The Power Of Sexuality In Maupassant's Bel Ami

The Power Of Sexuality In Maupassant's Bel Ami

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The can-can, cabaret and prostitution dominated Paris in La Belle Epoque. Sex was a commerce, an escape, and a way of life. It's prominence in Parisian culture made sexuality synonymous with power and a tool for obtaining it. The combination of beauty and assertiveness could get you places that hard, honest work simply could not. Both men and women took advantage of this lustful commodity—prostitutes and mistresses were seen as status symbols, while flirtatious "femme fatales" had their way with the rich and successful. But love, illustrated in Guy de Maupassant's Bel-Ami, was far from romantic. It was a well-planned out ritual, full of lies, deceit and infidelity. However, the power of sexuality in La Belle Epoque does not stray far from its place in today's society—"sex sells," after all.
Maupassant introduces prostitution into great literature with Bel-Ami. In La Belle Epoque, these women were seen as status symbols since it was only the wealthy that could afford their company. In Bel-Ami, Georges Duroy and Charles Forestier go to the Folies-Bergere, a Paris nightclub. Forestier, a prominent editor at La Vie francaise, is given special treatment—a free box in the dancehall. Thus, the combination of sex and status worked both ways: being seen with a prostitute signified wealth, and being of high status gave you sexual benefits. Forestier comments on the importance of prostitutes, stating to Duroy that they are "the quickest way to succeed" (Maupassant 41). Throughout Bel-Ami, Duroy uses this advice to his advantage—firstly with Rachel, the prostitute he meets at the Folies-Bergere. Rachel pursues Duroy when she spots him with Forestier in the box, thinking that he is a wealthy and prominent figure who can afford her services. When she asks him to come back to his place, he lies, "fingering the two gold coins in his pocket" (Maupassant 41), and says he only has twenty francs when really he has forty. Duroy uses Rachel for both his sexual thirst and the status that her company reflects upon him.
But the women of Bel-Ami are not solely used as lust and wealth-signifying objects—Madame Forestier and Madame Walter, who are both of higher status and wealth than Duroy, help his career advancement at La Vie francaise. Duroy is asked to write an article about his experiences in Algeria, and when he is overcome with writer's block, Forestier's wife actually writes it for him. The article is

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published the next day in the newspaper, and although Duroy knows that it is not even his own work, he goes about town haughtily displaying ‘his' piece—he feels no guilt about using Madame Forestier; or, perhaps, he does not even realize that he has used her at all.
However, through Madame Walter (the wife of Monsieur Walter, editor of La Vie francaise and member of the Chamber of Deputies), Duroy knows precisely how to get what he wants. While visiting Madame Walter at her home, he speaks amusingly among her group of friends and then makes "a very graceful exit" (Maupassant 147). Following this event, Duroy is both promoted to head of the news and gossip column and invited to dine with the Walters. "He saw at once a link between the two" (Maupassant 148).
Then there is Madame de Marelle (Clotilde), Duroy's mistress throughout the novel, who continuously fulfills his desires for status, money, and sex. She is part of high-class society and a married woman—but Duroy, in spite of this, does not hesitate to pursue her. While her lust for seedy places fuels her desire for Duroy, it is her high status and sophistication that ignites his attraction for Clotilde. Both characters in this relationship seem to be less caught up in each other, but rather in the idea of each other—the opposite of themselves. Thus their affair is not only Duroy using Clotilde; she uses him as well for her own personal desires. When Clotilde hears of Duroy's economical hardships, she loans him the money he needs—even when he cannot pay her back. He feels slight remorse at this fact but continues to accept whatever she is willing to give him. In this situation and with both Madame Forestier and Madame Walter, Duroy has little to no hesitation when it comes to using them for personal advancement.
Maupassant informs the reader of Duroy's lack of conscience, while at the same time is careful not to criticize his behavior. The power of sexuality and the act of using others to get what one wants is portrayed as only natural. So, naturally, the women of Bel-Ami are also culprits in this web of selfishness. Duroy sees females as "fish to catch" (Maupassant 25)—but is he the fisherman or is he the fish?
The term "feminism," as it is described today, did not exist n La Belle Epoque. Prostitution was not seen as degrading—in fact, women using their sexuality to get what they wanted could be viewed as a "feminist" act. In Bel-Ami, Duroy uses both Rachel and Madame de Marelle, but at the same time they are using him as well. Rachel makes a living by selling her body, so to her, he is just another paying customer—there is no romantic involvement or emotional attatchment. If it wasn't Duroy, it would be someone else. He is using her for sex, but she is in turn using him for money.
Then there is Clotilde, who uses her power of flirtation and sexuality not for money but to fulfill her own lustful desires. She is married to an older man and finds her secret relationship with Duroy to be different and exciting. Clotilde loves going out to seedy places with Duroy—places that she could never set foot in with her husband. Duroy takes her to a small café where they are seated "at a wooden table, shiny with grease from the food and wet with spilt drinks" (Maupassant 122). Clotilde is delighted at this sort of place, and begins to disguise herself in working girl's clothes for their excursions. She was thrilled at the fact that others would perceive her as "a skivvy who's got a rich young lover" (Maupassant 124). Clotilde is so confident with who she is that she is able to play the role of someone else, someone of a lower class—inversely, Duroy is uncomfortable with dressing down and going to these seedy places because that is exactly the man he does not want to be or be portrayed as. Everything regarding love during was thoroughly examined—from the consequences of one's actions to the anticipation of lovemaking.
Love in the time of La Belle Epoque was anything but spontaneous—in fact, love was like a ritual. Everything from the courtship, space, and timing was perfectly planned out. The anticipation, or the actual process of thinking about, sex was much longer than the action itself. Sex as a ritual forces the topic to dominate one's mind—things unrelated to sex somehow become connected with it. In Bel-Ami, Duroy plans how he will use his women to personally benefit himself in areas outside of his relationships with them. With so much competition between the sexes, it seems as if there would hardly be room for love.
Life in La Belle Epoque was described using Darwin's theory of "survival of the fittest." The word "fit" has two different meanings here—firstly, it describes assertiveness. Forestier describes what it takes for success to Duroy, stating that "everything depends on how pushing you are" (Maupassant 31). The other meaning speaks in terms of physical and sexual attractiveness. Had Duroy not been a young, attractive man, would he have been able to obtain these women's interests in the first place, let alone to use them? Thus, would he have been as successful without his good looks? The answer is probably not. This shouldn't come as a shock though, as our society today does not stray far from this fixation on the power of sexuality.
In many ways, sex in La Belle Epoque resembles its role in today's society. Mistresses are still popular among wealthy, married men seeking younger, more attractive women. Unmarried men of this same status often court, and even marry, young and attractive women whom they would not have been able to attain without this wealth. This set of scenarios very closely resembles that of this kind of relationship in La Belle Epoque—both sexes are using the other, simultaneously, in order to get what they want: the men want a beautiful woman, and the women want a wealthy man. However, in today's workplace it is very common to see females holding high positions. This allows for men of lower status to use their sexuality in order to get ahead, such as Duroy does with Madame Forestier and Madame Walter in Bel-Ami.
"Feminism" is defined today as promoting equality of the sexes. Some would argue that women using their sexuality to get ahead or get what they want is a sign of power, an act of feminism—others would say these women are degrading themselves. For example, does one of the aforementioned, beautiful women who marries or courts a wealthy man demonstrating power, or is it exploiting both her sexuality and his affluence? Such women today are sometimes referred to as "gold-diggers," while in La Belle Epoque the female counterparts to wealthy men were seen as equals
Is love still a ritual today? The fact that there is so much technicality and research done on the topic of love, sex, dating, relationships, etc. in our modern society points to yes. . Magazines such as Cosmopolitan, "love doctors," and books on such topics are ubiquitous in our culture. If one has a question, concern, or problem in the area of love, sex, and everything in between, there is undoubtedly somebody else who has had the same issue and somebody else who has the answer. Love is not only a ritual but has become a culture all its own.
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