Hemingway and Maupassant: More Light on 'The Light of the World.'

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Editor: Jelena O. Krstovic
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 132)
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,370 words

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[(essay date spring 1994) In the following essay, Jobst and Williamson probe the use of humor and religious symbolism in "La maison Tellier" and Ernest Hemingway's "The Light of the World."]

There was no sense in writing anything that had been written before unless you could beat it. Serious writers competed only with the dead, not with their contemporaries.(Mellow 562)

In June of 1933, Ernest Hemingway wrote to Arnold Gingrich, editor of Esquire, that "The Light of the World" was "a very fine story about whores--as good or better a story about whores than ['La] Maison Tellier,[']" ["La maison Tellier"] a short story by Guy de Maupassant (SL [Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, 1917-1961] 93). The next month he repeated this connection in a letter to his Scribner's editor, Max Perkins, but neglected in either letter to include specific details that might have offered insight into his somewhat perplexing story.1 Over the years numerous scholars have called attention to the Hemingway-Maupassant connection, but none has looked carefully at the two stories to note what correlations might exist. In fact, the two stories are similar in numerous ways. Hemingway employed not only the same character types, but may have borrowed structure, and, to a surprising extent, even theme from the French master short story writer. The use of humor and symbolism also runs parallel in these two works.

Hemingway's interest in Maupassant goes back at least to his Paris years (the early to mid-1920s) and maybe earlier.2 In Hemingway's Reading, 1910-1940: An Inventory, Michael Reynolds lists six items by Maupassant, including "La Maison Tellier." All were in the author's library at Key West, but Reynolds speculates that Hemingway may have read "La Maison Tellier" as early as high school. Possibly he borrowed a copy from the Oak Park library while in high school after having read one or both of the commonly anthologized selections by the same author, "A Piece of String" and "The Necklace" (SL 527). These were apparently chestnuts even then. It's more likely that Hemingway read the story in a book borrowed from Sylvia Beach's bookstore in Paris. In 1925, Hemingway wrote to Archibald MacLeish that he had read Maupassant, but didn't refer specifically to "La Maison Tellier" (SL 179); nor did he mention which story or stories were involved when he told Carlos Baker in 1951 that he borrowed Maupassant books from Sylvia Beach for his trips to Schruns (Brasch and Sigman).3

Hemingway clearly enjoyed and respected the writings of Maupassant. But more than that, by 1926 he would have also known something of the French author's life, because he also borrowed from Sylvia Beach Robert H. Sherard's The Life, Work and Evil Fate of Guy de Maupassant (Fitch 177). Hemingway may have been aware of several similarities between the life of the French writer and his own. For example, Maupassant's early years included the influence of a strong mother who had an interest in the arts. Both men served briefly...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420098036