An introduction to the emergence of the bourgeois society and the way this is reflected in Guy de Maupassant’s short story Boule de Suif.
One of the principal features of western society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as reflected in the literature of the period, was the emergence of the bourgeois society. This might also be referred to as the creation of the middle class. From an economic perspective, the emergence of this class resulted from improvements in productivity in the agricultural and industrial sectors which meant that opportunities for professional people (e.g. doctors, lawyers and bankers) in mostly urban settings were becoming more prominent. The people, and their families, able to take advantage of these opportunities found themselves mixing in the social circles of the minor aristocracy, whose financial resources meant they were no better off than their nouveau riche neighbours. In social terms, this brought about a genteel revolution in which comedies of manners highlighted the issues involved with the integration of this new class of people into existing society.
However, there was certainly a more serious aspect to this social change. While people might worry about the need for refinement, good taste and proper attire in public society, they were still not safe from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Indeed, the very means that had enabled this class to emerge (e.g. better infrastructure, faster vehicles and communications) were also the means by which those people could be brought into danger. This is perhaps best seen in Guy de Maupassant’s wonderful short story ‘Boule de Suif.’ In this story, a community of the French bourgeois/minor aristocracy is occupied by a fearsome Prussian military force as part of one of the world’s first genuinely modern conflicts (i.e. the Franco-Prussian War of 1870). For various reasons, the Prussians are required to stay overnight and the unwilling French hosts must find a way of dealing with them in a proper way – it is like being polite to a wild animal, of course.
To preserve their own safety, the aristocratic leaders convince a young sex worker, the eponymous Boule de Suif (which is a nickname meaning something like Ball of Lard) to sleep with the leading Prussian officer. While he is so engaged, the Prussian soldiers will not be put to any mischief and the society can continue as if in normal conditions. Boule de Suif herself is as patriotic as the next person and initially refuses but is finally persuaded that it is in the greater good of the country that she should consent.
However, once the girl has done her duty and the Prussian menace leaves, she is then shunned by the respectable French society she has saved from possible ruin. Here, the comic and the tragic mix.