Guy de Maupassant - Pierre and Jean
Guy de Maupassant's Pierre and Jean, his fourth novel, is a large story told small, a family drama written in miniature, highlighting the French author's astonishing capability for psychological insight, emotional irony, and the subtle touch of his descriptive sensitivity. Pierre and Jean follows the well-worn nineteenth century plot device of the inheritance, but Maupassant's careful exploration of his character's inner lives allows it to be something greater than the sum of its parts.
Brothers Pierre and Jean have for many years engaged in friendly rivalry. Pierre, the older, is impetuous and dark, quick to anger and slow to forgive. He has recently graduated from university as a doctor, and is looking forward to increasing his social prestige and wealth. Jean, on the other hand, is younger and fair, a calm, pleasant young man who has vague, mostly unrealised dreams to become a lawyer. Their rivalry, such as it is, revolves around who has caught the biggest fish and other such trivialities. This changes dramatically when Jean finds himself the sole heir to an old friend of his mother and father's. For Pierre, the question begins as – why not me?, then shifts slowly and darkly to the more sinister – why him?
Pierre's predicament is told largely through his emotional turmoil. The brothers live in an essentially happy family, with a caring, gentle mother and a genially buffoonish father who has done well enough for himself that life offers little more than easy pleasure and the contented awareness that the end of each day carries with it a good meal, hearty wine, and fine company. Pierre becomes suspicious of the inheritance, wondering if it sheds a negative light on the virtue of his mother, and soon his thoughts turn inwards on themselves, gnawing at his mind. The happiness of his family becomes a mockery to the knowledge he believes he has, and to make matters worse his concerns are treated as simply jealousy toward his brother's easy fortune.
Maupassant eschews an overly dramatic route, choosing instead to unfold his story calmly. Pierre may be a simmering volcano, but the writing is not. This choice is wise – it allows us to sympathise with Pierre and the rest of his family, and we are able to take his predicament seriously. Maupassant deftly side-steps the trap of having the reader only identify with Pierre and his misfortune, allowing us windows into the realities of each member of the family and their friends. Though a short novel, we are privy to the little moments that make up the majority of any person's life – a fine dinner, the search for a new home, a mother's care and concern over her child's future.
Though the novel spends most of its time inside Pierre's mind, the bedrock of the family – the boy's mother, who has, in fact, betrayed her husband; and the husband himself, M. Roland, the only member of the family who remains entirely in the dark – provide the counterpoint to Pierre's troubles. Here Maupassant's skill with irony manifests itself in a series of clever conversations which revolve entirely around the reader, Pierre, and Pierre's mother knowing the truth – but M. Roland, never. Maupassant never plays M. Roland for cheap laughs, though the situation itself is at times comical. The effect of this is greater than if he had simply been a doddering old fool, cuckolded once during the act itself, and again twenty-odd years later when all is revealed to everyone but him. No, M. Roland is a strong character, pleasantly ignorant and content with his life because it is what it is. There is a strong sense that should the hints and innuendos become so strong that the man must acknowledge their presence, M. Roland's sense of self-satisfaction would be so large that he would remain impossible blind to the situation. He is a stunningly bourgeoisie creation, and all the more endearing for it.
Jean remains something of a cipher. We are pleased with his fortune, and pleased even more when it prompts him to collect himself and arrange for a wife, a job, and a home. But there is not a great deal in him beyond that, for this is Pierre's story, really. He suffers much as anyone who comes to doubt and, eventually, hate, his mother would suffer. “He suffered terribly because he no longer loved and respected her, but tortured her. When he had thoroughly re-opened the bleeding wound he had made in the heart of this wife and mother, when he realized how wretched and desperate she was, he went off on his own into the town, so tortured by remorse and shattered by pity, so horrified at having crushed her in this way with the contempt of her own son, that he felt like throwing himself into the sea to make an end to it all.” Here is a man at pains with his own existence. He detests his mother's behaviour, and hates her for it – but hates himself even more for hating a woman he still, somewhere, loves. Maupassant is careful to avoid extremes in all his characters, keeping them in that confusing centre of ambiguity where we most often find ourselves.
Gustave Flaubert, Maupassant's great and exacting mentor and master, told the young author that he must find that which is unique in a situation, person, flower or flame, and then describe it in a way that he never been described before. In Maupassant's attached essay on the novel, he writes that Flaubert told him, “When you go past a grocer sitting at his door or a concierge smoking his pipe, or a cab rank, show me that grocer and that concierge, the position they take up, their whole physical appearance, containing, moreover, thanks to the skill of the picture, their whole moral nature so that I cannot confuse them with any other grocer or any other concierge, and make me see in a single word how one cab-horse is distinct from the fifty others in front and behind it.” Maupassant closely followed this doctrine, and its consummation is perhaps present in Pierre and Jean. This story, at its core, is simple and worn with use, and the characters are mostly types and not original. At least, that is how they begin. Maupassant, using phrases, sentences, paragraphs and pages, slowly builds upon these archetypes until his careful observations have made a situation that is truly unique, a character that has become a person. Pierre and Jean is a very fine novel, a rich and rewarding tale distilled to its purest essence. The writing, as Maupassant was fond of phrasing, is 'as clear as water', and very good to drink.
List of French authors under review
Online-Literature - Collection of Maupassant's work, including a snapshot biography
Project Gutenberg - Free online text of Pierre and Jean
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