Last reviewed: June 2018
French short-story writer and novelist
August 5, 1850
Château de Miromesnil, Tourville-sur-Arques, France
July 6, 1893
Henri-René-Albert Guy de Maupassant (moh-pah-sahn), born on August 5, 1850, at Château de Miromesnil, was descended from an old French family; his grandfather was a wealthy landowner in Lorraine, and the writer’s father was a stockbroker in Paris. As a boy, Maupassant went to school at Yvetot, in Normandy, and later attended the lycée at Rouen. During his childhood and youth in Normandy, he observed and absorbed a great deal of the life he was later to use so effectively in his fiction. Guy de Maupassant
Guy de Maupassant
Significant in the author’s life was the separation of his parents when he was eleven years old. His mother, a sister of a close friend of Gustave Flaubert, turned to Flaubert for advice after her husband had left her. That association brought Maupassant into French literary circles. Although he was often a member of gatherings that included such famous writers of the nineteenth century as Flaubert, Ivan Turgenev, Émile Zola, and Alphonse Daudet, he seems to have had little interest at the time in a writing career for himself; as an adolescent he was much more interested in sports, especially rowing.
Maupassant’s education was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War, in which he served as a member of the French army. After the war he entered the French civil service, first with the Ministry of the Navy and later with the Ministry of Public Instruction. During the years between 1873 and 1880 he also served a literary apprenticeship under the tutelage of Flaubert. A volume of poetry, Romance in Rhyme, attracted little attention, except to involve its young author in a lawsuit.
Maupassant, realizing his weakness as a poet, concentrated on developing his powers as a writer of prose fiction. Within a short time “Boule de suif,” a short story or conte, appeared in Les Soirées de Médan (1880), a collection of tales which included work by such recognized authors as Zola and Joris-Karl Huysmans. Maupassant’s story about the Franco-Prussian War outshone all the others, and the author’s reputation was made. The lessons he had learned from Flaubert—precision, concision, characteristic and accurate detail—had proved their value, and the work is considered Maupassant’s masterpiece in the genre. Following up his success with vigor, Maupassant published more than thirty volumes of short stories, plays, novels, and travel sketches within the ensuing decade. The first collection of short stories published under his own name was Madame Tellier’s Establishment, and Short Stories, which appeared in 1881.
Mademoiselle Fifi, and Other Stories, a particularly fine collection of short stories, added weight to Maupassant’s growing reputation and popularity in 1882. Like most of his volumes of stories, it contained a relatively long title story and a group of shorter pieces. A Woman’s Life was Maupassant’s first novel. As an example of naturalism in literature, it is a masterpiece. In it is portrayed the life of a Norman woman of the nineteenth century, and disillusionment and heartbreak are presented with the naturalistic writer’s objectivity and frankness. Censorship of this book only increased its popularity, thus contributing to Maupassant’s financial success with the novel and another collection of stories, Contes de la bécasse, published in the same year, as was Clair de lune. The material success he enjoyed as a writer enabled Maupassant to leave the French civil service.
In 1884 and 1885 Maupassant produced a great deal of fiction of very high caliber. To those years belong the short-story collections Miss Harriet, and Other Stories; The Sisters Rondoli, and Other Stories; Toine, and Other Stories; Yvette, and Other Stories; and Day and Night Stories. The best of these deal with the author’s favorite and familiar subjects: the Franco-Prussian War, the peasants of Normandy, and petty bureaucrats of the French civil service. Because of the craftsmanship Maupassant displayed, he became a model for writers in England, France, and the United States. Some authorities have seen in his work the origin of the well-made but stereotyped story common to magazines, a type more notable for its facile style than anything else.
More thoughtfully presented was Bel-Ami, a novel about a vicious rascal whose ugliness of spirit was hidden by his handsome face. A statement of Maupassant’s theory of fiction appeared in his preface to Pierre and Jean, in which he declared himself a complete literary naturalist, approaching his material with objectivity and detachment, describing life with utter frankness and reflecting a personal conception of a deterministic universe. In presenting his theories in practice, Maupassant, like other writers of naturalistic fiction, often became biased in the direction of pessimism in his choice of characters and detail, with the result that readers of his work, especially his novels, may find themselves in a depressing fictional world.
In 1886 and 1887 Maupassant began to show signs of mental illness, which may have resulted from syphilis. A sea voyage to improve his health enabled him to make some gains toward recovery. From that experience he extracted a travel book, Afloat. His difficulties recurred, however, and after 1890 he practically ceased to write. A general paralysis began to assail him, and he experienced severe hallucinations. Maupassant went to Cannes, on the Mediterranean, to spend the winter of 1891 to 1892, but he was taken back to Paris after an attempt at suicide in January, 1892. He died in Paris on July 6, 1893.
Much of Maupassant's work was translated and widely published in English in the decades following his death. His short stories also served as the inspiration for a number of twentieth-century films, from A Day in the Country to Stagecoach to Masculine Feminine.