Summary: An old widow resides in a small village with her son and his dog. One evening, the son is murdered by Nicolas Ravolati. Nicolas flees to a fishing village in Italy. The widow is devastated by loss of her only son and swears a vendetta against her boy’s killer. Every day, she sits by the window staring across the channel into Italy and wonders how a frail, old woman can exact her revenge. Slowly, she trains her son’s dog how to attack a straw man dummy. After a few months, she takes a ferry across the water to the Italian village. She finds Nicolas and orders the dog to attack. The dog rips out the killer’s throat. The widow returns home and sleeps soundly that night.
Analysis: Guy de Maupassant is often considered the French Edgar Allen Poe.
This is unfair to Maupassant, a far superior writer. But the comparisons are inevitable because both writers were fascinated with the macabre. Poe’s was closer to an obsession, but Maupassant held his own. After all, this was a man who – ravaged by insanity caused by syphilis – slashed his own throat at the age of 42.
“The Vendetta” is one of Maupassant’s most popular short stories, but it isn’t one of his best. The story has its strengths, however, and is a good introduction to Maupassant’s work. “The Vendetta” features what every good Maupassant story should have: economy of language, flawed characters, smart plotting, and a dash of the supernatural.
Maupassant wastes no time in getting into the action here. By the fifth paragraph our poor widow’s son has been killed “treacherous slain by a knife thrust from Nicolas Ravolati.”
The most interesting thing about “The Vendetta” (next to the gruesome spectacle of a man being devoured to death by a dog) is the juxtaposition of the widow and her son’s pet dog – a bitch Semillante. After the son’s murder, the widow’s reaction is mostly stoic while the dog is wild with sorrow:
“She would have no one stay with her, and shut herself up with the body, together with the howling dog. The animal howled continuously, standing at the foot of the bed, her head thrust toward her master, her tail held tightly between her legs. She did not stir, nor did the mother, who crouched over the body with her eye fixed steadily upon it, and wept great silent tears.”The mother and the dog play off of one another through the entire story. Widow and dog; dog and widow. They intertwine and at the end the dog becomes the widow’s instrument of death.
Maupassant, echoing his own troubled psyche, often wrote about characters with mental problems or moral failings. That theme is evident here as the mother becomes obsessed with murdering her son’s killer. She spends long hours staring across the water at the opposite coast – plotting her revenge.
The story is so straight forward that the reader sides with the widow, but there is evidence that the widow and her son may be the evil characters here. Perhaps the son deserved to be murdered by Nicolas Ravolati. We’re never told why the son was killed; and the widow never thinks about it nor ponders her son’s innocence.
The evidence of her flawed character can be found in her hermit like ways. She appears to have had no real friends or family – other than her son and his dog. After he dies “there was no more talk of him” in their village and he also had no close friends.
The old woman even goes to church to pray for vengeance (This is another of Maupassant’s favorite topics – the hypocrisy of organized religion). And when the widow finally tracks down Nicolas – he is working a steady job as a joiner – so he’s not a criminal.
The story must have been shocking when it was published in the late 19th century because it still packs a wallop. Here is Nicolas’s death told in graphic detail:
“The maddened beast dashed forward and seized his throat. The man put out his arms, clasped the dog, and rolled upon the ground. For a few minutes he writhed, beating the ground with his feet; then he remained motionless while Semillante nuzzled at his throat and tore it out in ribbons.”The story ends with the widow returning home. “That night she slept well.”
Read our literary criticism of Edith Wharton's "A Journey" here
Labels: Guy de Maupassant, literary criticism, literature