Craft: This Business of Latin and The Bequest – Guy de Maupassant

After reading “This Business of Latin” (La Question du Latin) and “The Bequest” (Le Legs) today, my first thought was: these stories would be hacked apart in a creative writing workshop.  Why?  A common response to stories in workshop is that students want to see more of the characters.  What is so-and-so like when she’s at home?  Why don’t you show him interacting with his kids more?  Sure, it could broaden the view of a character, but it might diminish the focus of a story.

“This Business of Latin” and “The Bequest” are both stories about relationships, and the roles of men and women in French culture at the time.  “This Business of Latin” is much lighter than “The Bequest” in that the narrator is a schoolboy who thinks he is playing a practical joke on his Latin teacher.  We see the narrator’s naivete as things don’t turn out as he imagines.  The Latin teacher falls in love with the young washerwoman and the two marry.  In the end, the joke is on the narrator, but he still fails to realize it, even years later.  His lack of understanding is partly due to his belonging to a different social class, and partly due to his age.

Much darker, “The Bequest” highlights the inequities between men and women after a friend passes away.  Instead of leaving half of his estate to the husband and half to the wife, both of whom were his friends, Paul-Emile-Cyprien Vaudrec leaves everything to the wife, Madame Claire-Hortense Serbois.  However, she is unable to claim the wealth without permission from her husband.  French women were not allowed to inherit property, manage their own accounts or make decisions regarding their own children without approval from a father, husband, brother or some other male guardian.  It wasn’t until 1965 that French women were allowed to open a separate checking account[1].  The husband is concerned that people will gossip about the inheritance.  The townsfolk will assume the worst, and think that his wife was having an affair.  The husband then accuses his wife, who promptly denies the possibility that she was Vaudrec’s mistress.

In the end, she convinces her husband and goes along with his plan to have her accept the money on condition that it’s split between the two of them.  The lovelessness of the marriage materializes into view.  Whether Madame Serbois cries because her lover has died, or because her chance at a life free from her husband disappears is unclear.  What is clear is that Maupassant was interested in exploring gender and class.

What is the balance between social commentary vs. character?  How much of the characters do we need if the point is to explore an idea?  What difficulties might a writer encounter?  The challenge lies in telling enough of a story that the reader is captivated.  Maupassant’s stories, in this case, seem to ride the line by having just enough characterization.  The subject is more important than the characters.  We care about the characters, but really, they seem secondary to the demands of the narrative.

Overall, both of these stories are quite skeletal.  While they may get marked up if a student turned a similar story into workshop, it’s worth noting a difference between some contemporary short stories and Maupassant’s.  What’s more enjoyable for a reader: a story full of style and little else, or a story that lacks fluff, but exposes societal issues?  A blend would be the best.  In any case, a story with impact and relevance leaves a larger imprint than a story which seems empty in comparison.

[1] De Maupassant, Guy. Mademoiselle Fifi and Other Stories. Trans. David Coward. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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