Places: A Woman’s Life

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Une Vie, 1883 (English translation, 1888)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Normandy

*Normandy. Woman’s Life, ALargely agricultural region on western France’s Atlantic coast in which the novel’s fundamental settings–both literal and symbolic–are established in the opening chapter. In that chapter’s very first image, seventeen-year-old Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds looks out over rainy Rouen, a major city in Normandy. She has just left a convent after spending five years within its walls absorbing a proper education. She awaits her father, who will take her home to the country again.

Walls are one key motif that appears early in the novel–the walls of the convent, the confines of the city. Indeed, Jeanne looks forward to returning to the family estate, Les Peuples, where she and her parents will spend the summer. The convent is thus constraint, while the beautiful countryside is the essence of freedom: sun, open pastures, trees and flowers, the seaside. The landscape seems to Jeanne to represent a bright, wide-open future.

Les Peuples

Les Peuples (lay PUHP-luh). Perthuis family estate. Jeanne longs for–dreams of–freedom. Indeed, “dreams” may be the novel’s key word. But ultimately, one might argue that Jeanne’s dreams are her weakness. She expects life to conform to her fantasies of perfection–her dreams of a great passion, a handsome lover, the perfect marriage and family. She marries a local nobleman of low degree, Julien de Lamare. According to plan, Jeanne’s parents give the newlyweds Les Peuples as their home.

Instead of fulfilling Jeanne’s dream of freedom, her beloved Les Peuples becomes her prison. Her husband’s infidelities, the deaths of her parents, Julien’s murder, and her irresponsible son all beat Jeanne into submission. Her despair is represented physically by her self-confinement to her estate, by her subsequent taking of refuge in her house, and finally in her room. As Jeanne grows old, she questions the very meaning of life.


*Corsica. Large French island in the Mediterranean Sea. On their honeymoon, during their brief initial happiness as a couple, Jeanne and Julien spend some time on Corsica, whose legendary mystique involves a rugged but beautiful mountainous terrain and a population given to violence, family feuds, and banditry. The romantic side of Jeanne’s character is captivated by the island’s landscape and the people she meets there. In fact, this ambience of wildness and brutality curiously inspires an awakening of sensuality in Jeanne–another moving manifestation of the kind of freedom she hoped for in her adolescence and early in her marriage. Late in her life, Jeanne will sadly look back on this time on the island with nostalgia for fragile happiness.


*Paris. France’s capital and leading city. After having been abandoned for years by Paul, her ne’er-do-well son, Jeanne summons the courage to look for him in Paris. However, she is thoroughly disoriented by the city, which she has not visited in decades. She is frightened by labyrinthine Paris’s dark streets and alleys, the movement of the crowds, even by the busy cafés and restaurants that she cannot bring herself to enter. She sees people around her, especially in the chic Palais Royal area, laugh at her quaint, behind-the-times clothes and her nervous manner. Moreover, Jeanne finds that Paul has moved, leaving no new address. This experience in the city simply drives Jeanne back to her country home and further into her passivity, loneliness, and despair.

The novel’s tragedy is Jeanne’s repeated disappointment and disillusion, as she discovers, again and again, that reality is not as pretty as fantasy. In physical terms, Jeanne’s tragic disillusion is manifested in the narrowing of her circle of activity. Jeanne’s essential story is one of misfortune and loss of spirit. Only at the novel’s arbitrarily happy and unconvincing ending, when Paul and his baby come to live with Jeanne in Normandy, does Jeanne come out of her shell.

BibliographyDonaldson-Evans, Mary. A Woman’s Revenge: The Chronology of Dispossession in Maupassant’s Fiction. Lexington: French Forum, 1986. A structural analysis of the chronological development in the way Maupassant depicts the relations between men and women.Harris, Trevor A. Le V. Maupassant in the Hall of Mirrors. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Posits that Maupassant’s use of irony is an attempt to separate himself from and to criticize the excesses of French society. Examines Maupassant’s narratives and journalism and focuses on his narrative technique, syntax, characterization, structure, and imagery.Lerner, Michael G. Maupassant. New York: George Braziller, 1975. Reviews Maupassant’s early life, his tutelage under Gustave Flaubert, the influence of Émile Zola, and the use of naturalistic techniques in Maupassant’s work. Includes photographs.Sullivan, Edward D. Maupassant the Novelist. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1954. Reviews aesthetics and theme in Maupassant’s novels. Addresses the function of a critic, the opposition between realism and idealism, style, and Maupassant’s objective point of view. The author traces a subtle but growing element of the psychological in Maupassant’s last three novels. Presents A Woman’s Life as a collection of short stories about a central, passive character.Wallace, A. H. Guy de Maupassant. New York: Twayne, 1973. Depicts Maupassant’s fiction as reflections of the life of a “doer” rather than an observer. Offers analysis of specific themes in the author’s work, including infidelity, female servitude in marriage, and naturalism.
Categories: Places