In ‘‘Two Friends’’ Maupassant presents two contradictory and unresolved tendencies. On the one hand he deals with war as a universal evil for which government (as a structure—not any specific government) is responsible and of which the common man is the victim. But he just as insistently portrays the Germans as cruel, warlike savages. It is as if the two beliefs exist in his mind, safely preserved by a cognitive dissonance that does not let him criticize one in light of the other. The interesting question about the Prussian officer is not whether his character is a stereotype, but how it became one if it does not represent a historical reality of the Franco-Prussian War.
Maupassant sets out on his criticism of war with the aid of his two unlikely heroes, the friends Morissot and Sauvage. Tolstoy points out that Maupassant had little sympathy with his characters who happened to be of a lower social class than himself. Maupassant is very explicit about this in, for example, his short story ‘‘Madame Husson’s May King.’’ The bourgeois main character of that story openly despises ‘‘ the level of the many groups of the sickly, ill-favoured, and frankly stupid people of which the human race is composed.’’ Traces of the same prejudice may be seen in the characterization of Morissot and Sauvage in ‘‘Two Friends.’’ They are tradesmen put out of work by the dislocations of the war, and he presents them as idling loafers, spending their days getting drunk on absinthe. Though they have been taken into the National Guard as soldiers owing to the severe hardships of the siege of Paris, there is very little of the military about them, and they have never so much as seen a Prussian (the same was true of Maupassant in his post as a clerk in an army warehouse in Normandy). When they try to behave like soldiers in the field, they become ridiculous. There is something ridiculous, too, about their fishing expedition, no matter how sympathetically one may wish to view it.
Nevertheless, the two friends are meant to exemplify France’s experience of the war. Morissot and Sauvage experience the war as futility. It has put them out of work. The first and only action that they see is on their final fishing expedition when they see the artillery of the French fortress of Mont-Vale´rien firing on Prussian positions encircling the city.
“And all the while, Mont-Vale´rien kept pounding away, its shells demolishing French houses, destroying lives, killing people, putting an end to so many dreams and expectations and hopes of happiness, opening wounds which would never heal in the hearts of wives, girls, and mothers far away in other lands.”
The military effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the bombardment does not interest Maupassant. Rather, he uses the fighting as a symbol of waste. Its only effect is to destroy French property and break the hearts of the women of any Prussian soldiers it might kill. It certainly does nothing to save the lives of the two friends. Even as their bodies are dumped in the river, the gunners are unaware of what has happened to them but simply keep up their futile bombardment: ‘‘And all this time, Mont-Vale´rien kept up its pounding. But now there was a mountain of smoke hanging over its head.’’ Maupassant mocks the useless bombardment, implicitly contrasting its ineffectual smoke with the pillar of smoke that led the Israelites of the Exodus to Sinai.
But Maupassant presents another view of the war as well. Following the dictates of Zola’s naturalism, Maupassant tells his story with little direct comment. His characterization of the effects of the bombardment is almost his only attempt to guide the reader’s reaction in the most obvious way. His feelings of hostility are nevertheless clearly expressed in other ways. Maupassant does not directly voice criticism of the Prussians, but he shows it in the description of the feelings of the two friends: ‘‘They had never actually seen Prussians in the flesh, but for the last two months they had felt their presence, all around Paris, destroying France, looting, murdering, starving the population, invisible and irresistible.’’ He makes an even sharper criticism of the Prussians only as Sauvage’s directly reported speech: ‘‘They’re worse than animals.’’ Nevertheless, this attitude is remarkably different from the expression of concern for the loved ones of fallen Prussian soldiers expressed by the narrator, yet the two attitudes are inextricably interwoven in the text.
This criticism of the Prussians reaches its height in the unpleasant character of the Prussian officer responsible for the execution of the two friends. It is unlikely that Maupassant, a notable opponent of French imperialism at the time he was writing ‘‘Two Friends,’’ draws his stereotypical sketch of the officer out of nationalist feeling or anti-German chauvinism. After all, he views the bombardment from Mont-Vale´rien as a tragedy for both France and Germany. Can these two diametrically opposed tendencies be reconciled? Maupassant’s depiction of the Prussian officer, which is clearly inspired by hatred and meant to incite hatred, is an expression of his own feelings of hostility. He is not hostile to war per se or to the Prussians per se, but rather to the particular circumstances of the war as it interrupted life in France. The Prussian is evil because he is a symbol of the evils that have befallen France.
Maupassant’s objection to the Prussian officer in ‘‘Two Friends’’ is his objection to the war as it degraded, in his view, the life of France. This character is not meant to symbolize the German army or to express any particular hatred on Maupassant’s part for Germany or the Germans. Rather, the Prussian officer is a whipping boy for everything that Maupassant does hate in the world around him. If the story had been set during the French Revolution, the figure could just as well have been a revolutionary, or if set during the Paris Commune that followed the siege, a radical worker. Because he is meant to absorb all the hostility and aggression that Maupassant has to spew out, the Prussian officer is made a fit object for hatred. He not only kills the two friends for no really good reason, even from a military standpoint, but before their execution he tries in a low and insinuating way to make them betray France, which for Maupassant symbolizes everything good in the world. He attempts to bully them into it with lies and threats, and expects them to act the parts of cowards and liars themselves. Finally, after the two friends are dead, he does not hesitate to take their fish. He revels in his sadism, as if the execution whetted his appetite for cruelty. He orders the fish to be cooked alive so as to make them suffer. Besides its barbaric cruelty, it is above all a pathetic bullying act.
The actual conduct of the German army during the Franco-Prussian war was far removed from that of Maupassant’s Prussian officer. While there were certainly incidents of brutality, even against civilians, as there are in any war, committed by every army, the Prussians, as part of the aristocratic warrior ethos of the officer corps, were scrupulous in obeying the rules of war. The siege of Paris itself, for example, came about because of the German desire not to harm civilians or destroy the cultural treasures in the city. After the defeat of the main French field army at Sedan, the Germans could easily have occupied Paris, thanks especially to their superior artillery, but the city would have been destroyed and vast numbers of civilians killed. The German chancellor Otto von Bismarck wanted the army to do exactly that and assault the city, but the army refused on humanitarian grounds, instead cordoning off the city and neutralizing the French forces within it. So the real-life counterparts of the two friends owed their lives to the benevolence of the Prussian army.
The stereotypical characterization of the Prussian officer, then, is no fair comment on the actual German soldiers who laid siege to Paris. Tolstoy believed that Maupassant had a talent for finding the bad where he wanted to see the good in his characters. In this case it seems he is purposely finding the bad and ignoring the good. Yet to the modern reader it does not seem an isolated fancy of Maupassant’s, but rather somehow familiar. This stereotypical Prussian officer does not mirror traditional French prejudice either, which, as Maupassant observed in ‘‘Madame Husson’s May King,’’ was directed rather against the English: ‘‘I may dislike the Germans and want revenge for their aggression in the late war, but I do not hate them with the instinctive loathing I feel for the English, who are the true, the hereditary, the natural enemy.’’ It has already been suggested that Maupassant made his Prussian a suitable object of hatred, so that he could accept all of the hatred that Maupassant had to heap upon him for a wide variety of causes, for loss and defeat, but not for nationalism. The officer’s character is an exaggeration of traits that the Prussians themselves thought admirable. He acts with a stoic detachment from circumstances, thinks about rational plans to achieve his objective, rather than considering things emotionally. He is quick and decisive and overly formal and correct in all his behavior. But these virtues are exaggerated into flaws. The officer is ‘‘as unemotional as ever’’ while he is ordering the execution, as it is carried out, and after they are dead. Added to this caricature is an inherent deceitfulness and sadism. The result is not a human being, but a monster. Indeed, when the narrator first describes the Prussian, he is ‘‘a kind of hairy giant,’’ in other words, something that is not human. This figure is a familiar stereotype for twenty-first-century readers, not from the work of Maupassant, but because it was later recreated quite independently.
At the beginning of World War I, Great Britain and Germany were by no means natural enemies. King George V and Emperor Wilhelm II were cousins and were on excellent terms. The populace shared a Protestant bourgeois culture. Their forms of government were for all intents and purposes identical. Ordinary British citizens, and especially soldiers, however, viewed the French with some hostility as foreign: Catholic and Latin, traditional enemies from the Middle Ages and the Napoleonic Wars. Once the British government decided that it had to enter into war with Germany in 1914 for political reasons, and because of a treaty of alliance with France whose binding clauses had been kept secret from the public out of fear of popular disapproval, it decided to take steps to arouse hostility towards the Germans in ordinary British soldiers and civilians alike in order to gain their sympathy and support for the war. The British government therefore created a secret propaganda ministry. The first act of this ministry was to disseminate stories through the press as well as through the speeches of politicians and the king aimed at creating a new image of Germany and the German soldier in the minds of the British public. The same propaganda was eventually directed towards the United States, both to shift public sentiment toward joining the war, and then to whip up anti-German feeling after U.S. entry into the war. The initial propaganda concentrated on the ‘‘rape of Belgium,’’ the idea that the German invasion of Belgium at the beginning of the war was a war crime, was the cause of British entry into the war, and entailed the indifferent murder of thousands of civilians. The physical rape and mutilation of countless women, and the murder of innocents including children, were attributed to sadistic, inhuman German soldiers. The Germans were called ‘‘Huns,’’ after the barbarians who had destroyed Roman civilization. All of the ‘‘facts’’ in this image, however, were either wholly fabricated or exaggerated out of all recognition, as British propagandists such as Arthur Ponsonby readily admitted after the war. The idea was to present an image of an inhuman object of hatred on which the populace could project any latent psychological hostilities they harbored, and identify this figure with Germany. In other words, the British achieved on a massive scale, and for a political rather than an artistic purpose, the same manipulation of feeling as Maupassant, and by using precisely the same means. Maupassant’s inhuman hairy giant even finds an exact analog in the propaganda posters of World War I, which often showed a German soldier in the form of a giant ape, wearing the distinctive German spiked helmet or Pickelhaube, threatening a Belgian or English nurse collapsed on the ground out of terror before him.
Maupassant’s stereotypical presentation of the Prussian officer was arguably a statement against war and for France rather than against Germany. Yet it took a form very similar to the later propaganda image of the Germans created to incite public hatred during World War I.
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.
Bradley A. Skeen, Critical Essay on ‘‘Two Friends,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.