Maupassant versus Tolstoy: Prostitutes

Guy de Maupassant. Selected Short Stories. Late 1800s. Short fiction.

Les Demoiselles d'AvignonPrudishness has never been a characteristic of French literature, but Guy de Maupassant seems to have fallen in love with every prostitute he ever met—including, no doubt, the one who infected him with syphilis, which eventually drove him to madness and death. Half of his short stories, including the stylish little “Boule de Suif,” seem to feature prostitutes—and these always seem to be honest, hard-working women who are much cleverer and more decent than the snooty bourgeoisie and dull-witted peasants who serve as foils.

I shall not dispute Maupassant’s authority on the relative morality of prostitutes. I will content myself with invoking Leo Tolstoy, who, as I recall, rapped young Guy’s knuckles for establishing an improper moral relation between audience and subject. My readers doubtless know that Maupassant’s dynamic, unpretentious writing helped shape the modern short story genre, but when the only “good” people in his stories seem to be lovers, adulteresses, and prostitutes, I’m going to have raise a quizzical brow at his odd, sexually charged idealization of French working women. It says much about a (male) literary culture that found authenticity only in the bodies of exploited, female, urban proletarians, who could achieve a modicum of economic and psychological independence from the patriarchal bourgeois culture only by enacting their given, marginal role within that culture, in turn reifying its pretensions to moral superiority.

Just as importantly, Maupassant’s superior literary efforts are those that capture the ironic tragedy of human existence (“The Necklace”), explore emotional fanaticism (“Mother Savage”), or evoke a Poe-like atmosphere of horror and futility (“The Horla” and “The Hand”). Stories like these marvelously reveal the crisp and unadorned beauty of the author’s prose style.

In spite of—and because of—his fixation with prostitutes, Maupassant is well worth reading.

To read Tolstoy’s critique of Maupassant’s writing, visit this page on (where else) Wikipedia.
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