As it was, in the late 1800s, his stories were best-sellers from the time the first one, “Boule de Suif,” appeared in a collection with five other previously unknown authors, until he died, mentally ill, at the young age of 42 in 1893.
Maupassant’s stories are beautifully written. Maupassant’s writing style is concise, and he relies on dialogue, so his stories move quickly. He captures the essence of the setting in few words and makes it complete.
But that’s not all that made him a best-seller. Maupassant wrote with under-lying carnal desires in mind. In other words, he wrote about sex, greed, love, misunderstandings, and lying, among other things. The characters in his stories care most about themselves. What makes his stories resonate with the modern reader is the attraction to our own natural wants.
His stories capture greed (a woman wanting to look elegant for a party, no matter the cost; a man in need of money selling his wife; a parent in need of money selling his child; etc.), self-interest (a young man escaping from his pregnant girlfriend; society shunning prostitutes while yet accepting them; a family having the funeral before the loved one died for convenience), desire for power (a man lusting after a woman; a man trying to politically overtake a city), and so forth.
For a specific example, in “The Devil,” Maupassant captures our natural impatience. The son of a dying woman needs to plant his crop, so he hires a peasant woman to sit with his dying mother. But as the hired woman has been hired for a set pay, she doesn’t feel like waiting for the woman to die. I won’t tell you how this is resolved, but I will tell you I laughed out loud, horrid as it was! Humans are impatient by nature, and Maupassant wonderfully captured us.
I’ve now read between 80 and 100 stories (probably about 400 pages, skipping around the huge volume of Maupassant’s complete stories that I have). I think I’ve had a good taste of Maupassant’s great stories. I’m sure there are other great ones out there. Tell me if I missed your favorite! (Links below are to the stories on the web; all are in the public domain.)
Stories I Would Reread
- The Necklace: A middle-class woman really wants to look nice at a social gathering so she borrows a diamond necklace from her friend….and loses it.
- The Piece of String: A stingy man finds a piece of string in the middle of the town square and stops to pick it up, changing his life.
- The False Gems: When his beloved wife dies, the man eventually must sell her cherished-but-false jewels.
- The Horla: An invisible creature follows a man, driving him crazy.
- Was it a Dream?: A man’s beloved wife died, and he morns over her grave, only to be “haunted.”
- The Father: A man abandons his girlfriend once she becomes pregnant; only later does he realize what that meant for him.
- The Devil: A peasant woman is hired to sit with a dying woman and gets impatient for her to die.
- A Sale: Why did he dump his wife in a barrel of water? The judge wants to know.
- Simon’s Papa: Simon doesn’t have a papa, and the boys in the school yard are making fun of him. He is determined to find a papa.
- Clair de Lune: A priest hates women because they are only temptresses, and nothing good can come from women. And then he learns something.
Other Good Stories
- Boule de Suif: A group of citizens, including Boule de Suif (a local prostitute), travel in a carriage together during a heavy snowstorm in the midst of the Franco-Prussian war.
- Yvette: Yvette is the daughter of a high-class prostitute, but she wants to find love and marriage in her life. (I cannot find this online; the Yvette story credited to Maupassant that I find online is different!)
- Mouche – A Boating Man’s Reminiscence: Mouche is the only woman on the boating crew and they all love her.
- A Family: A bachelor visits a long-unvisited friend whose life now “disgusts” him (he has a wife and children and certainly must be miserable).
- Moonlight: A woman has the beginning of an affair.
- In the Wood: A couple is discovered making love in a forest…
- The Kiss: An old aunt sends a young girl a letter about why kisses are so important.
In the end, Maupassant’s stories feel modern in writing style and subject matter. Therefore, you may relate to them even though they took place in a setting 100+ years past.
In searching for a recommended translation, I stumbled upon an Amazon reviewer who wasn’t too impressed with Maupassant. He/she says:
The real reason that everyone makes such a big deal about Maupassant is because he mostly wrote about sex. His stories are entertaining but not extraordinary…
He’s right, and he’s wrong. Yes, Maupassant mostly wrote about sex or similar things. But I believe that Maupassant’s writing has a hint of extraordinary. Some stories are simply masterpieces. I guess you could say that Maupassant is the average “Guy.” That helped him become the best-seller he deservedly was.
What are you waiting for? Many Maupassant stories are very short. Read some of his stories online right now (links to specific stories above):