousset’s presence, uniting in “married dignity…in opposition to [those] sold without shame.” As they are all in the same situation—traveling uncomfortably in a small carriage—the only way that they can demonstrate their superiority is to shun and ignore Miss Rousset. At the end, the group uses a similar tactic in which no one will speak to Miss Rousset, even though she has just made a tremendous sacrifice for them. The women sing the praises of their other “high society” friends, which is meant to remind Miss Rousset that, no matter what she has done for these women, she is not one of them.
The wealthy travelers only drop their scorn of Miss Rousset when she is useful to them, which shows their hypocrisy and selfishness. During the carriage ride, the group grows hungry. When they learn that Miss Rousset is the only passenger with food, they accept her offer to share, breaking with their previous attitude. Even so, when Mr. Loiseau says, “[e]verything goes in time of war, does it not, Madame?” he is explicitly remarking on how the wealthier travelers would not normally be speaking to a prostitute, and it’s only the extreme circumstances—their unusual desperation for food—that change their behavior.
Similarly, when the group arrives in Tôtes and the inn owner announces that the German officer in charge would like to speak to Miss Rousset, the wealthier travelers have no problem asking her to put herself in a potentially dangerous situation. The group had been kinder since she’d shared her food, but, as soon as their well-being is threatened, they have no issue with “asking, begging, beseeching her to go,” since they “feared the complications that might result from disobedience.” This dynamic recurs when the wealthier travelers come together and convince Miss Rousset to sleep with the German soldier so that he will let them all leave. Despite thinking and saying cruel things behind her back, the group bands together and pretends to reason kindly with Miss Rousset to manipulate her into going against her own moral code. Even though Miss Rousset sacrifices her morals and dignity for the group, they turn on her afterwards, which is the story’s clearest demonstration of their cruelty and selfishness. As they journey home, they realize that everybody has brought provisions except Miss Rousset, but nobody offers to share with her, even though her sacrifice is what freed them.
Despite that Miss Rousset is considered the least respectable member of the group, Maupassant depicts her as the story’s most generous, kind, and dignified character. Miss Rousset can feel the coldness coming from her wealthier companions, but she still offers to share her food in the beginning of the trip. She says, “Goodness…if I dared to offer anything to these gentlemen and ladies I would,” which is a polite way of acknowledging her lesser social status while still offering to be kind. Additionally, when she is propositioned by the democrat Cornudet on their first night in the inn, Miss Rousset rejects his advance because she can’t imagine sleeping with somebody when an enemy Prussian officer is in the room next door—she’d consider it shameful. Although later she is tragically convinced to sleep with that very officer, Maupassant is showing that she is firm and patriotic, and even the egotistical Cornudet understands this and leaves her be. Finally, when the group leaves Tôtes and hypocritically refuses to share their food, Miss Rousset is devastated but tries not to show it. She ends the story crying quietly, “mak[ing] terrible efforts to prevent it.” In the face of the wealthier travelers’ disgust, she tries to maintain her dignity.
Miss Rousset tries, over and over, to act honorably, even though she is the butt of relentless cruelty and has the lowest status of the group. The others not only ignore her virtue but take advantage of it every chance they get. Maupassant, in this way, sidesteps the ideology of 19th-century French society and refuses to depict dignity as being tied to wealth or class. His conclusion is that the exploitative and selfish upper-classes lack, by nature, any claim to virtue, whereas dignity, honor, and kindness are more often found among the poor.
Wealth and Hypocrisy ThemeTracker
Wealth and Hypocrisy 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.
“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.”
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.
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.