Perhaps the best and the worst of The Prisoners is that it is like the other de Maupassant short stories I have read. This is to say that it is finely crafted with great attention to detail and wonderful expressiveness in very few words; it is also to say that it covers more of the same ground as I have seen in other of his work. That is, it is about the Prussian invasion and occupation of France in the Franco-Prussian War, and it highlights the honor and resourcefulness – and occasional corruptness and idiocy – of the French.
In this story, a young woman who is “daughter and wife of a forester” is home alone with her mother. The daughter’s wife is serving in the French army; the father is in town drilling with the local militia. This young woman is strong and unafraid. When half a dozen Germans show up demanding to be fed dinner, she tricks them into her cellar – once, apparently, an underground prison cell – until the local militia can come to take them into custody. The young woman is represented as a fine example of patriotism, courage, and quick wits; the French should be proud of her (and her father certainly is, although it is implied that the leader of the militia is happy to take credit for the capture). The militiamen, however, don’t get an uncritical treatment. I will leave this part spoiler-free, but an unfortunate and avoidable incident highlights that they are less competent than our daughter-and-wife.
This is yet another brief, effective short story from de Maupassant, who likes to both praise and expose his countrymen and -women for their behaviors during the Franco-Prussian War. He’s one of the very finest short story writers I’ve read, for his incisive use of language and imagery. Another winner.