Guy de Maupassant’s rivetting Boule de Suif tells the story of a group of people travelling by carriage from Rouen to Le Havre during the Franco-Prussian war of1870-71. The travellers include three well-to- do ‘respectable’ married couples, two nuns, and a man alone who identifies as a ‘left’- leaning democrat.
The company is complete with a buxom, attractive young woman reputed to be a Rouen prostitute – and she is the ‘boule de suif’ translated as butterball or dumpling in English.
As the journey gets underway there is much tittering amongst the mesdames of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy about the presence of Boule de Suif whose name is Elisabeth Rousset. But they are happy to accept her food and hospitality when they find all the inns are closed en route due to the war.
However, the travellers become hostage in an occupied small village where the German commandant demands the services of Boule de Suif before their journey can continue.
Elisabeth is highly resistant to the demand and holds out for reasons of her patriotism and personal integrity. But as the days wear on, the other travellers apply immense psychological pressure on her. Maupassant makes the point that all the travellers are culpable in this process including the nuns and the ‘democrat’.
In the end she yields. The impasse is crossed and the travellers can leave. But they resume their former churlishness towards her, and refuse to share with her any of the food they have brought. Traumatised, distressed – and hungry – Elisabeth cries quietly in a corner of the carriage.
Like all great tales, the story is a window on human nature that has resonance across the ages including the present.
I read this story in recent weeks against the backdrop of a suite of Government policy announcements which actively seek to erode the well being and dignity of people on the outer circle of economic prosperity at the present time – the people who find themselves without a job or for whatever reason needing to rely on meagre social welfare benefits to get by – and if you are under 30, you may be left without any income for up to 6 months . I have written a number of articles published in the Conversation and republished elsewhere, on these issues.
The Moral of the Story for 2014
It is pretty simple. All the modelling on the 2014 Federal Budget shows that the poorest groups will be hardest hit. The well-to-do and privileged will be relatively protected.
Government policy attacks people who have taken the brunt of changes to the economy and the workforce over the last 10-20 years, but they are not to be accorded dignity and respect for what they have been called on to ‘pay’ for the economic prosperity of everyone else.
Boule de Suif is alive and well in the 21st century.