Maupassant begins ‘‘Two Friends’’ with a description of conditions of privation inside the city of Paris after a few months of being besieged by the Prussian army during the Franco-Prussian war: ‘‘Paris hung by a thread. Sparrows were rare on the rooftops. The rat population in the sewers had thinned. People were eating anything.’’ The first action of the story is a chance meeting of two old friends on a ‘‘bright January morning.’’ One of these is Morissot, a watchmaker whose business has come to an end for the duration of the siege. He is now in the National Guard, the militia that nearly every able-bodied male in Paris was enrolled in after the city was surrounded by the Prussians, although he has no special military duties and has not so much as seen a Prussian. He was issued a military uniform but has no more food than anyone else in Paris. While walking one day because he had nothing else to do, he ran into his old friend Sauvage, keeper of a sewing shop, who is also out of work and also in the National Guard.
These two friends, in the days before the war, would spend every Sunday at a fishing spot on the Seine in the suburbs of Paris. To Morissot this is ‘‘the place of his dreams.’’ It is equally idyllic to Sauvage. They met through fishing and that remains the framework of their friendship. Sitting next to each other on the bank, ‘‘they got on famously without any need for words, for their tastes were similar and their feelings identical.’’ They needed to speak no more than pleasantries ‘‘to understand and respect each other.’’ Maupassant describes the reassuring sameness of their friendship through the changes of the seasons. Now, meeting for the first time since the siege had brought their fishing to an end four months earlier, the two friends go to a cafe´ and reminisce about their past happiness, becoming slightly drunk on absinthe (a highly alcoholic drink distilled from herbs, including wormwood and sometimes called the ‘‘green fairy’’). Although it is January, the day happens to be unusually mild and sunny, so the two friends decide that there is no cure for their nostalgia except to go at once on a new fishing trip. Although their fishing spot is between the French defense lines and the Prussian siege lines, Sauvage is sure they can get through to it since he happens to know Dumoulin, the colonel in command of that sector, who will pass them through the lines. But, in ‘‘a thrill of excitement,’’ they do not seriously consider the dangers involved in entering the no man’s land between the two armies.
An hour later, the two friends meet again with their fishing tackle and actually start walking out to their spot on the Iˆ le de Colombes (Dove Island), ordinarily a short train ride away from the central part of Paris. The narrator informs the reader that the colonel in that sector, once he is told the whole story of their fishing and chance meeting, passes Morissot and Sauvage through the lines and gives them a password for their return, but this perhaps improbable scene is not described in detail. Once they are beyond the French lines, the two friends walk through a familiar but eerily deserted landscape of vineyards and suburbs. When they come to a ridge, Sauvage points out, almost in surprise, ‘‘That’s where the Prussians are!’’ Suddenly, ‘‘they were reluctant to advance across open country, for they felt intimidated by the silence all around them.’’ Untrained as soldiers, they nevertheless now try to act as though they were, taking cover as they run as if they were advancing under fire. Maupassant’s description of their trying to shield themselves behind insubstantial grape vines is meant to make them appear faintly ridiculous.
At last, Morissot and Sauvage reach the river and begin to fish just as they had always done. They have very good luck and are soon filling their creel with fish. This renewal of their friendship and the enjoyment of their pastime make them as happy as they had imagined it would: ‘‘A feeling of utter bliss crept over them, the bliss which comes from rediscovering a favorite pleasure which has been long denied.’’ But their elation goes far beyond mere happiness and seems to build up to a kind of transcendent ecstasy: ‘‘They stopped listening. They stopped thinking. The rest of the world had ceased to exist. They were fishing.’’
The two friends’ reveries were interrupted when the fortress of Mont-Vale´rien on the hill above them began firing on the Prussian positions. As uncomprehending of this French aggression as of the larger fighting inflicted by each side upon the other, Morissot says, ‘‘They must be off their heads…to go around killing each other like that.’’ The two then discuss the larger issues of the war. Of the two main political currents in France at that time, Sauvage seems to be a monarchist and Morissot a republican. The two friends hold a long political discussion that the narrator reports rather than recounts: ‘‘And they launched into a friendly argument, sorting out the great political issues with the solid good sense of decent men of limited outlook, and ending up in complete agreement on one point: people would never be free.’’ The narrator emphasizes the fact by dwelling on the suffering that will occur among the families of the Prussian soldiers being killed by the shelling from the French guns in the fort that goes on throughout the scene and the rest of the story.
It is at just this point that a patrol of Prussian soldiers captures the two friends, taking them completely by surprise. In their distracted discussion, they were surrounded and had guns leveled at them before they realized what was happening: ‘‘The fishing-rods dropped from their hands and floated off down river.’’ They were quickly bound and then taken across the Seine to a beastly looking Prussian officer who was nevertheless able to interrogate them in correct French.
The Prussian explains to Morissot and Sauvage that considering where he found them, and considering the ridiculous activity they were engaged in—fishing within the field of enemy fire—that he would be within his rights to shoot them as spies. But what he is really interested in is the password the two Frenchmen must have to get back inside their own lines. The Prussian wants the password so that when his own unit attacks the French, they will be able to approach all the way up to the French line without being fired upon. In this way he hopes to save the lives of his own men. In any case, the Prussian demands to know their password and in exchange offers to spare their lives and let them go. When the Frenchmen refuse to speak, the Prussian emphasizes that they will be dead in five minutes if they do not. He further reminds them that if they do not care about their own lives, they must have family members who would suffer if they died (although, in fact, de Maupassant says nothing about the family of either Frenchman). Finally, the Prussian assembles a firing squad and tells them they have one minute to live. But then the Prussian takes Morissot aside and whispers to him that if he tells him the password now, he will still let them go and will pretend to Sauvage that he spared them out of pity, so that his friend need never know Morissot gave up the password. Morissot still responds with silence, so the Prussian tells Sauvage the same thing, reasoning that each was afraid of appearing a traitor in front of the other. But Sauvage also refuses to respond.
Saying goodbye to each other for the last time, the two friends, Sauvage and Morissot, are indeed executed by the Prussian firing squad. The officer then orders their bodies dumped in the Seine. All the while, the French soldiers in the Mont-Vale´rien fortress continue their shelling, oblivious of what is transpiring down slope from them. As the weighted bodies sink, ‘‘the officer, as unemotional as ever, muttered: ‘And now the fish get their turn.’’’ He then orders one of his subordinates to fry the two friends’ fish for him while they are still alive. He waits impassively smoking his pipe.
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.