Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Surface Structure and Symmetry in Maupassant: An Alternative View of 'Deux Amis.'

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Surface Structure and Symmetry in Maupassant: An Alternative View of 'Deux Amis.'

Article excerpt

Maupassant's story about the two friends who, when Paris is besieged during

the Franco-Prussian war, ignore the blockade and go fishing, has become

important not only because of its own excellence but because it is the subject

of a well-known structuralist analysis, Maupassant: La Semiotique du texte, by

A.J. Greimas.(1) Although it has sometimes been hard to understand what

structuralists mean by structure, despite their appellation, in this case

it is reasonably clear that various types of `deep' structure are involved, the

metaphor conveying inter alia that, however they are defined, they are not open

to empirical inspection. The most interesting example in Greimas is the carre

semiotique, the four-term scheme in diagrammatic form which for him constitutes

the fundamental structure of meanings.(2) It is usually presented in diagram

form, partly no doubt for clarity, but also for reasons to do with the rhetoric

of science affected by structuralists. The four comer positions of the square

are occuped by a positive unit of meaning and its logical contrary, typically

life and death at the top, with the contradictories; non-life and non-death at

the bottom.(3) The sense of these negatives being difficult if not impossible

to grasp,(4) it is not surprising that much ingenuity is expended by Greimas in

adapting them to the textual realities of words.(5) The aim is to categorize

the semes (units of meaning) in the text so that they can be mapped on to the

square with its four positions. Thus the references to fire, water, air and

earth are such as to allow them to be equated with life, death, non-death and


In a more general view, the subject treated by means of the semiotic square

is thematics, the study of the significance of recurrent elements of meaning

in a text. Where plot and character are concerned, Greimas works with a more

abstract form of the functions and roles extrapolated by Vladimir Propp from a

corpus of Russian folktales, explaining that his purpose is to examine whether

the structures found in oral narratives are also to be found in literary

narrative.(7) However, as the analysis of Maupassant's text continues, the

Proppian model tends to give way to a quite different model of narrative

structure, based on what Greimas calls the `programmes narratifs' of the two

friends on the one hand and the Prussian officer on the other.(8) In this new

perspective, the story as a whole consists of two consecutive `recits', the

first telling what ensues when the two friends make their plan to go fishing,

the second revealing the results of the officer's plan, which is complementary

and contrary to theirs. The suggestion that Deux amis contains two narrative

blocks end-on to each other provides a convenient starting-point for the

analysis which follows, one of its conclusions being that the story is

bipartite in structure, though in a different sense from that intended by

Greimas. The method I shall adopt is also different, being empiricist rather

than a priori, and is applied at `surface' level. It largely consists in the

investigation of symmetrical textual elements, from single words to blocks of

several paragraphs (corresponding to what Greimas calls sequences). Many of the

small-scale examples of symmetry that I shall mention are noticed by Greimas,

who uses the same term, but they fit only awkwardly into his conceptual

framework, with the result that they tend to seem merely incidental (as

frequently happens with such phenomena in critical studies). In my view,

symmetry constitutes the structuring principle of the text, in the sense of

linking its elements and conferring on it the property commonly known as unity

or coherence. …

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