Monday, October 16, 2017

A Life by Guy de Maupassant * *

It’s been awhile since I’ve read anything not written in this century, or the end of the last one. Growing up, I was quite taken with historical fiction, mainly Dumas. However, since then I’ve mostly focused on the problems of the modern man. I’ve decided to venture into the world of the classics to see if I’ve left them hastily, and realised I haven’t. While Maupassant’s short novel was okay, I didn’t find it engaging for the present time.
I purposefully didn’t read any analysis of this novel, because I wanted to draw my own conclusions. I did read the writer’s life though. Now, for all I know, I could be completely misunderstanding the text. However, a text always means what it means to you. No one can be in another real person’s head, just in that of their characters’.

The story itself is quite simple. You can see what’s going to happen a mile away. It’s mostly about the life of a moderately wealthy French lower aristocrat woman. It starts the day her adult life begins, and concludes at a point where it changes drastically once more.
There were many themes in the novel, in spite of it being quite short. Morality, religion, child rearing, classes were all touched upon. While it talks about a lot of things, it concludes nothing really. It’s a description of things as they are, and therein lies my problem with it.

Morality in the story is not at a high point. Basically, everyone cheats on everyone, and everyone is sleeping with everyone. Except for the heroine, but she’s different. I’ll talk about her later. Apart from sexual morality, the only other morality it concerns itself with is that of the morals concerning the responsibilities of a child towards their parents. In that regard we see two opposite examples. However, it is left to the reader to draw conclusions from the examples. One is clearly positive, the other negative, but the reader could excuse the actions of the negative example with bad child rearing.
Religion is also a theme. For the story, the role of the local priest is more that of a settler of people’s affairs, than anything really religious. There are two examples of priests as well. From the story, I’m inclined to say that the writer favoured a naturalist deism, than organised religion. However, I did find the part of the boy’s catechism interesting, because it seemed to suggest that everything that happened after missing that was because of the lack of religion in the child’s upbringing.
This leads me to the child rearing aspect of the story. Maupassant himself was brought up in the country, and then sent to school, which he hated. We see three examples of bringing up children in the story, though one we don’t completely see. Both the aristocratic children, the main protagonist herself was brought up with ideas of natural romanticism, where everything feels like a romance novel. The boy is brought up similarly. Both have the problem of not being able to exist in the real world, outside of their own little niché. Makes me wonder if Maupassant felt like a fish out of water as well. The third child’s, the peasant boy’s upbringing was probably different, and more work oriented. He turned out much different. This part also makes the point of the value of hard work, and that with that people can accomplish a lot.
This difference is child rearing also points towards the heavy classism in the novel. The peasants are praised for their hard work, but also not thought of as much. Their morals are loose. One priest says one of his main jobs is that when he sees a peasant girl getting bigger, to find the boy who did it and get them married. It even often mentions that peasant girls almost always get married pregnant. “Jeanne did not belong to the race of peasants who are dominated by their lower instincts.” Their thoughts are materialistic and simple. Rosalie’s future husband’s thought is only towards money, not his future wife. The aristocrats are idle, and mostly don’t do much. While their morals are also described as loose, somehow that feels to be forgivable, and not derogatory. 

I also want to talk about the characters a bit. Jeanne is the main character, it’s basically her life that it talks about. However, the focus does feel to be mainly on the different women in the story. The life of the aristocratic women is idle. They wander around all the time, not doing much of anything. Jeanne did have ideas of maybe travelling, but other than her honeymoon, she never actually left her home. At first she was bothered by this, but as her life found the focus of her son, she lost all interest in anything else. This is what makes the story very boring for me. She just lets things happen to her, but is never an active agent in anything. Not even her own marriage. I know probably a lot of women felt like this in her time, but we know plenty of examples of women who found ways to revolt. In fact, since Maupassant’s mother got a divorce, she seemed to be one of them.

And we reached my real reason why I didn’t like this novel. The whole thing is a description. It’s slow. It’s made up of pictures, but you never actually feel the characters. You know that even in film there are moments when you see someone, they don’t speak, but you can feel what they are feeling. Here you never really get that sense. You are closed off from Jeanne. She’s like a doll. Pretty, blank, glass eyes staring out of an empty head. In fact, most characters just don’t feel real in this story. They are examples. Dolls. Not real personalities, never developing, evolving, changing. Stagnant. I’m not sure if that is on purpose, but it makes me angry. It makes me think that if Maupassant saw people this way, then he never really saw anyone with all their complexities, motivations, histories, struggles and achievements. There is no empathy.

Upon starting this novel, I wondered if it could say something to me. It couldn’t. It gives a detached, simplistic view of the world. It shows things, but doesn’t say much. It never shows a resolution for the problems, or even an attempt to make the situation of the characters, or the world better. What I felt at the end was emptiness.
The 21st century human is not inspired by such stories. If we look at popular literature now, it’s full of people who struggle, fight to make the world a better place. That is what we need. Stories that inspire us to want to change. We can’t be idle.