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Old 17th January 2007   #1
Join Date: July 2005
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Default ''Wonderfully changed for the better''

Whenever the artificial values (aesthetic and otherwise) of the modern world become too oppressive, it is a relief to turn to a work from a different age, and to immerse oneself in the healthier values of another time.

Today, the 19th-century French writer Guy de Maupassant is revered as an early master of horror literature. Maupassant's eerie tales, such as "The Horla," profoundly influenced the genre, and specifically inspired the brilliant horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.

However, much of Maupassant's oeuvre is in more of a naturalist than supernaturalist vein.

One of Maupassant's most memorable short stories in the realist mode bears the deceptively simple title, "A Meeting." It focusses on a wealthy French aristocrat, the Baron d'Etraille, who is married, somewhat unhappily, to a much younger woman. Maupassant describes the baron's wife as follows:

She was very young, hardly four-and-twenty, small, thin,—too thin,—and very fair. She was a true Parisian doll: clever, spoiled, elegant, coquettish, witty, with more charm than real beauty. He used to say familiarly to his brother, when speaking of her:

"My wife is charming, attractive, but—there is nothing to lay hold of. She is like a glass of champagne that is all froth—when you have got to the wine it is very good, but there is too little of it, unfortunately."

"Too thin"; "too little of it": Maupassant clearly indicates that the baron's lack of passion for his wife arises from the fact that she is markedly underweight.

What an inversion this is, of today's upside-down standards of female appearance, which proscribe womanly curves, and claim that an androgynous, brittle, "too thin" appearance, of the kind that Maupassant's baroness exhibits, is somehow preferable to well-fed, womanly beauty.

But the story continues. The baron soon catches his wife in an indiscretion, and--to prevent a scandal--instructs her that the two of them should henceforth live apart from one another, and travel in separate social circles (but without informing the public of the reason for their separation). The family name will thus be preserved, and the two of them will not have to endure each other's company.

The years pass, and the baron engages in various activities, including the restoration of his family's ancestral castle.

Then, one day, while travelling by rail to Paris, the baron notices the striking appearance of the person with whom he is sharing his first-class compartment:

It was a young, fair, pretty, plump woman, and the Baron looked at her in amazement. He did not know what to believe. He could really have sworn that it was his wife—but wonderfully changed for the better: plumper . . .

She looked at him quietly, did not seem to recognise him, and then slowly laid aside her wraps. She had that calm assurance of a woman who is sure of herself, the insolent audacity of a first awakening, knowing and feeling that she was in her full beauty and freshness.

The Baron really lost his head. Was it his wife, or somebody else who was as like her as any sister could be? As he had not seen her for six years he might be mistaken.

She yawned, and he knew her by the gesture . . .

Sure enough, after an interval of many years, the baron has once again encountered his estranged wife.

But Maupassant makes it explicitly clear that during the intervening years, the baroness has become much fuller-figured, and therefore--and this is the crucial point--has become far more attractive, precisely because of her more generous physique.

The baron reflects, with astonishment, on

how she had changed and improved! It was she and yet not she. He thought her riper, more developed, more of a woman, more seductive, more desirable, adorably desirable. . . .

It was another, and yet she at the same time. It was another who had been born, formed, and grown since he had left her. It was she, indeed; she whom he had possessed but whom he found with her manners modified, her features more formed, her smile less affected, her gestures surer. There were two women in one, mingling a great deal of what was new and unknown with many sweet recollections of the past. There was something extraordinary, disturbing, exciting about it—a kind of mystery of love in which there floated a delicious confusion. It was his wife in a new body and in new flesh which his lips had never pressed.

Maupassant underscores the difference between the current, curvaceous appearance of the baroness, and her former, underfed state. The baron's thoughts betray a wild attraction, bordering on awe, of his wife's current, well-nourished beauty. He notes that

it was not the same woman that he was looking at—that thin, excitable little doll of those days. (129)

So overwhelmed is the baron by the plus-size beauty of his estranged wife, that he sets aside his own edict that the two of them should have no contact, and addresses her.

"You cannot imagine how you have improved in the last six years" (130) he tells the baroness, and later, says again, "You have, I think, improved both morally and physically" (132).

If you are wondering what happens next, well . . . just obtain a copy of "A Meeting," and enjoy the tale for yourself. (We could never do Maupassant justice by a bare precis.)

But for the purposes of this forum, here is the relevant point: in this story, Maupassant celebrates the ideal of feminine beauty of his own day and age, which was the same standard that prevailed throughout Western aesthetic history: the timeless ideal of full-figured femininity.

To depict a dramatic improvement in the baroness's appearance, from a less-attractive, less-desirable state, to a more beautiful, more alluring one, Maupassant initially presents her as "thin, too thin," and later, as having a "plumper" and "riper, more developed" figure.

To the audience of Maupassant's day, these aesthetic valuations would have been self-evident. A "plumper" figure would naturally have been regarded as more attractive than a "thin" figure. Any readers, in any time prior to the 20th century, would have held similar beliefs.

Only in our own day and age, which has overturned the timeless ideal in favour of a politically-based "aesthetic of guilt," favouring unfeminine emaciation, could these polarities have been reversed.

But our inverted, counter-intuitive, modern aesthetic can only last so long. In time, the more natural values of Maupassant's day, favouring the "plumper" beauty over the "too thin" waif, will surely be restored, for they are in tune with the essential preferences of the human heart.

Justine Legault (Scoop Montreal/Ford TO), size 14:

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Work Cited:

Maupassant, Guy de. "A Meeting." Trans. and Ed. Ernest Boyd. The Sisters Rondoli and Other Stories. Vol. 5 of The Collected Novels and Stories of Guy de Maupassant. 18 vols. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927. 123-134.

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Old 18th January 2007   #2
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Default Re: ''Wonderfully changed for the better''

It was a young, fair, pretty, plump woman, and the Baron looked at her in amazement. He did not know what to believe. He could really have sworn that it was his wife—but wonderfully changed for the better: plumper . . .

What especially strikes me, in reading about Maupassant's clever tale, is how the change in the baroness's appearance from a less attractive, thinner state, to a more desirable, fuller-figured look, reads like an inversion (or rather, a correction) of a modern diet ad.

I can easily picture two side-by-side images of the baron's wife, labelled "Before" and "After" -- just like a modern advert. However, instead of giving the underfed image of the baroness the "After" label (suggesting that this is the look that women should strive for), Maupassant's story clearly slots her "too thin" condition in the inferior, "Before" category; while putting her "plumper," "more developed" appearance in the superior, "After" class -- the more gorgeous state that women should be proud to emulate.

If one can break loose of modern brainwashing for a moment, then it becoms obvious that Maupassant's 19th-century preference, which honours a fuller physique as a "change for the better" over a thinner one, is the more natural tendency, the more intuitive assessment of beauty, while the modern worship of emaciation a bizarre and unnatural aberration.
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Old 29th January 2007   #3
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Default Re: ''Wonderfully changed for the better''

This story may have been written in the 19th century, but it's remarkably timely - a tale for our time. Or perhaps that's the point: it's not a tale for any one time, but for all time, whereas modern culture is so shallow as to be disposable - the "one day you're in, the next you're out" concept (which just indicates how empty modern creations are, in the first place).

For women today, Maupassant's story is an encouragement to reject the artificial, "too thin, too little" standard of androgynous appearance, and to revel in their own femininity; to free themselves to become "wonderfully changed for the better," as Maupassant writes, by eating whatever they like, becoming "riper, more developed, more of a woman, more seductive, more desirable" as a result.

The then-and-now comparison of the baroness symbolizes a before-and-after comparison of the modern aesthetic to the timeless ideal; a shift in the public conception of beauty, from the brittle, insubstantial, deprived standard of today, to the richer, fuller, more opulent embodiment of yesterday...and tomorrow.
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