- Maupassant's Empty Frame:A New Look at "Boule de Suif"
Narrative framing is an important technique in Guy de Maupassant's fiction. For example, as Angela S. Moger discusses, Maupassant frequently employs a physician as tale-teller—in such stories as "La Rempailleuse" and "En Voyage"—partly in order to produce an effect of naturalistic detachment.1 What I will focus on in this essay, however, is quite different. On the surface, Maupassant's "Boule de Suif" does not possess any such frame; it is told entirely by an anonymous third-person voice that at no point betrays a separate existence. Yet it is not how "Boule de Suif" itself unfolds that matters so much as how its characters produce narrative from within the story. From this perspective, not only is "Boule de Suif" framed, it is all frame, to the exclusion of an "inner" narrative. In this case, the effect of framing is not one of objectivity or credibility. Here there is no benign, authoritative speaker whose function it is to bolster the truth-value of a primary series of events. On the contrary, in "Boule de Suif," the monolithic voice of the frame overtakes and eventually replaces its content. How is it possible to have a frame with nothing at its center? As I will demonstrate, Maupassant achieves this effect through a series of ironic references to a much older tradition of literary framing, namely the frame-narrative as developed by Boccaccio, Chaucer and Marguerite de Navarre. Moreover, in his intertextual reworking of these medieval and Renaissance authors, Maupassant turns frame-narrative convention on its head in another way: the framing practices of these classic tale-collections tend to suggest a community of raconteurs linked metonymically to the social collectivity or nascent national group. Yet while Maupassant alludes to the discursive cooperation of classic [End Page 1] frame-narratives, he does so precisely not to bolster a sense of solidarity, but to highlight the distance between such idealized communities and the realities of exclusion that inevitably underlie them.
Maupassant references the Western European frame-narrative genre quite broadly in "Boule de Suif," but the most fruitful comparisons to be made are with the three most influential avatars of that genre, namely Boccaccio's Decameron, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron. The framing device shared by all three tale-collections may be defined in the following way: a group of fellow travelers, male and female, united by a common geography and a common language, decide to take turns telling stories. In each text, a diverse cast of characters produces a corresponding multiplicity of narratives, resulting in stories that are funny, titillating, moralizing and/or poignant. Moreover, in each case, the situation of travel provides a context for the act of storytelling. For Boccaccio, the flight from plague-ridden Florence is both literal and figurative: though geographically, the travelers do not venture far from the city, the provisional kingdom they construct in the Tuscan countryside through cooperative narrative is worlds away. The "destination" is the spiritual comfort and moral fortitude brought about by the telling of tales. For Chaucer and Marguerite de Navarre, the literal aspect of travel becomes more pronounced. The pilgrims en route to Canterbury use storytelling as a means of mutual aid in getting where they are going. Through humor and moral exemplarity, storytelling soothes their aches and pains, allays their fears, holds boredom at bay and wards off the temptations of the road. Likewise, the travelers of the Heptaméron recite stories both moralizing and humorous to keep their spirits high. Held up at an abbey because of flooding and a stingy abbot who won't pay properly for bridge repairs, Marguerite's narrators combine their voices to create narratives that will pass the time through laughter, emotional catharsis and moral example.
To varying degrees, these three tale-collections also hinge upon the cohesion of their respective social groups. Boccaccio's tale-tellers are all drawn from the young Florentine nobility and create a fantastic court in which each member of the group takes turns as queen or king for the day. Chaucer's pilgrims, on the other...