Reflections on De Maupassant’s “The Thief”
While at first “The Thief” may seem to be making a simple commentary regarding an “old fashioned” code of chivalry, further analysis shows that the story actually resists making a direct moral statement. The message of the story is not a straight-forward idea that when a man breaks the chivalric code he has become morally corrupt. In fact, invites us to come to the opposite conclusion.
The doctor suggests initially that any man willing to steal the honor and innocence of a young woman must be held accountable for his actions and viewed as a fallen person, thoroughly guilty and even cruel.
Yet the tale of the young soldier seems to suggest at least two things that challenge the straightforward analogy that the doctor seems to be making at first. The doctor says that the man in this kind of situation is morally responsible, but the young man is responsible. He takes the entire moral burden on himself and thus saves the young woman from any public shame. He pays for his crime and in doing so seems to redeem himself in a way that the doctor’s preface to the story would deem impossible.
Also, the young woman is described as coming from a morally flawed family – materialistic, political, ambitious, shallowly judgmental, etc. – and it is the young woman who seduces the young man, putting him in both legal and moral danger. As the doctor tells it, she later goes on to raise her children in strict piety – a fact that makes her something of a hypocrite.
It is in the character of the young woman that we might see some elements of psychological realism coming into play. She has been shaped by her family and its values, made into a person who does not understand honor in a private, internal way. Unlike the young soldier who has internalized a code of conduct in his military training (and carried through with that code in the end), the young woman’s lack of moral integrity seems to draw the soldier to his destruction.
The doctor says early in the story that even this kind of behavior is no excuse for the man in the situation – a bit of chauvinistic commentary that today seems anachronistic and out-dated – but by the end of the story, it seems that the doctor himself has stepped away from this kind of one-sided insistence on the male position within a relationship. The “villain” becomes the hero.
So, is the doctor’s initial moral commentary meant to be undermined and complicated by the contents of the story? Some readers will certainly think this is exactly the intention. Seen in this light, “The Thief” becomes a fascinating examination of how public mores and morals are often at odds with private behavior.
The doctor’s clear love for the young soldier and his negative depiction of the young woman, taken together, suggest that even the narrator cannot fully invest himself in the moral he first shares with his friends. On the contrary, the doctor’s attitude indicates a preference for the reckless yet honorable adventurer who achieved redemption through self-sacrifice.
We’re left in the end with a question: If the young soldier fails to live up to the heroic examples of Ulysses and Joseph, can he nonetheless attain some moral standing when he proves that he has internalized a moral code and sacrificed his own public standing to save that of his lover?
Depending on how we look at the story, we might say that the young soldier is both the villain and the hero, responsible, as the doctor suggests, for allowing the young woman to give in to her emotions and imperil her honor. We might say, yes, he is the culprit and if he achieves redemption in the end it is a redemption from his own folly and missteps. Whatever strength he has should be seen in contrast to his obvious moral weaknesses. In this reading of the story, we clearly have a complex commentary at work, one that resists seeing the code of chivalry as an adequate measure of morality.
Alternatively, we might say that the young soldier represents a moral code that runs deeper than the superficial morality the doctor describes in his preface to the young man’s story. We might say that the story is attempting to illustrate the difference between true moral behavior and mere lip service such as the doctor’s lecture on chivalry or the young woman’s family’s interest in social status. In this reading, we see the story’s themes turning toward social psychology, making a statement on the ways that appearances sometimes conflict with reality.
Either way, after some analysis we begin to see that the story’s themes are more complicated than what can be captured in a simple moral.