Guy de Maupassant makes a stunning assertion in his short story “Mother Savage” when he describes the lower class as “those who pay the most because they are poor […], those who are slaughtered wholesale, those who make up the real cannon fodder […], those who […] suffer most hideously from the miserable atrocities of war because they are the most vulnerable and the least powerful…” (Maupassant, 78). Throughout the story, Maupassant gives the reader a picture of the daily life of members of the lower class during a time of strife, thereby offering a subtle commentary on how wars declared by the upper classes of Europe adversely affect the lives of the common people, and how the common people eventually adopted a national identity as a means of survival.
At the time of writing, 1884, “Mother Savage” was a one of many pieces of literature drawing inspiration from the European wars of the late 19th century – a string of bloody wars over relatively small tracts of land and sometimes simply fought as reactions to insults or provocations between the noble houses of Europe, between countries left independent following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. The blood barely dry on the ground from the Austro-Prussian War, the European nobility once more launched into what would be known as the Franco-Prussian War, using their respective populations as ammunition (Hazen 441-457).
The story begins in 1869, one year before the insults of the Ems Dispatch was made public and the relations between France and Prussia devolved into war. The narrator paints an idyllic scene in the French countryside when he last visited the property that stirs the memory of Mother Savage. A quaint house covered in vines with livestock in the yard is a stark comparison to what remains of it 15 years later: “… a dead house with its skeleton still standing, ruined and sinister” (Maupassant, 77). The comparison of the house from 1869 to the house of 1884 also describes the result of a long suffering in that part of Europe – a part that saw the Franco-Prussian war, and then immediately following, experienced some of the worst of the Long Depression, which was instigated by the Panic of 1873. The cause of the Panic of 1873 is commonly attributed to Germany’s decision to abandon the silver standard following the Franco-Prussian War. It sent ripples through the economies of all the Western Nations and their dependents across the world. Europe saw great economic prosperity under the Holy Roman Empire, but following its dissolution and endless wars, by 1884, it was hardly a shadow of its former glory. The economies were shattered, the people scattered and dead, the culture stagnated and sights like Mother Savage’s burned and skeletal home were commonplace (Hobsbawm, 133-137).
As the support for the aristocracies of Europe continued to decline (arguably beginning with the French Revolution at the start of the 19th century), the common people of Europe began to adopt constitutions and require representation in government politics. Parliaments became common in Europe, even in the North German Confederation (which backed Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War) and the following German Empire – the Reichstag, where all male citizens over 25 were entitled to vote (Hazen, 475), an analog to the French Parliament established in 1791 to ensure the popular sovereignty of the French people in the likeness of the United States of America (Hazen, 411, 435-438).
The rise of popular sovereignty lead commoners away from identifying by the nobility they served, identifying instead with the political identities of the countries they now had a right to run. This was the rise of nationalism. Coalitions of states formed nation-states and crystallized their national identity around regional and ethnic heritage. Under these ideologies, the French Empire was established, and not long after the events of “Mother Savage”, the German states were unified into the German Empire under the King of Prussia, Wilhelm I. Nationalism was rising in Europe, but the common people were still struggling with the idea of patriotism. The narrator of “Mother Savage” states: “…country people do not as a rule feel patriotic hatred – those feelings are reserved for the upper classes. […] [S]uch people do not understand war fever or the fine points of military honor or, even less, those so-called political necessities which exhaust two nations in six months” (78). In other words, the common people were too preoccupied with the trauma of the decisions of those in power to consider their national identity. This naïveté leaves in the character Mother Savage, or Victoire Simon as we learn later, before the end of the story.
After hearing of her son’s death, Simon initially doesn’t react – much as one would expect of a woman of the countryside “who seldom laughed and whom nobody dared cross.” Slowly, though, the emotion overcame her as realization crept in. She had outlived both her husband and her son, one killed by the police, the other by war – both at the hand of governments and those in power. Before the speaker describes further Simon’s reaction, Simon’s thoughts are interrupted by the sound of the Prussian soldiers living in her house. She hid her tears, calmed her face and greeted them dispassionately. The seed of revenge had been planted.
Simon proceeds to cook dinner (albeit somewhat unsuccessfully, struggling with the main course – a live rabbit), struggling with her emotions inside. All the while, the Prussian soldiers laugh and enjoy their fellow company and meal – much as things had been before. Clearly, at this point, Simon is plotting her revenge, “… she watched them from the corners of her eyes, not speaking – turning an idea over and over in her head…” She realizes she doesn’t know their names, and so she finds the path to revenge – an institutional death, much as her son had received. She would kill them and be sure their mothers received notice of their death. She wanted their mothers to know who had done the killing, “You can write them how this all happened, and you can their parents that I was the one who did it – I, Victoire Simon, The Savage! Never forget it!” (Maupassant, 82) – French woman, host of Prussian sons, enemy of Prussia. Simon had found her nationality. She was then killed by Prussian firing squad, the death of a dissident, a resistance fighter, a war criminal, a patriot.
Attrition during wartime and occupation is not such a modern concept, but the tone of the speaker as Simon’s death is recounted, along with her own statements, indicate pride in her actions and a feeling of justification. Simon didn’t murder random people for revenge of her son; she didn’t even murder the people responsible. She murdered the countrymen, men of the same nationality, of those who killed her son as recompense for his death. In a time of war, does killing out of national identity equate to murder? If the circumstances are considered, this event took place in a private home, away from the battlefront, not in combat. It also took place during war and between members of opposing factions.
Simon’s actions are anything but murderous. They were patriotic. In a pure numbers game, Simon managed to kill four enemy soldiers for the modest sum of two Frenchmen – and that’s not even counting how many Prussian deaths could be attributed to her son. If every Frenchman achieved a ratio of two to one against the Prussians, the war could be easily won. Not only did Simon achieve such a high ratio, but she did it completely without training and killed four trained soldiers. The resource lost to the Prussian army in that moment was far greater than four men. All of their training and the cost of their wages to that point had been exacted on the enemy by a widow. This is a story that should give any Frenchman pride.
Simon thereby demonstrates exactly the kind of power the common people have over those in authority. She was forced to house those soldiers by the occupying army – an army of a foreign nation fighting a war for the selfish gains of a growing empire, in the wake of the people’s uprising and establishment of a European republic nearly four score years earlier. She did not stand idly by. Simon struck back at those in power over her in the best way she could. In the process, she struck an economic blow more than worthy of her station in life, and certainly large enough for a story to relate her legacy. It was an act within the power of any common person. While such an act seems minor to the economies of modern nations, the key is not the economic impact of an individual act, but rather the impact of countless acts against the same forces. Those people “…make up the real cannon fodder because there are so many of them…” (78), but when used appropriately, represent a devastatingly large force which can enact change that no single person, no matter their status, power or wealth, could ever hope to achieve. And no force was better at uniting the common people than the belief in and their own desire to be proud of their national identity. At the end, even the speaker takes a moment to reflect on “…the terrible heroism of [Mother Savage], shot dead against that wall.” (Maupassant, 83)
As common people across Europe sought a way to simplify their allegiances, justify their actions and further remove power from the aristocracy, they began to adopt national identities much in the way Victoire Simon did. She found a way to take pride in her actions – the brutal murder of four common soldiers of the Kingdom of Prussia, and simultaneously avenge the death of her son. Instead of selfish revenge, she achieved selfless patriotism. The division of the common people of Europe along national lines continues in Europe through the 20th century, arguably until the establishment of the European Union in the last decade of the millennium – when Europe set aside its constituent national identities in pursuit of the greater happiness of its citizens and the aristocracies that once controlled the continent faded into history.
de Maupassant, Guy. “Mother Savage.” Fiction: A Pocket Anthology. 7th ed. Ed. R. S. Gwynn. New York: Penguin, 2012. 76-83. Print.
Hazen, Charles Downer. Modern European History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1920. Print.
Hobsbawm, E.J. Industry and Empire: from 1750 to the present day. New York: New York Press, 1999. Print.