In the novel, Bel-Ami, Guy de Maupassant uses symbolism quite frequently. Many of the smallest details are completely enthralled with symbolism. Maupassant uses people, inanimate objects, and situations to portray some aspects of his life or simply of French society in general. On the surface, Bel-Ami is a great book, but deeper into the pages lies a whole different world.
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines symbolism as the representation of things by use of symbols, especially in art or literature. This definition strikes me as a very vague description. Symbolism to me is a sort of art form. It is not a very difficult task to tell someone information in a straight forward manner, but it takes a lot of imagination and cleverness to utilize the art of symbolism. That is why I enjoyed Bel-Ami. Maupassant really has a great understanding of his views and how he wants to portray them. Take the fish on page 260, for an example (Maupassant 260). The fish represented society. When the wad of bread was thrown into them, the fish would do just about anything to get a piece of it. They fought amongst each other and then they moved away from DuRoy and Suzanne to the other end of the pond, much like Suzanne’s parents and society. This example was just to show the constant and effortless use of symbolism throughout the novel.
The mirror is used quite often in Bel-Ami. It appears to us first on page 17 (Maupassant 17). DuRoy, in his ascend up the stairs at the Forestiers’, notices a strikingly handsome gentleman staring back at him. He is taken aback when he realizes the man is himself. DuRoy continues to stand in front of the mirror and admire himself for quite sometime before actually entering the Forestiers’ home. It is here in front of this shiny, beautiful, glimmering object, that we truly see ourselves. DuRoy tries out just about every gesture he might use at the party, just to see the effect of his appearance. According to the symbolism dictionary (http://www.umich.edu/umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/M/mirror.html), the mirror is the absolute truth and a reflection of ones soul. It does not lie to anyone. The mirror is also considered a distraction when looked upon for glamour reasons. People don’t have to deal with real life issues or problems in the mirror. You can just simply admire yourself to take away all other thoughts that might be troubling at the time.
This train of thought was very apparent in the Belle poque, or “the great age.” Everyone wanted to be taken away from the daily struggle of everyday life. With the French Revolution at hand, people wanted to pretend that nothing was really going on around them. Women wore large, ornate gowns that occupied more space than the actual woman wearing the dress. Men wore dark neutral colors, such that the women would not lose any attention to their date. Society was in all the rage about appearance, and the mirror reflects all.
The church was another example of symbolism used in Bel-Ami. It was here that people could come and wash away all their sins, regardless of the nature. Religion played a very important role in French society. It was held, at the time, that Catholicism was the superior religion, and if you weren’t a catholic, you were nothing.
It was here at the church, that Mme. Walter agreed to meet DuRoy for the first time. This was a very significant place for the two people to meet. The church announced safe harbor and no matter what you did there, you wouldn’t be judged. Mme. Walter was an innocent woman who had no previous experience in cheating on her husband. She felt that if she met DuRoy at the church, nothing bad would happen to her, and if it did, the all-knowing eyes of the lord would forgive her. It is here at the Place de la Trinite’, that Mme. Walter breaks down and confesses her love for DuRoy (Maupassant 203). A woman such as Mme. Walter felt that she could do just about anything, no matter how corrupt, and go to church and everything would be taken off her conscious.
Another fine example of literary symbolism, lies in the painting; “Christ on Water.” The painting depicted Christ walking on water, hence the title. It is quite ironic that Mr. Walter purchased this painting because Mme. Walter viewed it as a shrine to Georges. It is on page 256-257 that Mme. Walter realizes her obsession for DuRoy(Maupassant 256-57). Suzanne exclaims, “but he looks like you, Bel-Ami,” referring to the striking similarities of DuRoy and Jesus. Mme. Walter turns a ghostly white after hearing this observation. It is later on page 278 when Mme. Walter falls before the painting and prays to her righteous ex-lover.
As the novel progresses on, DuRoy acquires a new title, and wears the Legion of Honour pin quite proudly upon his chest. DuRoy receiving this title was a hint that he was on his way to the top of society. Most of the upper middle class men had a title, in which they could show off they’re wealth and power. According to A Lion in the Path, Maupassant was using the title to simply project power (Steegmuller 214). Nobody could ever just be happy during the Belle Epoque. If you had money you needed more. If you were not of noble birth, you had to buy the name. Everyone was so hung up on class and the hierarchical ladder of society that they forgot to be good people. Such an example of this was the gossip column, or the newspaper DuRoy worked for.
The newspaper is the omniscient eye of the society it circulates in, according to the Dictionary of Graphic Images (Davenport & Thompson 165) The newspaper is were people look for facts and fiction. This was apparent in Bel-Ami. Everyone had to get a newspaper everyday to read about the city and its good times and its tribulations. People also relied on the paper to get gossip about the prominent figures in the town. Ironically, Georges was the head of the gossip column. Society turned to his column for the daily gossip about their peers, and he turned to them for the substance of the paper.
Throughout the novel, Bel-Ami, we see just how Victorian France was fairly corrupt, just as our own society. Maupassant’s use of symbols helps to relay his feelings on the world he lived in, without offending his peers. Some instances are clearer than others, but the book is teeming with symbolism.
After reading Bel-Ami, I have gained a new insight on French literature. There once was a time when I would cringe at the thought of a French novel, but now I accept them with a profound respect.