“At first he thought she had suffocated herself. Grabbing her by the shoulders, he turned her over, still clutching the pillow to hide her face and to bite into to stop herself from screaming.”
This short story stars with the author spending a bit of time debating exactly what a novel should set out to do. In an article addressing critics De Maupassant argues that even if you don’t start from the very start of a characters life you can project what they feel by mood and gestures. This psychological interpretation is one that allows him to start a story at any given point and then let the characters explain themselves as they react to events.
He does exactly that with this tightly written story of two brothers divided by an old secret that emerges almost innocently but with devastating consequences.
Pierre and Jean are competitive brothers, one a doctor and the other a lawyer and they are introduced on a boat trip with their mother, father and an attractive young widow. Instantly you suspect the story is being set up as a love rivalry tale. But things change when they return from their boat trip to discover that the family lawyer has been trying to get hold of them to inform them that Jean has become the heir to a large amount of money left by and old family friend.
Pierre does his best to suppress his jealousy but as he talks to his old chemist friend and a casual girlfriend who works as a barmaid their thoughts – that Jean must have been the son of the dead man – eats away at him.
As Pierre struggles to control his fear that the rumours are right and his knowledge that he will appear jealous if he says anything Maupassant manages to convey the torture the characters are going through by slammed doors, glances at dinner as well as dialogue. He takes you into the thoughts of the characters but never in a way that makes it appear as if he is trying to make the reader lean one way or the other.
Without giving the ending away it’s fair to say that the main action here takes place inside the heart and heads of the triangle of brothers and mother. Her mistake to love the wrong man comes back to haunt her and as her family is torn apart she seems to be the main victim.
As an introduction to Maupassant, which this is for me, you start with his thoughts on what makes a novel and you quickly realise you are dealing with a writer who likes to operate in three dimensions and get behind the skin into the brain and heart of his characters.