Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) is the most celebrated of French short-story writers. The brilliance of his technique is combined with an ethical nihilism.
Guy de Maupassant was born on Aug. 5, 1850, in Normandy; his exact birthplace has never been established. His father, a libertine with a roving disposition, and his mother were legally separated when Guy was still a boy, and he spent a carefree adolescence under the indulgent surveillance of his cultivated mother. When he reached man's estate, the place of his father was to some extent taken by the novelist Gustave Flaubert, who had been a close friend of Madame de Maupassant for many years.
Under Flaubert's tutelage, the young Maupassant underwent a strict course of training in the craft of literature, at the same time as he was earning his living in the civil service. He became known to members of the naturalist school and collaborated with Zola and four of his disciples in producing in 1880 a volume of short stories about the Franco-Prussian War entitled Soirées de Médan. Maupassant's contribution, Boule de suif, was so superior to the others that his reputation was made on the spot. In succeeding years his stories were in great demand, for newspaper publication in the first instance. Collected, they eventually provided material for 16 volumes.
For the subjects of his stories Maupassant drew on his experiences as a boy among the farming folk and fishermen of Normandy and also on the observations he made of his colleagues and superiors when he was working as a government official in Paris; though it was Balzac who first introduced the lowly clerks into literature, it was Maupassant who explored every aspect of the lives of these underpaid bureaucrats. Maupassant's humor is sometimes racy but more often bitter; the famous "whiplash ending," which he invented, can be cruel in the extreme. His work as a whole is permeated by irony and pessimism; humanity is shown motivated more by greed and snobbery than by any finer passions. Some of his later stories, dealing with eerie hallucinations, reflect the breakdown in Maupassant's mental health, attributable to syphilis. In the last 18 months of his life he was confined to a sanatorium for the insane, where he died on July 6, 1893.
Apart from the short stories, Maupassant published six novels, including Bel-Ami (1885), the saga of a handsome scoundrel who makes good, and Pierre et Jean (1888), which tells how a young man's image of his mother is shattered when he discovers that she had conceived his younger brother out of wedlock. Henry James described Maupassant as a "lion in the path"—meaning that he represented a formidable barrier to the development of a morally significant literature.
Further Reading on Henri René Albert Guy deMaupassant
The best study in English of Maupassant's life is Francis Steegmuller, Maupassant: A Lion in the Path (1949). Two scholarly literary studies were written by Edward D. Sullivan, Maupassant the Novelist (1954) and Maupassant: The Short Stories (1962).
Additional Biography Sources
Jackson, Stanley, Guy de Maupassant, Folcroft, Pa. Folcroft Library Editions, 1974; Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977.
Lerner, Michael G., Maupassant, London: Allen & Unwin, 1975.
Sherard, Robert Harborough, The life, work, and evil fate of Guy de Maupassant (gentilhomme de lettres), Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976.
Troyat, Henri, Maupassant, Paris: Flammarion, 1989.