Bel-Ami (1885), Maupassant’s short novel about Georges Duroy, a former soldier and fledgling journalist on the make in Paris during the years just before the novel’s date of publication, gives us a snapshot of a France indifferent to and accelerating away from its past. The only vestige we are given of the heroism shown by the nation in the early years of the century is a picture of Napoleon I in the Normandy inn kept by Georges’s parents. The emperor is depicted on a horse ludicrously made yellow by the fading of the print.
France in the 1880s is unmoved by “la gloire”. When M. Walter, the crooked newspaper proprietor who by the end of the novel has made a vast fortune by insider dealing, facilitated by the power of his newspaper to spread disinformation and thus rig the market, comes up with a paltry scheme to establish his position in Parisian society and neutralise the social stigma of his Jewishness, it is said to be (in a piece of indirect free speech which seems to transcribe Walter’s own thoughts) “an idea worthy of a conqueror bent on subjugating Paris, and idea worthy of a Bonaparte”. Such is the dwindled scale of comparison of all the characters in the novel. Even scoundrels and cowards are celebrated. When Georges’s friend Charles Forestier is dying of consumption in Cannes, he points out over the bay the Île Sainte-Marguerite, an island prison from which the disgraced Marshal Achille Bazaine had recently escaped. Only a little over ten years previously Bazaine’s pusillanimous surrender of the army of Lorraine at Metz had precipitated the debacle of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Forestier’s amoral admiration for Bazaine’s fleetness of foot is entirely without a trace of indignation: “He certainly pulled a fast one there!” Georges fights a duel with a fellow-journalist who has insulted him in print, but he is no Eugene Onegin. Both men emerge from the ordeal entirely unscathed.
This rapidly evolving society is the backdrop for Maupassant’s relation of the unchecked rise of Georges, who quickly arrives at an understanding of the true nature of the world which is emerging around him, and who, by a mixture of natural charm, cunning, shamelessness, and ruthlessness, transforms himself from a penniless ex-soldier to the cynosure of Parisian society. Maupassant plots Georges’s rise through the changes in his name. Plain Georges Duroy to begin with, he becomes Duroy de Cantel, then du Roy de Cantel, before finally becoming M. le Baron du Roy de Cantel.
Early on in the novel, before Georges’s ascent has really acquired momentum, Maupassant describes a small dinner party in a private room at the Café Riche given by Clotilde de Marelle (who will become Georges’s mistress) for Charles Forestier, who has introduced him to journalism, and Madeleine Forestier (whom Georges will marry, briefly, after Charles’s death). The setting is an invitation to pleasure:
A white tablecloth, so glossy that it might have been varnished, was spread over a square table on which four places were set; the glasses, the silverware, the chafing dish glittered brightly in the light of a dozen candles in two tall candelabra.
Mme de Marelle, with a taste in wine perhaps a little behind the times for the early 1880s, instructs the sommelier to “give these gentlemen whatever they want; as for us, we’ll have some chilled champagne, the best you have, a sweet one of course, nothing else.” We are not told what Charles and Georges order from that famous wine list, but Maupassant is very attentive to the effect wine has on them, as the subject of their conversation turns to love:
And because the first entrée was slow in coming, they kept sipping champagne and nibbling bits of crust torn from the little rolls. And, slowly and insinuatingly, the thought of love took hold of them, intoxicating them in the same way that the pale wine excited their blood and confused their minds, as it slipped down their throats drop by drop.
Maupassant’s point here is not just the obvious one, that when wine has loosened their inhibitions people tend to be less guarded. He is also making the more interesting observation that there is a self-reflexive aspect to this experience—that people observe themselves becoming less inhibited, and that this minor revelation of their true natures and desires nudges them down the path of becoming that other person. Wine ministers to the transformation of appetite into character. It is no accident that, after this dinner, when Georges is escorting Mme de Marelle home in a cab, she reciprocates his crude lunge at her (“he threw himself on her, seeking her mouth with his lips and her bare flesh with his hands”), and thereby initiates their affair.
Maupassant has already suggested the importance of such moments of puzzled or befuddled self-perception as springboards for ambition—as moments when characters suddenly understand what they might become. When Georges is going to have dinner with the Forestiers for the first time, he has had to buy himself an evening suit for the occasion, never having needed one before:
He was climbing slowly and nervously up the stairs, his heart pounding, tormented above all by the fear of seeming ridiculous, when he suddenly saw, opposite him, a gentleman in full evening dress gazing back at him. They were so close to one another that Duroy stepped backwards, then stopped, dumbfounded: it was his own reflection, in a tall, full-length mirror that made the first-floor landing look like a long gallery. He was suddenly overjoyed, he looked so much better than he could ever have believed.
That moment of disorientation encourages Georges to persevere in his self-advancement.
The culmination of this thread in the novel comes in its closing pages. Georges has consummated his social mountaineering by marrying Suzanne Walter, thus putting himself in line for an eventual inheritance of tens of millions of francs. At the sumptuous society wedding held at the Madeleine and conducted by the Bishop of Tangiers, Georges is “drunk with pride”—“ivre d’orgueil”. As he emerges from the church he sees in the distance, behind the Place de la Concorde, the Chamber of Deputies—the next objective in his relentless pursuit of advancement: “it seemed to him that he was about to make one jump from the portico of the Madeleine, to the portico of the Palais-Bourbon.” Untempted by the petty authorial revenges on character offered by tragedy, Maupassant superbly leaves Georges on this pinnacle which is also only a resting place, disoriented as if by wine, and about to make yet another self-transforming leap into the future.