Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Guy de Maupassant’s “Mademoiselle Fifi” reflects a world familiar to the author, that of prostitutes and Prussians, but in this story there is a great deal going on under the surface. Mademoiselle Fifi is not a Frenchwoman at all, but a Prussian officer. He has been given that nickname because, Maupassant tells us, of his “dandified style and small waist, which looked as if he wore stays, from his pale face, on which his budding mustache scarcely showed” and from his affected habit of using a French expression to indicate contempt.
Maupassant notes, however, that Fifi has a reputation of being “proud and brutal toward men, harsh toward prisoners, and very violent.” Despite the fact that the French are the enemy, the group of officers to which Fifi belongs have decided to import some French prostitutes to help them pass the hours. The women arrive, and seem comfortable with the arrangements until the officers begin denigrating France, insisting that “France and the French, the woods, the fields, and the houses of France belong to us!”
One of the prostitutes, a Jewish woman named Rachel, protests, and Mademoiselle Fifi puts a filled wineglass on her head and says that “All the women of France belong to us also!” Rachel, “in a voice choked with rage,” tells him that he will certainly not have any French women, and he asks her what she came for then. With that, she seizes a knife from the table and stabs him dead in the neck.
The meaning behind “Mademoiselle Fifi” is tantalizing. What is the point of Fifi’s obvious effeminacy? Is Maupassant saying that the most brutal men, the men who most need to prove their macho stance, are the ones who are least secure in their sexuality? And why is the heroine of the story specifically identified as a Jew? Is it because Jews in his day were automatically considered outside the pale of polite society? Is that where Maupassant thinks the truly noble can be found?
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