I would never have expected to like a novel featuring a central character as contemptible as George “Pretty-boy” Duroy. However, the authenticity and grandeur of Guy de Maupassant’s Paris in his masterpiece Bel-Ami surpasses the utter smarminess of its antihero. This novel on the corrupt side of human ambition is not only addictive to read, but frighteningly modern as well.
“Bel-ami” (translated to “Pretty-boy” in my edition) is the moniker given to the aspiring journalist George Duroy by the daughter of his mistress, Madame Clotilde de Marelle. The nickname sticks and Duroy is happily referred by it as he maneuvers his way up the social ladder of late 19th century Parisian society. The diminutive is apt as it is by way of society women like de Marelle that Duroy is able to realize his social and financial ambitions.
It is clear that Duroy’s rise from a poor, graceless amateur to wealthy newspaper professional is impressive; however, one finishes the novel with the feeling that while happy for the moment, Duroy’s contentedness will not last. As he exits the wedding hall with Susan, his young heiress of a bride, his thoughts revert quickly to the more sensual Clotilde. With this image, the realization of the destructive effect of Duroy’s ruthless ambition is complete.
Duory, however, is not the only character willing to cross the line of morality in order to realize his ambition. Madeleine Forestier, the wife of Duroy’s earliest benefactor, is essentially a female version of the title character. Like Duroy, Madeleine employs less-than-sterling tactics as she orchestrates her own climb into Paris’s social elite. Just as Duroy manipulates the affections of society women for his own gain, Madeleine charms professional upstarts in order to mold them into the type of men that will further her own ideas and social standing. Like Duroy, Madeleine’s capability for true happiness is left in the balance as her ambition is never fully realized.
If Bel-Ami is to be read as a cautionary tale on the hazards of ruthless ambition, it offers its readers an alternative to the destruction it details. By way of the monologue of Norbert de Varenne, a poet-colleague of Duroy’s, Maupassant advises us not to yield to insatiable ambition, rather to seek the company of others and hope for the opportunity to love and be loved most of all.
Maupassant’s classic novel of ambition, Bel-Ami, is a surprisingly engaging read, despite the lack of empathy I felt for nearly all of its characters. Despite that fact, I am glad to have spent the time I did with Duroy in his glamorous quest for importance.