Ball of Fat
Ball of Fat is a short story by the late-19th century French
writer Guy de Maupassant. It is arguably his most famous short story, and is the
title story for his collection on the Franco-Prussian War, entitled "Boule de
Suif et Autres Contes de la Guerre" ("Ball of Fat and Other Stories of the
War"). John Ford said that his film Stagecoach was in many ways a western
rewrite of Ball of Fat. Ball of Fat may also have been the inspiration for
Ernest Haycox's short story "The Stage to Lordsburg", which in turn inspired the
film. In 2006 the Glimmerglass Opera produced an opera based on the short story
"The Greater Good or The Passion of Ball of Fat" composed by Stephen Hartke with
Libretto by Phillip Littell.
The story is set in the Franco-Prussian War and follows a
group of French residents of Rouen, recently occupied by the Prussians. The ten
travellers decide, for various reasons, to leave Rouen and flee to Le Havre in a
stagecoach. Sharing the carriage are the prostitute Ball of Fat, the strict
Democrat Cornudet; a shop-owning couple from the petty bourgeoisie, M. and Mme.
Loiseau; a wealthy upper-bourgeoisie factory-owner and his wife, M. and Mme.
Carré-Lamadon; the Comte and Comtesse of Bréville; and two nuns. Thus, the
carriage constitutes a microcosm of French society as a whole.
Due to the terrible weather, the coach moves very slowly and by midday has only covered a few miles. The occupants initially snub Ball of Fat but their attitudes change when she produces a picnic basket full of lovely food and offers to share its contents with the hungry travellers.
At the village of Tôtes, the carriage stops at the local coaching inn, and the occupants, hearing a German voice, realise they have blundered into Prussian-held territory. A Prussian officer detains the party at the inn indefinitely without telling them why. Over the next two days, the travellers become increasingly impatient, and are finally told by Ball of Fat that they are being detained until she agrees to sleep with the officer. She is repeatedly called before the officer, and always returns in a heightened state of agitation. Initially, the travellers support her and are furious at the officer's arrogance, but their indignation soon disappears as they grow angry at Ball of Fat for not sleeping with the officer so that they can leave. Over the course of the next two days, the travelers use various examples of logic and morality to convince her it is the right thing to do; she finally gives in and sleeps with the officer, who allows them to leave the next morning.
As they continue on their way to Le Havre, these 'representatives of Virtue' ignore Ball of Fat and turn to polite topics of conversation, glancing scathingly at the young woman while refusing to even acknowledge her, and refusing to share their food with her in the same way that she did at the beginning. As the coach travels on into the night, Cornudet starts whistling the Marseillaise while Ball of Fat seethes with rage against the other passengers, and finally weeps for her lost dignity.
The main theme focuses on French resistance to the German
occupiers during the war. During the first half of the story, the narrator
explains the background of each of the occupants, with particular emphasis on
the petty bourgeois Democrat, Cornudet, who is said to have devised all manner
of defences for Rouen. The overriding theme is that while the occupants talk a
great deal about resisting the invaders, they are ultimately running away in a
cowardly fashion rather than staying in the town. This first section of the
story also establishes that the most fiercely patriotic passenger is Ball of Fat
herself, an insignificant and unpopular character in Rouen, while the
aristocrats and bourgeois are portrayed as happier to betray their country in
order to end the war and return to their comfortable lives. In this respect,
Maupassant praises the patriotic fervour of the inhabitants of the provinces, in
sharp contrast to other French writers of the period who accused provincial
French citizens of being apathetic and cowardly. Ball of Fat's personal
resistance grows throughout the story; when the coach is stopped by the Germans
at the village of Tôtes, the other passengers meekly follow the officer's orders
while Ball of Fat refuses to co-operate as easily. Ball of Fat's resistance to
the officer's sexual advances again shows her patriotism, something which is
noticed by the other characters, who comment that although it is Ball of Fat's
job to sleep with men, she patriotically refuses to allow herself to be
conquered by the German officer.
Like Maupassant's other short stories on the Franco-Prussian War, he tends to stereotype the German soldiers. The troops holding Rouen are hinted at as dull and slow-witted. The German officer at the inn is portrayed in the same way as Maupassant depicts German officers throughout his stories; the officer is shown as being arrogant, morally dubious, and unfeeling. The description of the officer in his room at the inn suggests that he is pointlessly destructive, uncultured, and boorish. At the same time, there are passages that describe how German troops get about their daily life and long to return home to their own families.
The theme of class barrier is also tackled in the story. Throughout the story, Maupassant portrays the inhabitants of the coach in various disparaging ways. The aristocratic Comte and Comtesse are revealed to be weak and cowardly in spite of their position as the chief dignitaries of Rouen. The manufacturer and his wife are constantly portrayed as greedy and materialistic, and the manufacturer's wife in particular is always shown to be shocked whenever her husband spends any money. The petit bourgeois wine-seller and his wife are shown as corrupt and morally reprehensible, the most likely of the party to betray their country simply to return to a life of greed in peace. The two nuns travelling in the coach are at first portrayed as quiet and subservient to God, and later show themselves as fiery, patriotic, and doing more for their country than the other occupants of the coach: the nuns claim to be travelling to a military hospital to treat wounded French soldiers, thus offering the deciding argument towards persuading Ball of Fat to abandon her resistance. The narrator offers to excuse their crafty argumentation as accidental stupidity, but the nuns' base behavior as they fail to share food with the courtesan raises a question mark if not necessarily on their story then on their altruistic motivation. Cornudet is repeatedly shown as a man who is little more than a drunken, lecherous, and cowardly man who is not prepared to stand up for his vicious anti-German beliefs when the time comes. In contrast to all of these is Ball of Fat herself, revealed to be the most fiercely patriotic, kind-hearted, and morally admirable character, which Maupassant contrasts with the hypocrisy and snobbery of the other travellers. Despite being shunned by the other occupants at first, she gladly shares her picnic basket with the hungry occupants of the coach, but at the end of the novel, when she has no food for the other half of the journey, the coach's other occupants refuse to share their food with her, an ingratitude made even worse by the fact that it was Ball of Fat's personal sacrifice that allowed them to leave. Her self-sacrifice in sleeping with the German officer underlines her personal courage and the blind hypocrisy of the other travellers; the travellers go to great lengths to persuade Ball of Fat to sleep with the officer in order that he will let the coach continue its journey, and the travellers fill Ball of Fat's head with arguments, arguing that it is for the good of the country, that it is not morally wrong to sleep with the officer in order to let the travellers leave, and that the longer she waits, the more young French soldiers will die as the nuns are not there to look after them. When Ball of Fat gives in and sleeps with the officer, the rest of the travellers throw a party without her, and when the coach finally leaves the next morning, they treat her with utter disgust and contempt despite the fact that she has freed them, and that it was they who induced her to lose her dignity.
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