Maupassant, perhaps France’s greatest writer of short stories, was born at Fecamp, Normandy, in 1850 to middle class parents who separated when he was eleven years old. He was a mediocre student, preferring boating and swimming to schoolwork. However, he was blessed with the gift of a photographic memory, which would help him later in life with his writing career.
He went to Paris to study law in 1870, but was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War. Soon thereafter, he volunteered to enlist in the French army. After the war, his family became poor and he was forced to work as a civil servant in a government office. While in Paris, he was introduced to the Paris literary circle by Gustave Flaubert, an old friend of his mother’s. At the time, Emile Zola was the leader of Parisian literature, and also of a style known as naturalism. Naturalism, the use of human instinct and emotions, appealed greatly to Maupassant, and he utilized it in his first popular short story, “Boule de Suif.” This was published in an anthology edited by Zola himself, and won Maupassant instant acclaim as a writer.
In just one decade, Maupassant wrote about three hundred short stories, two hundred newspaper articles, six novels, and three travel books. His first work, a book of poetry, was published in 1880 as “Des Vers.” His first novel, Une Vie, was published in 1887, and his masterpiece, Jean et Pierre, was published in 1888. His most well-known story, “La Perure,” was published in an anthology similar to his first. In this story, a young woman borrows a priceless pearl necklace from a friend to go to a ball, and loses it. In order to repay the friend, the woman and her husband sell everything they own and live in extreme povery to afford an exact replica of the borrowed necklace. They later find out that the necklace they borrowed was a cheap imitation of the real necklace, leaving the reader to decide if the situation was caused by fate, or the vanity of the woman. This is typical of Maupassant in that his stories were largely dark and pessimistic. They are also often very atheistic. The people in the stories have little hope, and they are portrayed as meaningless in the great scheme of things.
During the course of his wealthy and extravagant life, Maupassant contracted syphilis, which led to many mental problems later in his life. In 1892, he attempted suicide by cutting his throat, and was taken to a private asylum where he died a year later. His storied and novels have survived, most translated into English. Many critics have called him the Edgar Allan Poe of France, as well as France’s greatest writer of short stories.