The introduction by Pol Neveux to the complete short stories of Guy de Maupassant (the edition that's on Project Gutenberg - I couldn't pin down its exact details) says the following about the article Maupassant wrote in Le Gaulois announcing the publication of Les Soirees de Medan including his own short story "Boule de Suif":

He undertook to write the article for the Gaulois and, in cooperation with his friends, he worded it in the terms with which we are familiar, amplifying and embellishing it, yielding to an inborn taste for mystification which his youth rendered excusable. The essential point, he said, is to “unmoor” criticism.

It was unmoored. The following day Wolff wrote a polemical dissertation in the Figaro and carried away his colleagues. The volume was a brilliant success, thanks to Boule de Suif. Despite the novelty, the honesty of effort, on the part of all, no mention was made of the other stories. Relegated to the second rank, they passed without notice. From his first battle, Maupassant was master of the field in literature.

What does it mean to "unmoor" criticism? Where did Maupassant say it, and how was it achieved? I can't really grasp the meaning of the word "unmoor" in this context, and I couldn't find the original French text of what he said.

  • Here's Maupassant's original article in Le Gaulois on 17 April 1880 or you can read a reprint in Le groupe de Médan which is easier on the eye. The question is slightly confused: "Boule de Suif" is the short story Maupassant wrote for the collaborative collection Les Soirées de Médan, and the article in Le Gaulois is an advertisement for this volume. May 11, 2020 at 9:36
  • @GarethRees Ah, then I misunderstood. Since the previous paragraph was about "Boule de Suif", I assumed that "the article" referred to that an amplified/embellished form of that short story published in the Gaulois.
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 11, 2020 at 10:40

2 Answers 2


The article mentioned in the original version of the question is not "Boule de Suif" (which is a novella) but the article "Les Soirées de Médan" that Maupassant published in the newspaper Le Gaulois on 27 April 1880. At the time, de Maupassant was still unknown as an author. The "soirées" he talks about are evenings that several authors spent at the house of Émile Zola in Médan, who had by then already published a few works of literature and criticism. These soirées resulted in the publication of the collective work Les Soirées de Médan on 17 April 1880. This volume contained new or reworked novellas by Zola, Maupassant, Joris-Karl Huysmans and three currently less well-known authors, namely Henry Céard, Léon Hennique and Paul Alexis.

The article criticises romanticism: Maupassant writes that "the works of [Victor] Hugo partly destroyed the works of Voltaire and Diderot". The sentimentality of romanticism had turned against logic, the old "common sense" and the wisdom Montaigne and Rabelais. The authors also read stories to each other, which were subsequently published in the volume mentioned above. Attacking a monstre sacré like Victor Hugo may have triggered criticism, although Neveux writes that it was above all the quality of "Boule de Suif" that contributed to the volume's success.

Neveux writes in his essay:

L'essentiel, disait-il [Maupassant], est de faire «démarrer» la critique.
Elle démarra. Le lendemain Wolff au Figaro polémiquait, entraînait ses confrères. Le succès du volume fut éclatant grâce à Boule de Suif.

The English verb unmoor has a naval meaning, whereas the primary meaning of the French verb démarrer is "to start" or "to put in motion", and the naval meaning is now only a secondary meaning.

The Oxford Hachette French Dictionary (French-English, English-French) (second edition, 1998) does not mention the naval meaning of démarrer; its English-French part does not even list "unmoor". (The entry on Wiktionnaire is based on an older dictionary that seems to order meanings based on historical principles rather than frequency of usage, which would explain why the naval meaning is listed first. Le nouveau Petit Robert 2006 (which is not as "petit" as its name suggests) also lists meanings in the chronological order in which they appeared.)

The Cambridge English Dictionary also lists the following meaning of "unmoor": "to become less involved with, connected with or influenced by something, or to make someone or something do this". It is obvious that this meaning is irrelevant to Maupassant's article; it is not a translation of any of the meanings of "démarrer" that I could find.

The conclusion is that "unmoor" is an incorrect translation, possibly based on the components of the French verb "démarrer": "un-" matches "dé-", and "moor" matches the French noun amarre (moorings).

The intended meaning by Neveux, however, is that Maupassant wanted critics to start talking about the new book.

  • 2
    It's completely clear that the naval meaning of unmoor (whether French or English) has nothing to do with the Maupassant quote. What makes it such a bad translation is that the secondary meaning is completely different in French and English. French: to start moving; to put in motion. English: Cause to feel insecure, confused, or disconnected.
    – Peter Shor
    May 12, 2020 at 0:39
  • @PeterShor Thanks. I had not even seen that meaning in the dictionaries I had consulted (Oxford Hachette, Van Dale English - Dutch).
    – Tsundoku
    May 12, 2020 at 1:22
  • It seems to be a predominantly American secondary meaning, which is probably why it's not in the Oxford dictionary [the two citations for this meaning in the OED are both American, from 1989 and 2005].
    – Peter Shor
    May 12, 2020 at 9:40

The original French of this fragment can also be found on Gutenberg and goes as follows:

Il se chargea d'écrire l'article du Gaulois et d'accord avec ses amis, il le rédigea dans les termes que l'on sait, brodant et enjolivant, cédant sans violence à un goût naturel pour une mystification qu'innocentait sa jeunesse. L'essentiel, disait-il, est de faire «démarrer» la critique.

Elle démarra. Le lendemain Wolff au Figaro polémiquait, entraînait ses confrères. Le succès du volume fut éclatant grâce à Boule de Suif. En dépit de la nouveauté, de la probité de l'effort de tous, on se tut sur les autres nouvelles. Reléguées au second plan, elles passèrent indifférentes. Dès sa première bataille, Maupassant dominait la littérature.

"Démarrer" could mean: to get started, to get moving; in this context perhaps: to unleash.


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