A Woman's Life

by Guy de Maupassant

Other authorsEdy Legrand (Illustrator), Marjorie Laurie (Translator)
Hardcover, 1942





London : New York : The Nonesuch Press ; The Heritage Press, c1942.


`every heart imagines itself the first to thrill to a myriad sensations which once stirred the hearts of the earliest creatures and which will again stir the hearts of the last men and women to walk the earth'What is a life? How shall a storyteller conceive a life? What if art means pattern and life has none? How, then, can any story be true to life? These are some of the questions which inform the first of Maupassant's six novels, A Life (Une Vie) (1883) in which he sought to parody and expose thefolly of romantic illusion. An unflinching presentation of a woman's life of failure and disappointments, where fulfilment and happiness might have been expected, A Life recounts Jeanne de Lamare's gradual lapse into a state of disillusion.With its intricate network of parallels and oppositions, A Life reflects the influence of Flaubert in its attention to form and its coherent structure. It also expresses Maupassant's characteristic naturalistic vision in which the satire of bourgeois manners, the representation of the aristocracy inpathological decline, the undermining of human individuality and ideals, and the study of deterioration and disintegration, all play a role. But above all Maupassant brings to his first novel the short story writer's genius for a focused tension between stasis and change, and A Life is one of hismost compelling portraits of dispossession and powerlessness.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member figre
Why would anyone want to read a 19th century novel? And, why do good writers bring up the name Guy de Maupassant as an example of a great writer? This book answers both questions. Yes, a quick description of the story – a young, naïve girl marries wrong and tragedies ensue - sounds like fodder for soap operas or romance novels. But it is in the telling of the story and the handling of the characters that de Maupassant’s true writing talent comes through. Our heroine Jeanne could come off as a guileless wimp who we get sick of quickly. Yet, de Maupassant’s talents as a writer manage to bring her off as sympathetic, even though much of her plight is because of her blithe acceptance of what life dishes her. And, even with our jaundiced 21st century views, we can still sympathize with these characters and the burdens they faced because of the roles thrust upon them.… (more)
LibraryThing member thierry
Typical Maupassant, pastoral, realistic and gripping even with somewhat foreign setting. Story of a failed marriage, of an unhappy life. Not much happens, but it is well said and evocative. The account of la nuit matrimoniale is beautifully rendered, and the emotions (fear, disgust) brought to life.
LibraryThing member gbill
As in other stories by Guy de Maupassant, ‘Une Vie’ impresses you with its honesty and its sometimes depressing realism. It’s not the same realism as in, say, Zola or Balzac, with grimy characters in the underbelly of France eking out miserable existences, it’s realism in the pathos of provincial characters. Jeanne is a young woman who longs for love, is euphoric when she finds it, but soon finds marriage far from what she dreamed of because of her husband’s cupidity and infidelity. She has loving parents and is reminded by her maid that she has a good life, not suffering privation, but she seems betrayed by many over the course of her life. Her husband, obviously, but also the local clergy, one of whom advises her to ignore her husband’s sleeping around because “everyone does it”, and the other who takes a ridiculously harsh line with the community and commits an act of unspeakable cruelty. Later, her son, who she dotes on excessively, will become a spendthrift who keeps her at arm’s reach and only writes for money.

Maupassant writes with knowledge of emotional truths, and it was quite surprising to read him describing the wedding night, and later the age-old problem of the differences in sexual desires between husband and wife. You just never see this sort of thing in 19th century literature. The extent of her “sex education” is as follows, and this from her father (wow):
“There are mysteries which are carefully kept from children, especially girls, for girls should remain pure in spirit, pure beyond reproach, until we give them into the arms of a man and their happiness passes into his keeping. It is he who will lift the veil and reveal to them what is life’s sweetest secret. Only, if they have guessed nothing of it beforehand, they often recoil from the reality, the crude facts behind their dreams. If they feel wounded in spirit as they are, indeed, in the body, they may refuse their husband what is his by law – both human and natural law – his absolute right. I cannot tell you more than this, my darling; but never forget that you belong to your husband entirely.”

The wedding night (and their subsequent marital relations) are described in just the right level of detail, and I won’t quote it, except the truism of her feeling: “The rough contact was brutal to her and her breath came fast; and she wanted above everything to escape, to run away through the house, shut herself in somewhere, get away from this man.” And some time later: “She said nothing more, but waited with eyes downcast, revolted body and soul by this continual desire of the male, submitting only with distaste, resigned but humiliated, for to her there was something bestial and degrading in it, indeed something obscene.”

I also really appreciated his little touches, such as the character of Aunt Lison, who nobody pays attention to, and the mention of whom is “as though somebody had mentioned the coffee-pot or the sugar-bowl.” He’s also good in his descriptions of nature, and it was fun to look up the elephant-like rock formation near the small port of Etretat he mentions. Lastly, he has the right sentimental touches, such as when Jeanne revisits her old house, and finds an old pin of her mother’s and sees the “curious figures that imagination often sees in the pattern of a fabric, in marble, in ceilings shaded with the dust of time.”

There are some dramatic moments, one of which is spoiled in this illustrated edition by having the event shown pictorially a few pages before it happens in the text. That’s unpardonable, but rather than penalize Maupassant with a lower rating score, I will just avoid books from ‘The Folio Society’ of London. Another of its illustrations shows up a full 15 pages before the event, which is not a spoiler, but baffling, and reflects poor editing.

On being alone:
“…she felt that there was a veil, a barrier, between them, as she became aware for the first time that two people can never penetrate into each other’s souls, into their inmost thoughts; and that even when they are together, side by side, sometimes interlaced, still they cannot intermingle, and the moral being of each one us remains eternally separate and alone throughout our lives.”

On religion:
“…he made obeisance to a sort of pantheistic deity, and his hackles rose at the Catholic conception of a god with a bourgeois disposition, the wrath of a Jesuit and the vengefulness of a tyrant; for God to him was a glimpse of creation in miniature, inevitable, limitless and omnipotent, the creation of life, light, earth, thought, plant, rock, man, air, beast, star, God, and insect all simultaneously, creating for the sake of creation, stronger than will, more vast than reasoning, endlessly bringing forth without object or reason in all directions and all forms throughout infinite space, in accordance with necessity as it arises and with the proximity of suns to heat the worlds.
Creation contains the seed of all things, and thought and life develop within it like flowers and fruit on the trees. Accordingly, reproduction was a general law, a divine act, sacred and praiseworthy, fulfilling the obscure, eternal will of the Universal Being.”

And this one:
“Jeanne, feeling herself under attack, retorted: ‘Is it not possible to believe in God without attending Mass?’
The marquise answered: ‘No, Madame; the faithful go to the church to pray to God, just as we go to visit people in their own homes.’
Jeanne was nettled, and replied: ‘God is everywhere, Madame. For my part, I believe in His goodness from the bottom of my heart, and when certain priests come between Him and me I lose the sense of His presence.’”

On a sunset at sea:
“It seemed that a boundless calm had stilled the air, creating a space of quiet about that meeting of the elements; the curve of the sea beneath the sky was like the lustrous liquid belly of some giant bride waiting for her fiery lover to descend on her. He came down in a swift rush, purple as though with ardour to embrace her. Sea and sun became one; and gradually she engulfed him.
Now a chill rose from the horizon; a ripple ran over the heaving bosom of the waters, wrinkling the surface, as though the star they had absorbed sighed out its contentment over the world.”
… (more)
LibraryThing member jmoncton
Jeanne leads a very sheltered life, growing up with wealth and going to a convent school. She meets and marries Julien, a cruel and unscrupulous man who marries her for her money. After discovering Julien's unfaithfulness, as well as evidence of her parents' extra-marital affairs, Jeanne gradually falls into a deep depression.

I loved the writing of this story. The characters were rich and believable - although not likeable. I found it very interesting how Jeanne completely fell apart. Although I tried not to compare her to women in the present, she was helpless and overall not a good role model. I am curious if de Maupassant was making a commentary about women in general, or perhaps the upper classes. Very few strong characters and Jeanne and her family seemed kind, but very incompetent. Surprisingly easy to read.… (more)
LibraryThing member john257hopper
I loved this simply told story about the life of a young aristocratic woman, Jeanne. After being brought up in a convent, she leaves at age 17 and quickly meets and falls in love with Julien de Lamare. But after a romantic holiday in Corsica (with some lovely descriptions of the island in the early 19th century, when its most famous son was still languishing in remote exile on St Helena), disillusion rapidly sets in. Jeanne must come to terms with Julien's changed character and her shocking discovery that he has fathered a child by her maid, Rosalie. She discovers around the same time that she is herself pregnant, and gives birth to a son, Paul, whom she dotes on. Later on, Julien also has an affair with the wife of another couple they both know, whose cuckolded husband wreaks a terrible revenge on the pair. Finally Paul deserts her, runs up huge debts and at the end of the novel, reveals by letter that he has married, but his wife has died, leaving him with a baby daughter that he expects her to raise. It all sounds like very soap opera stuff, but told in a very matter of fact French way. Good stuff.… (more)


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