Reading Mindfully: Guy de Maupassant’s “The Piece of String”
September 9, 2016 | Capria Jaussen, Cecily Erin Hill
Each month, we pause for a moment to read mindfully, using literature to think about our perceptions and reactions to the world in which we live and work. Through these short texts and accompanying questions, we hope to give you a small taste of Books@Work. We hope you might share and discuss them with others – or send us your thoughts.
The prolific French author, Guy de Maupassant, is primarily remembered for his mastery of the short story, although he wrote novels and travel memoirs as well. Maupassant published his first short story, “Boule de Suif,” in 1880 at the age of thirty.
A realist author, Maupassant’s stories tell the tales of common people permanently altered by larger forces at work in the world. “The Piece of String” is no exception. The story was published in 1884, within Maupassant’s larger collection, Miss Harriet. “The Piece of String” follows the experience of Maitre Hauchecorne, a peasant and farmer, as he is accused of theft.
As you read “The Piece of String,” consider these questions:
- “The Piece of String” is predominantly concerned with the physical world – the story is full of physical details and physical description: the peasants’ bodies, the animals they bring with them to market and the clothes they wear, the specific movements Maitre Hauchecorne makes as he picks up the string and then realizes someone has seen him do it. These physical markers are important clues into the characters’ class status and to the differences between people in nineteenth-century France. In what ways do we still use physical characteristics to divide or unite us?
- Picking up a piece of string seems like an innocent enough action – and yet, Maitre Hauchecorne feels ashamed of it. Later, we learn that his motivation and actions are misunderstood by virtually everyone else in the story. What does the clash of perspectives – Hauchecorne’s and the other character’s – reveal about the difficulty of being understood? Have you had similar experiences being misunderstood or misinterpreting other’s actions in your own life?
- This story hinges on a lie, and yet it’s never clear whether Maitre Malandain knows he has told a falsehood. What we do know is that Maitre Hauchecorne and Maitre Malandain have a long-standing enmity, and that the lie is ultimately more believable than the truth. What does this conflict say about our inherent biases, especially when we already have enmity in a relationship? In what ways does this conflict – and the fallout from it – reflect real-world relationships on both large and small scales?
The Piece of String
By Guy de Maupassant
It was market-day, and from all the country round Goderville the peasants and their wives were coming toward the town. The men walked slowly, throwing the whole body forward at every step of their long, crooked legs. They were deformed from pushing the plough which makes the left shoulder higher, and bends their figures side-ways; from reaping the grain, when they have to spread their legs so as to keep on their feet. Their starched blue blouses, glossy as though varnished, ornamented at collar and cuffs with a little embroidered design and blown out around their bony bodies, looked very much like balloons about to soar, whence issued two arms and two feet. Keep Reading
Image: Eugene Boudin, Market Day at Trouville, Normandy, 1878, [Public Domain] via Wikiart.org