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Narcissism in the Life and Work of Guy de Maupassant Essay

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Updated: Feb 16th, 2022

Guy de Maupassant is a major French novelist and master of short stories, who succeeded in popularizing the genre. The writer lived and worked in the second half of the 19th century, and during the nine years, published at least twenty collections of short prose, very often associated with naturalism. The researchers note that the author is a successor to the critical realism tradition, who opposed the bourgeois values and orders of that time (Perez 349). Maupassant explored many of the social as well as philosophical problems in his writings. The author himself had a saturated life full of both significant achievements and tragic events, which were reflected in numerous plots and events of his narrations. This raises the question of the writer’s self-centeredness, which can be considered as narcissism. The paper focuses on whether Maupassant was a narcissist and discusses this issue through an examination of the author’s life and work.

Biography of the Novelist

Guy de Maupassant was born to a noble French family in 1850. The mother of the future writer was a childhood friend of Gustave Flaubert, who began to actively engage in the life of Maupassant when he entered the school in Rouen (de Maupassant 14). Over time, Flaubert became the young man’s mentor, who significantly influenced the aesthetics, literary interests, and writing style of the novelist. It should be noted that Flaubert was initially a close person to the Maupassant family, and the future writer did not have to conquer his attention with achievements and talents.

Communication with such a significant figure for European art could have greatly influenced the young man’s self-esteem, but this factor was not the only one. Maupassant was compelled to become an official in the Ministry of the Navy because of the ruin of his family, where he worked for about a decade (de Maupassant 14). However, this work was distasteful to him because Maupassant was attracted to social adventures and literature. A favorite hobby of athletically composed Maupassant was boating on the Seine and admiring the picturesque surroundings to the west of Paris (de Maupassant 14). Also, the young man was engaged in a promiscuous and extremely intensive romantic lifestyle, which was the inspiration for many stories and female characters (de Maupassant 14; Meskin and Galay 105). This has certainly affected the writer’s self-image and literary vision, although one can only judge the bond between his love affairs and narcissism only in connection with the author’s writings.

Maupassant’s works were highly successful and allowed him to achieve financial prosperity. Unfortunately, the unbridled way of life quickly undermined the writer’s health, and he contracted syphilis, which was incurable at the time (de Maupassant 14). Another depressing event was Flaubert’s death in 1880, which deeply shocked Maupassant. The last years of the writer’s life were marked by difficult health conditions, nervous seizures, and even a suicide attempt. Maupassant died in 1893 before a month of his 43rd birthday.

It should be noted that the biography of the writer both contains evidence and refutes the narcissistic nature of his character. Brummelman et al. note that narcissists have a conviction about their specificity and privilege and do not seek to establish deep and close relationships with others (9). The researchers also state that “they strive to surpass others, to dominate others, and to use others to attain social status” (Brummelman et al. 9). The noble origin, acquaintance with famous writers, as well as popularity among women and a large number of romantic affairs, obviously, correspond to the stereotypical image of the narcissist. At the same time, it seems that Maupassant’s relationship with Flaubert was very close and meaningful to him. Moreover, it is difficult to conclude from the biographical facts about the writer’s inner attitude towards people and himself. Therefore, it is necessary to examine his writings for an exhaustive and complete analysis.

Themes and Issues

Maupassant often illustrates the life of French society in his novels, without being limited to a particular class or category of characters. For example, the novel Boule de Suif tells the story of a plumpish prostitute who did not want to provide services to the Prussian invaders, but the pressure of society has inclined her. According to Cooke, she was “victimized and ostracized by her peers over the course of the narrative” (180). This story represents critical realism, as the characters in it reflect the behavior of entire social groups. Maupassant’s novel Bel-Ami describes a life of a young man who “achieves his dream of wealth and power in a corrupt social order through lies, seduction, and a general absence of any redemptive qualities” (Marwood 836). This story clearly reflects the love affairs of the author himself. Moreover, the protagonist is an adventurer who enjoys the affection of the ladies and is willing to profit from any meanness. This character is certainly consistent with specific narcissistic personality traits. However, the writer criticizes his approach and the social order that allows it, as well as in the novel mentioned earlier.

Politic issues were also significant for Maupassant, who was involved in the corresponding discourses of that time. The writer took an active position on the French conquest of Tunisia and the subsequent establishment of the French protectorate (Birch 173). Maupassant actively discussed the role of the press and the lucrative use of information distribution channels, which, in his opinion, leads to the lack of democracy (Birch 173). Moreover, according to Smriti and Sinha, “there are numerous stories which focus primarily on the social struggle,” including “The Necklace, The Beggar, A Piece of String, Simon’s Papa” (115). Indeed, Maupassant often described the lives of people from different social classes who suffered from the existing social structure.

Accordingly, the author was not indifferent to the lives of his contemporaries and expressed his opinion on acute social issues. Maupassant’s concern about the conditions of ordinary people’s being, including prostitutes and the soldiers, is evidence of his affinity for people. At the same time, according to Brummelman et al., narcissists “aspire to get ahead rather than to get along” (9). Narcissists need to have an external evaluation of their activities and achievements, while the problems of disadvantaged social groups do not usually bother them.

Maupassant also explored the subtle features of complex existential experiences in his stories. In the novel Solitude, the author examines the nature of this feeling. According to Brossillon, the sense of hopelessness that Maupassant conveys in many stories is the result of the solitude transformed into unsustainable isolation (17). Writer’s characters suffer from the “feeling of strangeness,” which “is born of an over-extended isolation” and “from an emotional starvation” (Brossillon 17). Maupassant also often investigated the fate of people with extremely negative features, such as “demonic women” who were “lustful, self-serving, and deprived of maternal feelings” (Meskin and Galay 105). At the same time, narcissists are characterized by an intense feeling of superiority and a focus on agentic, self-assertive traits (Brummelman et al. 9). Narcissists are less inclined to open reflection on the experience of solitude and decadent aesthetics. Thus, Maupassant’s writings indicate more in favor of the fact that the author did not have a narcissistic personality.

Writing Style and Psychological Features

The author’s writing style and linguistic techniques may also contain information about his personality. The way the writer describes psychological traits through literary techniques plays a significant role in this regard. The researchers note that Maupassant was portraying scenes and episodes from the daily routine of characters through a detailed and natural narrative description (Wang 144). The author noted the ordinary trivialities in the lives of farmers, artisans, entrepreneurs, poor people, ordinary citizens, and aristocrats. Maupassant also subtly noticed hidden details, which he could masterfully insert into his novels (Wang 144). The writer emphasized the naturalistic features of landscapes, people, and cities, and no less naturalistically reflected the psychological reality. Researchers state that Maupassant observed “the human psyche and described in detail the mental state of his characters, accompanying the narrative with psychological commentaries, delivering his subjective opinion of the reality to the reader” (Perez et al. 350). The author investigated the mentality of various representatives of the society of that time and did it in simple and clear language.

It should be noted that observation and attention to the peculiarities of other people’s lives are less characteristic of narcissists. As a rule, they tend to focus on their own successes, achievements, problems, and failures, as well as the opinions of meaningful individuals regarding them. Maupassant was attentive to the mundane routine and daily events of people who did not constitute any selfish interest for him.

Self-Reflection through Characters

It is logical to assume that the narcissist will be inclined to reflect himself and his concerns in the characters he creates. As previously mentioned, many events and experiences from Maupassant’s life have been reflected in his writings. At the same time, the author also described problems that were alien to him in particular, but subtly felt how other people experienced them. The author critically described the vicissitudes and social consequences of the Franco-Prussian War through the life of a prostitute in the Boules de Suif. Besides, Maupassant’s portrays the “ordinary citizen who has ruined his life for vanity” in La Parrure (Wang 144). The author describes the “family who fights for inheritance” in En Famille and “two friends” who “would rather die than tell the passphrase to the Germans” in Deux Amis (Wang 144). Maupassant certainly expresses himself through these characters, but he masterfully describes meaningful details of individuals from other social groups with different destinies.

It should be noted that this does not unequivocally prove that Maupassant was not a narcissist. The researchers point out the significant positive correlation between narcissistic personality traits and creative potential and accomplishments (Martinsen et al. 170). It cannot be ruled out that Maupassant’s mastery coexisted with narcissism. However, the writer not only carried out self-reflection through the characters he created but also described other people’s problems.

Conclusion

Particular facts from Maupassant’s biography, including his early acquaintance with the great French prose writer Flaubert, as well as the popularity among women, could have contributed to the development of narcissism in the author. At the same time, Maupassant was committed to the traditions of critical realism, considered the acute issues of that time and was engaged in the problems of different social groups. The writer was observant of the outside world and depicted his characters and their destinies in the most subtle and routine details. In general, narcissists are more concerned about their successes and failures, as well as the perceptions of others in this regard. Thus, this analysis suggests more evidence in favor of the fact that Maupassant was not a narcissist.

Works Cited

Birch, Edmund. “Sleight of Hand: Maupassant and Actualité.” Fictions of the Press in Nineteenth-Century France, Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2018, pp. 163-205.

Brossillon, Celine. “The Figure of the ‘Horla’ in Guy de Maupassant’s Short Stories: From Isolation and Alienation to Annihilation.” Dix-Neuf, vol. 21, no.1, 2017, pp. 16-30.

Brummelman, Eddie, Sander Thomaes, and Constantine Sedikides. “Separating Narcissism from Self-Esteem.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 25, no. 1, 2016, pp. 8-13.

Cooke, Roderick. “Theorizing the Scapegoat in Maupassant and Zola.” French Forum, vol. 41, no. 3, 2016, pp. 177-191.

de Maupassant, Guy. Guy de Maupassant’s Selected Works (Norton Critical Editions). Edited by Robert Lethbridge. WW Norton & Company, 2016.

Martinsen, Oyvind Lund, et al. “Narcissism and Creativity.” Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 142, 2019, pp. 166-171.

Marwood, Damien. “Sur l’Eau, or How to Read Adorno: Guy de Maupassant and the Negative Dialectic of Utopia.” Modernism/Modernity, vol. 23, no.4, 2016, pp. 833-854.

Meskin, Vladimir, and Karina Galay. “Ivan Bunin and Guy de Maupassant: Ties Across Creative Writing.” Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, vol. 9, no. 4, 2017, pp. 102-108.

Perez, Pauline, et al. “Linguistic and Psychological Features of the Short Story of Guy de Maupassant ‘Pierrot’.” National Academy of Managerial Staff of Culture and Arts Herald, vol. 3, 2018, pp. 349-352.

Smriti, Richa, and Aroonima Sinha. “Struggle of Social Classes in Maupassant’s Select Short Stories.” Research Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 6, 2018, pp. 114-119.

Wang, Haijie. “On the Writing Style of Maupassant’s Short Stories.” Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Arts, Design and Contemporary Education (ICADCE 2017) Held 29-30 May 2017 at Russian State Specialized Academy of Arts in Moscow, Russia, 2017, pp. 144-146.

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