Morissot is the first character mentioned in ‘‘Two Friends’’ and is one of the title characters. He is ‘‘a watchmaker by profession forced into retirement for the duration’’ of the siege of Paris. He is therefore wandering idly around the streets of Paris, wearing his National Guard uniform, when he meets his old friend and fishing companion Sauvage. His idea of paradise is fishing with his friend in the Seine in the Paris suburbs. He attaches a special significance to the peace and freedom of fishing precisely because this pastime is now completely denied him by the conditions of the siege. After meeting Sauvage and getting slightly drunk with him, he agrees to his friend’s suggestion that they go fishing again, despite the siege. As they carry out their unlikely plan to go fishing in between the Prussian and French armies, Morissot more or less follows Sauvage’s lead. Morissot, however, is quicker to criticize the senselessness of the war, blaming the disruption of their lives on politics rather than on Prussia or on a particular faction within France. Nevertheless, a friendly political discussion that arises between the two friends reveals that Morissot is a monarchist, an adherent to one of the leading political factions within France at that time. He tells Sauvage, ‘‘With kings you got war abroad. With the Republic you got war on our own doorstep.’’ This refers to the generally successful wars in the Crimea, Italy, and the Far East in which Napoleon III had involved France, compared to the then current Prussian invasion of the Third French Republic. It rather ignores, however, that while France was a Republic at the time the siege of Paris began, this was because Napoleon III had been defeated on French soil and captured by the enemy. But this kind of thinking is what Maupassant means when he describes the two friends as being men of ‘‘limited outlook.’’
Whatever their disagreements, the two friends agree that government works against human freedom and happiness. Nevertheless, when Morissot is given the chance to save his own life (and thereby protect his own family) at the cost of betraying France, he chooses loyalty to the nation although it means death. Maupassant does not explore the inner process that leads to Morissot’s decision, leaving it to the reader to use his own understanding to explain the fact described in the narrative. Perhaps unexamined primitive feelings that associate the ‘‘fatherland’’ with the bonds of loyalty that exist within the family, the same feelings that led Morissot as a monarchist to favor the head of state over the state, welled up within him and made it impossible for him to betray the abstract idea of France (though he could have felt little loyalty to the actual government of France he had criticized so sharply).
The Prussian Officer
The antagonist or villain of ‘‘Two Friends’’ is an unnamed Prussian officer whose men take the two friends captive. The only physical description of him is as ‘‘a kind of hairy giant.’’ He also smokes a porcelain pipe of a type then more popular in Germany than in France. He is nevertheless cultivated to the degree that he speaks ‘‘excellent French.’’ He is not humorless, though his wit seems to have a cruel, deceptive quality to it. When he sees the two friends’ creel full of fish, he observes, ‘‘Aha! I see you weren’t doing too badly,’’ as though he were engaged in friendly banter with men he intends to kill. After he does in fact kill them, his irony rises toward the sadistic, when he comments on their lifeless bodies dumped into the Seine: ‘‘And now the fish get their turn,’’ meaning that the fish who have so often been eaten by the two friends will now eat them. This sadistic note in his character seems to be emphasized by his final action in the story when he orders his cook to cook the fish from the mens’ creel: ‘‘Fry up these little chaps for me. While they’re still alive. They should be delicious.’’ There seems little way to understand this except as an unnecessary act of cruelty.
On the other hand, the naturalist style adopted by Maupassant invites readers to make their own deductions about character from the actions shown rather than accepting judgments made by the narrative voice of the text. In that case, the Prussian officer’s apparent indifference to the deaths of the two friends, its failure to produce an emotional effect on him, might have explanations other than an innate barbarity. He could be too traumatized after months of killing in the war to be very concerned about these two particular deaths, which loom much larger in the consciousness of the reader than they may in his mind. It may also be that he is practicing the stoic detachment that was the ideal cultivated by nineteenth-century soldiers, French and Prussian alike, and so does what is necessary despite any feeling against it, and certainly would not show any emotional conflict to the world. While the two friends may consider their treatment unjust, the officer shows considerable initiative and insight in seeing so quickly how he can exploit his captives to his own advantage. This applies even more to the larger issue of the story. From the French perspective, the Prussian is at best up to a dishonorable trick, trying to extract the password from the two friends for the sake of making a deceptive attack on the French lines and gaining an unfair advantage by underhanded means. While Maupassant might not have expected many of his readers to take the Prussian view of the matter, the same actions could just as well be interpreted from that perspective. In that case, the officer is doing whatever he can to save the lives of his own men when he must attack the French. Preserving honor by not ‘lying’ through using the falsely obtained password to keep the French from firing on them as long as possible might therefore seem less worthwhile than saving the blood of his comrades. Nevertheless, while Maupassant shows considerable sympathy for the Prussians, in lamenting the fate of any Prussian soldiers killed by the French bombardment that takes place during the story, and having the two friends observe that the slaughter of the war is equally senseless for both sides, the character of the Prussian officer does seem to be a negative portrayal. The incident of the fish, highlighted as the conclusion of the story, is very hard to read in a favorable light.
The plot of ‘‘Two Friends’’ is set in motion when Morissot meets his old friend and fishing companion Sauvage. Sauvage is described as ‘‘a fat, cheerful little man.’’ He is ‘‘a haberdasher in the rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette,’’ which means (in the American meaning of the word) that he was a salesman of sewing notions. The description of him as a ‘‘fellow warrior’’ must mean that he has been inducted into the National Guard just like Morissot. He is just as keen a fisherman as Morissot and takes the same special pleasure in the peace, autonomy, and quiet that it brings.
When Sauvage and Morissot meet on a fine January day in the fifth month of the siege of Paris, Morissot suggests they pass the time of their reminiscing by drinking absinthe, but once they are somewhat intoxicated, Sauvage takes the lead in all their later actions. He suggests that they go fishing despite the besieging Prussian army. He is the one whose contact, Colonel Dumoulin, lets them through the lines with a password so they may go to their old fishing spot and then return safely when challenged by the French sentries. Once they advance beyond the French lines and are in danger from the Prussians, Sauvage is the first to realize the imminence of the threat, though he dismisses it with a joke. He also presses forward despite the sudden realization of their danger, with Morissot following all the way.
During the political discussion between the two friends, Sauvage reveals that he is a republican, a member of the faction of French politics that wanted power to be vested in a legislature and an elected leader rather than in a hereditary monarch. The First French Republic was formed in 1792, during the French Revolution, and lasted until 1804. The Second Republic, established in 1848, was overturned by Louis-Napoleon who, as elected president of the Republic, subverted the constitution and became emperor as Napoleon III. After his defeat and capture by the Prussians in 1870, the Third Republic was established and was responsible for conducting the war that is taking place in ‘‘Two Friends.’’ While Maupassant says nothing about Sauvage’s motivation in choosing death rather than betraying his abstract patriotic duty to France, his political difference from his friend Morissot suggests his reasons might have been quite different. In a republic, all citizens are equal and are in some sense considered brothers under the slogan of ‘‘fraternity.’’ Thus, while Morissot’s loyalty to France may be strengthened by and based on innate human feelings of loyalty to one’s father expanded to a political scale, Sauvage’s loyalty to France may be supported by the emotions and attachments that exist in the relationships with siblings and friends.
Wilhelm is one of the Prussian soldiers who acts as the officer’s cook (marked out by wearing a white apron). He is the only character in the story whose first name is revealed.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Guy de Maupassant – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.