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Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893). Walter Schnaffs’ Adventure & Two Friends.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Biographical Note

HENRI RENÉ ALBERT GUY DE MAUPASSANT, the supreme master of the short story as a form of art, was born of a landed family at the Château of Miromesnil in Normandy on August 5, 1850. He was educated at Yvetot and Rouen, and entered the government service, holding positions in the ministries of marine and of public instruction. His recreation he found in rowing and attending gatherings of literary men. Gustave Flaubert, the novelist, was an old friend of De Maupassant’s mother’s, and at his house the young man met Turgenev, Daudet, Zola, and other distinguished men of letters. His first publication was a volume of poems which appeared in 1880 and which led to proceedings being begun against the author by the public prosecutor. It is said that De Maupassant recognized that his verses lacked melody, and he turned definitely to prose, which he had been cultivating for some years under the tutelage of Flaubert. In the same year he joined with Zola, Huysmans, and three others in the publication of a collection of stories called the “Soirées de Médan,” to which De Maupassant’s contribution was the now famous “Boule de suif.” The consummate art of this masterpiece was recognized at once, and the author’s position was soon assured. He produced with great fertility for the next ten years; but about 1887 some of his writings began to suggest that he was suffering from hallucinations. A sea-voyage seemed to bring him back to normal condition; but before long it appeared that he was subject to inherited nervous disease which he aggravated by the use of drugs. He had besides injured his constitution by excessive physical exercise. He became more and more melancholy and misanthropic, and gradually sank into paralysis and insanity. He tried to take his life in 1892 and on July 6 of the following year he died at Paris in distressing circumstances.

De Maupassant’s longer works include “Une Vie” (1883) a pitiful story of the disastrous life of an innocent girl; “Mont-Oriol,” the description of the exploiting of a medicinal spring and the “promoting” of a fashionable watering-place; “Bon Ami,” the career of a handsome but heartless adventurer in financial and journalistic circles; “Pierre et Jean,” one of the most penetrating of his studies of family life; “Fort comme la mort,” and “Notre cœur” (1890). His short stories, on which his fame principally rests, deal with phases of life with which he had himself come into contact. Thus one group is concerned with the peasantry of the Normandy where he spent his youth; another with the life of clerks in government offices; another with society at sea-coast resorts; another with journalism. They are almost without exception the outcome of observation rather than invention; and it is primarily to the quality of his observation that they owe their distinction. He carried “naturalism” to the farthest point it could reach, describing life as he saw it without prejudice and usually without pity. No man ever wrote with less bias in favor of either good or evil, with less of dominating theory, philosophical, ethical, or social. His aim was to find in life materials for art, and to treat these materials without prepossession of any kind. Under Flaubert he had trained himself to great fastidiousness in the choice of the absolutely right word, and he practised a severe economy, using only the kind and amount of detail requisite to bring out the essence of a character or situation. The extent to which, in spite of all this, his work bears the stamp of his personality shows how impossible it is to achieve absolute objectivity so long as art implies selection. But as far as man can go in this direction, De Maupassant went; and he left, after his ten years of feverish activity, a mass of short stories, the best of which are unsurpassed for their firmness of outline, economy of means of expression, and exactness of description. What he pictures is seldom joyous, often ugly and even base and brutal; but his work has the vividness and precision of the most masterly etching.