Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Guy de Maupassant's "Toine" is (much like "The Little Cask") something of a parable of economic theory.

Toine, the eponymous innkeeper, is the very model of productive consumption. He is the biggest fan of his own product: the cognac that he calls "extra-special," which he declares to be "the best in France." His zealous praise of his own produce gives him his nickname, "Toine-My-Extra-Special," and his loquacity and cheeriness draw customers from miles around, "for fat Toine would make a tombstone laugh."

But what makes him special (and presumably what makes him cheery) is also his prodigious appetite, which is itself a marvel for visitors to this out-of-the-way hamlet, sheltered in a ravine from the ocean winds: "merely to see him drink was a curiosity. He drank everything that was offered him."

This consumption, however, is not simply wasteful or a drain on his resources. It is in fact what makes his business profitable. Consumption and acquisition are happily mixed in Toine's gregarious nature: "His was a double pleasure: first, that of drinking; and second, that of piling up the cash."

Toine is a poster boy for profitable sybaritism. He is a living rejoinder to miserliness on the one hand, and the Protestant work ethic on the other.

And this is surely what irks his wife. She is angered by the fact that her husband "earned his money without working." The story's narrative, then, is devoted to her efforts to turn him into something more like a laborer: to reap profit not from his consumption but from a more stringent (and more morally acceptable) program of regimentation and discipline.

So she makes Toine into a broody hen.

Laid up after an apoplectic fit (the fruit of his excessive enjoyment, though it hardly slows him down: he sets up a regular domino game by his bedside and he would still "have made the devil himself laugh"), Toine is forced to keep his wife's chickens' eggs warm. For the long, anxious gestation season, his movements are even more radically restricted: he can no longer turn to left or right, for fear of "plunging him[self] into the midst of an omelette."

As time goes by, Toine, whom his wife has long regarded as more beast than man ("You'd be better in the sty with along with the pigs!") comes more and more to identify with the animal kingdom. There's something almost Kafkaesque about his gradual metamorphosis, if not into a pestilent cockroach but into a mother hen. His arms become like wings, under which his precious charges shelter.

And becoming animal is also (here at least) a becoming feminine: he manifests "the anguish of a woman who is about to become a mother." No wonder that his is an "unusual sort of paternity" as he is transformed into "a remarkable specimen of humanity."

But the story is not so much about Toine's gradual animalization, and more about simply his increasing recognition of his animal status. For Maupassant treats all his characters as, frankly, beasts: Toine's wife "walked with long steps like a stork, and had a head resembling that of a screech-owl"; his friend Prosper, whose idea the entire stratagem is, has "a ferret nose" and is "cunning as a fox." Another friend is if anything less human still: he is "somewhat gnarled, like the trunk of an apple-tree."

So perhaps Maupassant's final word is that, whichever economic regime they favour, and whether they choose the moral virtue of restraint or the sybaritic pleasures of unlicensed consumption, in the end all of his characters are animals. Either way, what you have are simply various modalities of affective labor. It's just that some are more in tune with this realization than others.

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