My Uncle Jules, by Guy de Maupassant

My Uncle Jules, by Guy de Maupassant 

My Uncle Jules is another moving tale about family, money, and keeping up appearances by Guy de Maupassant, rather like The Necklace. Guy: A Bit of Background As an earlier story, "My Uncle Jules" has few of the elements of horror that increasingly crept into his writing later on in life, classically attributed to his debilitating case of syphilis. He writes as one who knows the grinding pain of poverty, and yet his parents by all accounts were nobly born. However, their separation when he was eleven might have pushed his mother into poverty; many of his brilliant short stories have to do with women discontented with their lot in life, who are reduced to labor when they desire the life of the gentility. Guy wrote convincingly about the stresses of working as a civil servant; this was one of his jobs along with soldiering in the Franco-Prussian War. Though he is counted a misogynist for some of his less sympathetic portrayals of women, prostitutes (and other outcasts in society) were most often portrayed sympathetically in contrast to those of surface virtue, such as in his short story "
Boule de Suif".

Family and Fortunes

   Though there are no 'ladies of the night' in this story, there is plenty to be said about this family who seems willing to give up anything for money other than superficial respectability. Guy's training in the art of reporting serve as the intro to this story, which begins with a small giving of alms by a Joseph Davranche to a poor man. This beggar reminded the giver of a yet poorer man, who is in a way the alpha and omega to this sad tale about the Davranche's misplaced priorities.

    The father works hard with little emotional support from his wife, who suffers from poverty. The two sisters suffer more, having to make their own gowns and haggle over common-sense economies, while the boy grows up in terror of lost buttons. Rather than splurging every Sunday on a better meal for the family - such as occurs in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" - this family takes a weekly walk in their finest to see and be seen. Particularly, the girls are expected to do their part in bringing the family out of reduced circumstances, and so their brightest colors are on display like peacock feathers.

   Much is made of the wayward Uncle Jules, who has first disgraced his family by spending its inheritance, and then becomes the hope of the family by making his fortune in America. (One can see some personal application here; Guy spent quite a bit of his life writing  without making a sou, though under tutelage of Flaubert and acquainted with Henry James.) Jules the black sheep wrote a letter that indicated his elevated fortune, which is eagerly read out to any who show a slight interest; this letter is held to be the final tipping point for a suitor to one of the sisters. Sadly, it is another poor clerk, but since the sisters are in their late twenties, any prospect is a good prospect.

    Just as the wedded couple prepare to make their long-awaited trip to Jersey, the ten-year wait of the family is over: Jules has been found. Just as Father Davranche has said every Sunday while watching the ships come in to harbor ("What a surprise it would be if Jules were on that one! Eh?"), it is a surprise to find him on board the very ship that is bringing the family to Jersey. However, the surprise is not welcome.

Dreams Meet Reality

   For one, the family does not meet Jules coming off of a large steamer, happy and prosperous. He is unwittingly discovered by his brother, Philippe Davranche - in the most reduced circumstances: oyster selling. As if this weren't bad enough, they meet him on a ship going to Jersey, which is "the ideal trip for poor people". Philippe nearly doesn't recognize his brother, occupied as he is with a pompous display of his own generosity - obtaining oysters for his family.

   In some ways, the manner in which the uncle is found is nearly as heart-wrenching as his poverty. This family, who can barely afford to buy oysters from ragged men, has an argument regarding who ought to be allowed the treat. (Joseph gets left out.) The mother mutters one of her cutting comments to the father when he spills oyster juice all over his precious Sunday finery - one of the many indications that she doesn't appreciate her hard-working husband who worries incessantly. The father is eager to buy the oysters only because two elegantly dressed ladies are eating them in a refined manner, and he feels the need to impress his clan with a rare generosity. However, when the brother's identity is revealed to Philippe Davranche by the captain of the Jersey ship, it is done in such a way as to pretend that he is not recognized - so that the newlywed husband won't know that his in-laws reject their own blood relative.

    Even as the reunited family approaches the purple Jersey shore, the pinnacle of their hopes and dreams ("This trip to Jersey completely absorbed our ideas, was our sole anticipation"), their real dream of being reunited with rich Uncle Jules recedes into the distance. The family had pinned their dream of retirement on Jules - he was to fund their small house in the country. The family had hoped for better social position, especially as there is one more girl to marry off. Most importantly, there is the issue of family pride that won't allow them to own up to an oyster-seller as a relative, not even to a captain who will never see them again. Truly, the description of the Jersey shore ("a purple shadow seemed to rise out of the sea") is a symbol of the chimera of false dreams. It has the color of royalty, but as a shadow, it is quickly gone.

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