‘‘The Jewels’’ takes place in late-nineteenth-century Paris, between the years 1870 and 1880. The subtle tremors of instability beneath its placid, urbane surface suggest the social milieu of the years following the brief Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Maupassant was mobilized as a soldier in that war, and his most famous story, ‘‘Boul de Suif,’’ is set in the midst of the conflict. The 1880s, the era in which Maupassant wrote the majority of his stories and novels, was also a period of turmoil in which the political beliefs and long-held assumptions of the French people were in flux. Maupassant’s work, while not overtly political in content, reflects the unstable norms and values of the historical era in which it was composed.
Prior to around 1865, the French population was clustered mainly in rural areas. France experienced industrialization and the resulting migration of the populace to cities later than England and on par with the United States, whose country-to-city exodus also did not take place in force until the twentieth century. France, however, was becoming increasingly multiethnic during the late nineteenth century, and refugees from Eastern Europe flocked there. The teeming city of Paris underwent many social and sanitary improvements during this time, such as the famous widening of city boulevards by Baron von Haussman and the subsequent elimination of centuries-old slums, whose inhabitants were relocated to outside the city center.
From 1852 to 1870, France was ruled by Emperor Napoleon III, the grandson of France’s military hero, Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon III ran an authoritarian government that pursued colonial acquisitions in Asia and Africa, and opened the Suez Canal. Napoleon III was also belligerent toward his European neighbors—under his rule France occupied Rome and fought with Britain against Russia in the Crimean War. Napoleon III also pursued his expansionist policies in North America, supporting the confederacy during the American Civil War and occupying Mexico City, in which he installed an Austrian archduke as emperor. On both of these occasions, U.S. military power drove Napoleon III back to France.
In Europe, Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck goaded the war-happy French leader into declaring war in July 1870. The French army was swiftly beaten and forced to surrender by September 1. The Prussians moved in to occupy Paris, which surrendered. France was then forced to give up important economic regions Alsace and Lorraine to Germany, paving the way for Germany’s replacing France as the most important European power. Napoleon III was sent into exile to England, where he died two years later. The Third Republic was then set up in France, which would last until the German occupation of 1940. Bitterness over the diminished importance of France on the European stage and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine darkened the outlook of the French populace for years. This bitterness and sense of defeated ambition is in keeping with the pessimistic outlook that colors Maupassant’s stories.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Guy de Maupassant, Published by Gale Group, 2010