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BOOK CORNER: THE PIECE OF STRING by Guy De Maupassant

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THE PIECE OF STRING

By Guy De Maupassant

    The story is set in the little village of Norman. It is about several months into the life of Maitre Hauchecorne, an old peasant. On an autumn market-day in Goderville, Hauchecorne is about to enter the square when he sees a piece of string on the ground. And he being of the saving kind, picks the string and keeps it with him. As he does so, he becomes aware that an enemy of his, M. Malandain, the local harness maker, is watching him. Ashamed to be seen picking up a remnant of string, the protagonist furtively hides it in his clothing and then pretends to be looking for something of value on the ground. With his head bent over in his intent search, he moves on towards the market.

    A few hours later, Hauchecorne is having his noon meal at the local tavern, Jordain’s, which is filled with local peasants, their gossipy chatter, and the powerful odour of food cooking. Twice the meal and the chatter are interrupted. First, by the voice of the town crier, who gravely announces the loss by M. Houlbreque of a pocketbook containing five hundred franc. Second, by the appearance of the chief of gendarmes, who summons Hauchecorne to see the mayor on business.

    Leaving his meal, the protagonist hurries to the mayor’s office. Where, he is unofficially confronted with the charge of having found Houlbreque’s pocketbook and of keeping it. The sole witness to the incident is Malandain, says the mayor. Hauchecorne sputters in rage at the accusation coming from his enemy. His defense—one that he shouts over and over—is that no one could seriously mistake a pocketbook for a piece of string. Those present do not believe him, and they say so, which enrages Hauchecorne even more. Malandain appears, and his reiterating of the charge against the protagonist leads to a lengthy and bitter exchange between them. To prove his innocence, Hauchecorne insists on being searched. But no pocketbook or large sum of money is found on him. The mayor dismisses him with a warning that as mayor he will consult a higher authority in the matter.

    Out in the village again, old Hauchecorne finds that many of the peasants have already heard of the event. But to set the record straight Hauchecorne begins to restate what he told the mayor and the others. That he found a piece of string and came across no pocketbook. To dramatize his points he turns his pockets inside out. Both his friends and strangers boldly tell him that they place no faith in his story, and that he is indeed an old rascal and a rogue.

    On his way home that night, and after his evening meal, he again stops his neighbours and strangers and again goes over his litany of facts in relation to the string and the pocketbook and the mayor’s false accusation. But sadly no single peasant steps forward to support his claim of innocence.

    The day’s events have made him ill. The next day, however, the pocketbook and its contents are found on the road and returned to their rightful owner. In his hour of triumph, Hauchecorne goes into the village and endlessly recounts the charge made against him the previous day and then the good news that fully exonerates him. Indeed, he spends the rest of the day on the road, returning often to the square to spread the news. At first he is convinced that his big adventure has ended most favourably for him, but as the day wears on, he senses that something is still wrong. He was easy now, yet something was worrying him without his knowing exactly what it is. People had a joking manner while they listened to him. They did not seem convinced. He seemed to feel their remarks behind his back.

    A week later, having brooded over the collective reaction to his supposed vindication, the protagonist returns once more to the Goderville market and once more confronts his peers with the details of the found string and the lost and returned pocketbook. On the streets and in Jordain’s, the response to Hauchecorne is the same: That he is guilty and both he and they know it. From time to time that day, he is even told that he had an accomplice who gave back the pocketbook, once Hauchecorne’s name had become implicated in the theft.

    Angry, dejected, and confused, he is unable to finish his meal at Jordain’s and is forced to return home amid the sound of mocking laughter. Going over and over in his mind the events that began one week before, Hauchecorne tries to come to terms with what has happened to him. He is positive of one thing. He is unable to prove his innocence because his reputation in Goderville for being crafty is well-known. He is, perhaps, capable of having done what they accused him of and even of boasting of it as a good trick. In other words, his reputation has preceded him—and that did not stand him in good stead now.

    Once he had prided himself on these tricky business practices. But now he had understood that those practices had predisposed his peasant neighbours and friends to doubt his innocence. The Norman peasant, suspicious by nature, was ready to think the worst of old Hauchecorne, and what all he could do.

    The gross injustice weighs heavily on the protagonist’s mind. He sees himself as being alone in the community (in fact, Guy de Maupassant does not mention Hauchecorne’s family, if he does have one). He knows, he has no defenders and many accusers. His brooding continues. His mind begins to get affected by his need to convince them that he is no dissembler. Hauchecorne goes forth every day in the village, redoubling his efforts to persuade any and all that he spied a piece of string in the road and put it in his pocket, but about the pocketbook, he knows nothing. The cruelty of the peasants is such that Hauchecorne becomes in short order, a butt of public jokes. The more they ask him to recite his tale of woe, the more elaborate and the more subtle his argument for his innocence becomes; as always, he is never believed.

    The protagonist falls ill in late December and is bedridden for some time. Early in January, he dies. In his deathbed delirium, his denials of wrongdoing are focused in a single phrase uttered repeatedly: “A little bit of string—a little bit of string.”

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Synopsis by Kamlesh Tripathi

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