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The Disappearing Furniture in Maupassant's "Qui Sait?" and The Spoils of Poynton by Adeline R. Tintner Several sources have been proposed for The Spoils of Poynton. In addition to the "ten words" told to James on Christmas Eve, 1896, about "a good lady ... at daggers drawn with her only son . . . over the ownership of the valuable furniture of a fine old house" (SP vii) and the struggle for the fine mobilier in Balzac's tale "Le Cure' de Tours" (Tintner 436-55), another "germ" has been suggested by Oscar Car gill (21819 ), to be found in Guy de Maupassant's "En Famille," a speculation inspired chiefly by the coveting of two pieces of furniture there and by James's mention of the tale's "shock of battle" engendered by greed in his essay on Maupassant in 1888 (PP 275). Other factors militate against "En Famille" as the sole Maupassant source for The Spoils, especially since there is another tale by the French author (so continually admired and invoked as a model by James during these years just before and after Maupassant 's death in 1893 [see NB 104, 205, 293 and HJL 299, 362, 419]) from which the main images of the sudden removal of the "things" of Poynton and their sudden reappearance seem to have been taken. It is "Qui Sait?", one of Maupassant's last four stories, considered a masterpiece among the total output of over two hundred tales and published in the volume L'Inutile Beauté (1890) that James owned (Edel and Tintner 179). Furthermore, another Maupassant tale, "Vieux Objets," may have given not only its name to the first version of The Spoils, which appeared serially in The Atlantic as The Old Things, but also its exquisite ivory crucifix that became the Maltese cross in James's novel. "En Famille" is not as convincing a force as "Qui Sait?" is to "set" James's "imagination to work" because in that tale the furniture consisted only of two pieces, an ugly clock with "a girl playing at cup and ball" (ST 127) and a cheap chest of drawers that the slovenly, lower middle-class Mme. Caravan wishes to take from the supposedly dead mother-in-law before her sister-in-law gets it. Although in his 1888 essay James admired how Maupassant handled "the frustration " of the transfer of the two pieces from the mother's apartment to the downstairs apartment of her son, he judged the tale as essentially concerned with "miserable little articles" and "the feelings of small people about small things" (PP 275)— not so in "Qui Sait?", a tale that had not yet been written by Maupassant in 1888 but that James must have read before writing The Spoils since he had it in his library. From his letters we know he waited impatiently for every new book by the French master, the "lion in the path," who was for James the wistfully admired model of compression . "Qui Sait?" ("Who Knows?") concerns the mysterious disappearance, presumably under their own power, of a whole household of valuable and pedigreed antique furniture during one night and its subsequent , inexplicable reappearance in an antique shop in another town, followed by its equally inexplicable appearance once more in its owner's chateau in its original condition and position. The mysterious, eccentric, and seemingly anthropomorphized conduct of the mobilier is ambiguously represented. It cannot be the hallucination of the narrator, for his servant recognizes when the furniture disappears and testifies to its reappearance. Whether it is an actuality or a mental aber-ation (at the end the narrator commits himself voluntarily to an asylum), the title begs the question: qui sait? The removal and the return of important collector's pieces seemingly under their own volition (with the suggestion of moon-witchery), vividly told in Maupassant's sinewy French, seems a reasonable model: first, for the impact on Fleda of the "spoils" at Poynton, then again at Ricks as if through magic, and, last, for their sudden unwitnessed reappearance once more at Poynton. In both novel and tale the owners abandon the house and furniture after the furniture reappears (also in a flash, as if by magic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 3-7
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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