A protégé of Flaubert, Maupassant's stories are characterized by their economy of style and their efficient, effortless dénouement. Many of the stories are set during the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s and several describe the futility of war and the innocent civilians who, caught in the conflict, emerge changed. He also wrote six short novels
Until the age of thirteen, Guy happily lived with his mother, whom he was deeply devoted to, at Étretat, in the Villa des Verguies, where between the sea and the luxuriant countryside, he grew very fond of fishing and outdoor activities; he went fishing with the fishermen off the coast and spoke Norman with the peasants. At the age of 14 he ate roast monkey with Algernon Charles Swinburne, the famous poet. As he entered junior high school, he met the great author Gustave Flaubert.
He first entered a seminary at Yvetot, but deliberately got himself expelled. From his early education he retained a marked hostility to religion. Then he was sent to the Rouen Lycée, where he proved a good scholar indulging in poetry and taking a prominent part in theatricals.
The Franco-Prussian War broke out soon after his graduation from college in 1870; he enlisted as a volunteer and fought bravely. Afterwards, in 1871, he left Normandy and moved to Paris where he spent ten years as a clerk in the Navy Department. During these ten tedious years his only recreation and relaxation was canoeing on the Seine on Sundays and holidays.
Gustave Flaubert took him under his protection and acted as a kind of literary guardian to him, guiding his debut in journalism and literature. At Flaubert's home he met Émile Zola and the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, as well as many of the protagonists of the realist and naturalist schools.
In 1878 he was transferred to the Ministry of Public Instruction and became a contributing editor of several leading newspapers such as Le Figaro, Gil Blas, Le Gaulois and l'Echo de Paris. He devoted his spare time to writing novels and short stories.
In 1880 he published what is considered his first masterpiece, "Boule de Suif", which met with an instant and tremendous success. Flaubert characterized it as "a masterpiece that will endure." This was Maupassant's first piece of short fiction set during the Franco-Prussian War, and was followed by short stories such as "Deux Amis," "Mother Savage," and "Mademoiselle Fifi."
The decade from 1880 to 1891 was the most fertile period of Maupassant's life. Made famous by his first short story, he worked methodically and produced two or sometimes four volumes annually. He combined talent and practical business sense, which made him wealthy.
In 1881 he published his first volume of short stories under the title of La Maison Tellier; it reached its twelfth edition within two years; in 1883 he finished his first novel, Une Vie (translated into English as A Woman's Life), 25,000 copies of which were sold in less than a year. In his novels, he concentrated all his observations scattered in his short stories. His second novel Bel-Ami, which came out in 1885, had thirty-seven printings in four months.
His editor, Havard, commissioned him to write new masterpieces and Maupassant continued to produce them without the slightest apparent effort. At this time he wrote what many consider to be his greatest novel, Pierre et Jean.
With a natural aversion to society, he loved retirement, solitude, and meditation. He traveled extensively in Algeria, Italy, England, Brittany, Sicily, Auvergne, and from each voyage he brought back a new volume. He cruised on his private yacht "Bel-Ami," named after his earlier novel. This feverish life did not prevent him from making friends among the literary celebrities of his day: Alexandre Dumas, fils had a paternal affection for him; at Aix-les-Bains he met Hippolyte Taine and fell under the spell of the philosopher-historian.
Flaubert continued to act as his literary godfather. His friendship with the Goncourts was of short duration; his frank and practical nature reacted against the ambience of gossip, scandal, duplicity, and invidious criticism that the two brothers had created around them in the guise of an 18th-century style salon.
Maupassant was but one of a fair number of 19th-century Parisians who did not care for the Eiffel tower; indeed, he often ate lunch in the restaurant at its base, not out of any preference for the food, but because it was only there that he could avoid seeing its otherwise unavoidable profile. Moreover, he and forty-six other Parisian literary and artistic notables attached their names to letter of protest, ornate as it was irate, against the tower's construction to the then Minister of Public Works.
In his later years he developed a constant desire for solitude, an obsession for self-preservation, and a fear of death and crazed paranoia of persecution, that came from the syphilis he had contracted in his early days. He was considered insane in 1891 and died two years later, a month short of his 43rd birthday, on 6 July 1893.
Guy De Maupassant penned his own epitaph: "I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing."
Taking his cue from Balzac, Maupassant wrote comfortably in both the high-Realist and fantastic modes; stories and novels such as "L'Héritage" and Bel-Ami aim to recreate Third Republic France in a realistic way, whereas many of the short stories (notably "Le Horla", cited as an inspiration for H. P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu", and "Qui sait?") describe apparently supernatural phenomena.
The supernatural in Maupassant, however, is often implicitly a symptom of the protagonists' troubled minds; Maupassant was fascinated by the burgeoning discipline of psychiatry, and attended the public lectures of Jean-Martin Charcot between 1885 and 1886. This interest is reflected in his fiction.