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Guy de Maupassant's The String: How the Setting Reveals the Character

By bignerds Jun 28, 2008 830 Words
It is difficult to believe that something as insignificant as a piece of string could cause a person to lose his mind and eventually die, but in Guy de Maupassant's short story, The String, the reader is asked to accept such an extreme premise. De Maupassant masterfully uses the setting of a rural French town and it's market-place to help reveal the character of everyday peasant Maître Hauchecome, thereby making the story believable.

De Maupassant introduces the town of Goderville in France by painting a literary picture of peasants on their way to the bustling market square. Their bodies are crippled from years of hard labor and they make their way slowly and painfully. One can assume they do not lead a pleasant and carefree life. The people are compared to animals: "It all smacked of the stable, the dairy, and the dung-heap, of hay and sweat, giving forth that sharp, unpleasant odor, human and animal, peculiar to the people of the fields" (25). The women have "spare, straight figures" and "flat bosoms" (25). In spite of their poor health and lack of money, the men's clothes are "shining as if varnished," and "puffed about their bony bodies" (25). This detail is important to introduce the crucial notion of pride to the story. Even after years of grueling, crippling work, the peasants' spirit remains intact and they take satisfaction in their appearance. The marketplace itself is an important part of their difficult lives. They are scrounging for all they can get, "always in fear of being cheated" (26). They are clever and watch their money carefully. There is always an element of pride mixed in with their actions. The women selling their animals "stated their price with a dry air" and when their customer begins to leave they consent to their price (26). As is evidenced by the peasants clothing and actions, pride and honor are paramount. Without much wealth, it is all they really have. From the marketplace, the reader goes to Maître Jourdain's, a "tavern keeper and horse dealer, a clever fellow who had money" (26). The scene is much more jovial than the marketplace, the people eat, talk, and relax. "The aristocracy of the plow ate there," meaning that it was the upper-class peasants frequented the tavern (26). It seems an escape from toils of life.

Maître Hauchecome is one of the townspeople. Several times it is mentioned that he is old and bent over in pain. He sees a piece of string on the ground, and he being "economical like a true Norman, thought that everything useful ought to be picked up" (26). He is frugal. Hauchecome is embarrassed that his nemesis, Maître Malandain, sees him do something as wretched at picking up a piece of twine in the dirt. To conceal his seemingly shameful actions he hides it in his shirt and pretends to be looking for something he lost. It is also learned that Hauchecome can hold a grudge and is a "good hater[s]" (26). The fact that it was his enemy that eventually got the best of him, who made a mockery of him and in effect drove him to madness, com-pounds the irony of his situation.

His word of honor, to him, a man of pride, is the strongest of oaths. When accused of stealing the pocketbook, Hauchecome swears to God, on his "soul and …salvation" (27). When the mayor says Malandain is "a man we can believe," (27) insinuating that Hauchecome is not, he is shocked. He had never done any-thing to warrant disbelief of his intentions. "Choked with indignation and fear," (27) an honest man then faced his own condemning peers.

The more people he told, the more he demanded his innocence, and the less he was believed. He be-came "angry… exasperated, hot and distressed at not being believed, not knowing what to do and always repeating himself" (28). Even after the pocketbook was found, people laughed at him, believing he had an accomplice return it. There was nothing Hauchecome could do to prove himself, and he could not handle peo-ple thinking he was dishonest. He "consumed his heart over it" (29). When he realizes that he had previously boasted of his "Norman cunning" and "sharpness," (29) it becomes evident that this is the story of a man whose character becomes his undoing. In the end, what was once shameful to him, retrieving a string, he would give anything to have people believe.

What if Hauchecome had been someone else? What if it took place somewhere else? A different per-son in a different land might have forgotten about the whole ordeal and gotten on with his life. Nevertheless, he is a pitiful character that we wish could be treated fairly. For a poor, overworked, ordinary peasant like Hauchecome, restoring his dignity was paramount, because pride was the only thing he really possessed.

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