“A Vendetta” by Guy de Maupassant: An Analysis with an Existentialist Twist

Below is a translation from French into English of my May 8 post:

Like other writers of the 19th century (e.g. Charles Dickens in England and Alexandre Dumas in France), Guy de Maupassant first published his story “A Vendetta” in a newspaper,  Le Gaulois, on October 14, 1883. The story takes place in Corsica in the lives of four characters: the widow Saverini, her son Antoine, her dog Semillante, and the murderer Nicolas Ravolati.

In his textual notes to Tales of Day and Night, Pierre Reboul says, “Corsica, for Maupassant, is the country of savagery, with all the word implies of excess, but also of innocence.” In fact, it is important to understand the geography of Corsica and the Corsicans themselves in order to appreciate the plot and the details of the story. Maupassant begins the story in the widow’s “poor little house,” followed by a precise description of the town Bonifacio, with its port, its fortifications, and its cliffs that face the coast of Sardinia across the strait. He continues with the white mountain and the houses that provide “a even whiter stain” at that “appear like the nests of wild birds.” The sea below is “terrible,” and the wind “ravages” the two banks of the port.

I include these quotes because the words emphasize the primitive savagery of the of the town and its poor inhabitants. The illustrations below helped me to envision the place; one can only imagine the scene in 1885. [Click the photos to enlarge.]

So, to the story . . .

Antoine, the widow’s only son, is stabbed to death by Nicolas Ravolati.  His mother and his dog are very sad, and they weep and moan all night. Even though she is old and feeble, the widow vows to avenge the death of her son. But how? After several wakeful nights, while listening to the dog’s howls, she makes a plan “vindictive and ferocious” in its savagery.

She begins by starving the dog for two days, Then she makes a scarecrow from her husband’s old clothes stuffed with straw. For the collar, she attaches a blood sausage. She calls the dog, who attacks the scarecrow with its fangs in order to eat the sausage. The widow repeats her training for three months. At the end of this time, the dog will attack the scarecrow without the enticement of the sausage. When Semillante is starved, the widow simply raises her finger and says, “Go!” The dog attacks the scarecrow, and his reward is a grilled blood sausage. The plan of revenge is ready!

With the help of a fisherman, the widow and Semillante go to the hamlet of Longosardo, where the widow asks for the address of the man who killed her son. When she finds him, she releases the dog, raises her finger, and says, “Go!” The dog attacks Nicolas Ravolati’s throat and kill him. On this night, the widow sleeps well.


A French herding dog–Semillante?

Several details are necessary to a thorough understanding of this story. For example, the dog’s name is very important. The Sémillante was a frigate of the French navy during the Crimean war. It sank in the Strait of Bonifacio in 1855. The name therefore suggests something catastrophic.

The story also reveals the importance of the church in the lives of the Corsican poor. When the widow comes up with her “vindictive and ferocious” idea, she goes to church and prays, begging God to help her. The morning before her plan comes to fruition she returns to church “to confess and receive communion with ecstatic fervor.”

The style of the story of equally important. Maupassant emphasizes the inexorable nature of the  plan with short, choppy sentences:

She promised, she swore over the body. She could not forget, she could not wait. . . . She no longer slept at night; she had neither rest nor satisfaction; she was searching, obstinate.

[E]lle fait promis, elle avait juré sur le cadavre. Elle ne pouvait oublier, elle ne pouvait attendre. . . . Elle ne dormait plus la nuit; elle n’avait plus ni repos ni apaisement; elle cherchait, obstinée.

The word inexorable brings me to our class theme of existentialism. The idea of destiny is at the heart of existentialist thought, and like Mother Saverini’s plan, destiny is inexorable. When she decides to act, nothing can stop her. One could say that the moment when she makes her plan of revenge is her existential moment. Her life now has a purpose.

The existential idea of the absurd comes into play at the end of the story. According to Reboul, “The story is so unlikely that it could have, in reality, a more or less precise origin.” Several of Maupassant’s stories end with a twist—a surprising or unexpected turn of events. This is not the case with “A Vendetta.” The only surprise is the widow’s good sleep after the dog kills her adversary. The end seems so improbable that one could call it absurd in the manner of existentialist stories.

Finally, the idea that existence precedes essence is an existentialist principle. This idea is true for the widow Saverini. Before the death of her son, she was the same as all other women—daughter, wife, mother, and widow. Her life was difficult, but in the same way that the lives of all the other women in the poor little houses were difficult. Even when her son dies, she is simply another woman who has lost a child. She exists, no more. But when she decides on her plan, she begs God “to give her poor, worn body the strength to avenge her son.” Here the widow achieves her essence.

Of course, Guy de Maupassant was not an existentialist. However, one can often achieve insights into life—and literature—by applying the ideas of philosophers. I believe that is the case with this story.

The post above (in French) was my final project for my French 212 class.  I just remembered another post about my first year with the same marvelous instructor and friend, David Young, and the changes his classes made in my life. Here is that post from May 2016:


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