One could say that ten years later, when De Maupassant wrote "Boule de Suif" and other stories about this now almost forgotten war, the French were still licking their wounds - they were especially still coping with their mental shock. In France, the war led to the fall of Napoleon III, the Paris Commune and the ensuing Third Republic; in Germany the various states combined to form the German Empire under Wilhelm I, the first German nation state. Feelings of hatred on both sides prepared the ground for the First World War (which had better be called "Great European War," as that is what it really was). The Germans became unpleasantly arrogant and openly militaristic, something which pressed Turgenev, who had been living for many years in Baden-Baden, to evade the unpleasant atmosphere and move to France.
"Boule de Suif" is named after the main character, the prostitute Elizabeth Rousset who carries this nickname because of her physical properties: "Short and round, fat as a pig, with puffy fingers constricted at the joints, looking like rows of short sausages; with a shiny, tightly-stretched skin and an enormous bust filling out the bodice of her dress, she was yet attractive and much sought after, owing to her fresh and pleasing appearance."
The story is set in Rouen, recently occupied by the Prussian army. Ten residents of the city decide, for various reasons, to flee to Le Havre in a stagecoach. The group of travelers is made up of a petty bourgeoisie shop-owning couple, M. and Mme. Loiseau; a wealthy upper-bourgeoisie factory-owner and his wife, M. and Mme. Carré-Lamadon; the Comte and Comtesse of Bréville; the strict Democrat Cornudet; two nuns; and Boule de Suif. Of course, the good burghers of the city are not happy to have to share their coach with someone as vulgar as a whore, and initially Boule de Suif has to cope with various insults. This changes when it becomes lunchtime and she is the only one who has been so wise to bring a well-loaded picnic basket - which she kindly shares with the other hungry travelers.
Due to the bad weather, the coach moves very slowly and in the evening blunders into a village occupied by the Germans. A Prussian officer detains the party at the local inn without telling them why, but he repeatedly summons Boule de Suif for interviews, from which she returns in an agitated state. It becomes clear to the other passengers that the officer wants Boule de Suif to share his bed, something she indignantly refuses as she hates the Germans (in fact the reason for her departure from Rouen). "Kindly tell that scoundrel, that cur, that carrion of a Prussian, that I will never consent - you understand? - never, never, never!"
Initially, the other passengers support Boule de Suif and are indignant at the arrogance of the German officer, but when the days pass, they become impatient to leave and start pressing her to grant the German his wish. Isn't she a prostitute, after all, so why doesn't she do what she always does? Finally, Boule de Suif swallows her pride and gives in - more out of pity for the others than the strength of their arguments, the reader feels. The next morning, the coach is allowed to leave.
Now the hypocrisy of the "good" citizens explodes in all its ugliness. As they continue to Le Havre, the other passengers completely ignore Boule de Suif. She is treated by the group as if she had been infected with some deadly disease. Now Boule de Suif is the one who has no food, but the others don't even give her a bite from their rich provisions. Boule de Suif can only weep for her lost dignity.
"No one looked at her, no one thought of her. She felt herself swallowed up in the scorn of these virtuous creatures, who had first sacrificed, then rejected her as a thing useless and unclean. Then she remembered her big basket full of the good things they had so greedily devoured: the two chickens coated in jelly, the pies, the pears, the four bottles of claret; and her fury broke forth like a cord that is overstrained, and she was on the verge of tears. She made terrible efforts at self-control, drew herself up, swallowed the sobs which choked her; but the tears rose nevertheless, shone at the brink of her eyelids, and soon two heavy drops coursed slowly down her cheeks. Others followed more quickly, like water filtering from a rock, and fell, one after another, on her rounded bosom. She sat upright, with a fixed expression, her face pale and rigid, hoping desperately that no one saw her give way."
The main theme of the story is this terrible hypocrisy: the basic unworthiness of those who consider themselves as "virtuous."
Another interesting facet is that the German military in the story are depicted in a way which now has become a stereotype, but which in fact was new when De Maupassant wrote: as arrogant, uncultured and cruel.
Read Boule de Suif in a free translation on the internet; French original.
It has been said that John Ford borrowed the plot of Boule de Suif for his film Stagecoach (1939). The most interesting film based on the story was Maria no Oyuki (1935) by the Japanese director Mizoguchi Kenji - it gave him the chance to depict his favorite type, a woman who sacrifices herself for others.
Other posts about novels and stories of De Maupassant: Bel Ami; "A Country Excursion"; "The Maison Tellier."