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In Guy de Maupassant's short story "The Wrong House" (available on Project Gutenberg along with all of Guy de Maupassant's short stories), Quartermaster Varajou wishes to find a brothel, and asks a waiter in the local pub in the small town of Vannes:

“The girls, ah! ah!”
“Yes, the girls, where can one find any here?”
“Girls?”
“Why, yes, girls!”
The boy approached and lowering his voice, said: “You want to know where they live?”
“Why, yes, the devil!”
“You take the second street to the left and then the first to the right. It is number fifteen.”

Varajou follows these directions and ends up at

the house of the Judge of the Supreme Court.

Why did the waiter direct him to this house? It seems unlikely to have been a deliberate prank, so presumably the waiter misinterpreted Varajou's request. What did he think he meant? Or did Varajou simply take the wrong turning, going left from the cafe instead of right?

  • What is the title in French? Ah, never mind, “Une Soiree.” – Obie 2.0 Jan 23 '18 at 18:47
  • So, I have a guess. The waiter’s either not that bright, speaks mainly Breton, or both. If we look at the original, we see that the judge is referred to as “le premier président de Mortemain,” and Wikipedia assures me that the office of Président de Parlement only existed before the revolution. During this period, “mademoiselle,” which I’m told originated as a contraction of “ma” and “demoiselle,” referred to ladies of quality, not just an unmarried woman as it now does. – Obie 2.0 Jan 23 '18 at 19:13
  • Now the waiter does say "des demoiselles" back, but maybe this is to preserve the twist, or maybe the actual joke hinges on some difference in meaning between the word in Breton or French, or maybe the joke is that the waiter just directs him to some young ladies in general. – Obie 2.0 Jan 23 '18 at 23:48
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Something got lost in translation here. The word “girls” gives the wrong impression. The French original (from Une Soirée) is “demoiselles”, which can refer to any unmarried woman. Read the scene again, but substitute “ladies” for “girls”. Varajou asks the waiter where to have fun, and the waiter's idea of having fun is to sit there and have a drink. Varajou then asks where to meet ladies, and the waiter points him to a house where there are ladies holding reception. Varajou was never explicit about what kind of ladies he's looking for, so the waiter's response is not that unreasonable.

”Supreme Court“ may also give a wrong impression. The master of the house is an important person, and is a judge, but he's the “premier président de Mortemain”. (In modern times, “premier président” means the head judge in an appeals court, I don't know if the structure of courts was exactly the same in Maupassant's time, but it wouldn't have been too different in terms of how to place that person socially.) That means he's a locally important person. The waiter directed Varajou to a house in the neighborhood with (probably marriageable) ladies of good family. For scale: the population of Vannes in 1883 was about 20,000.

The story plays on the opposition between Varajou and the sleepy town of Vannes.

He, himself, was one of those noisy roysterers for whom the greatest pleasures in life are the cafe and abandoned women.

“Abandoned women” is a once again dubious translation of “fille publique” which specifically means a prostitute and not just a “loose woman”. That's in contrast with

the quiet Breton town, so sleepy, so calm, so dead, on the shores of its inland bay that is called “le Morbihan.” He looked at the little gray houses, the occasional pedestrians, the empty stores, and he murmured:

“Vannes is certainly not gay, not lively. It was a sad idea, my coming here.”

In this town, the people playing billiards in the café are experiencing some of the best entertainment there is. From the waiter's point of view, if Varajou is looking for ladies, he must be looking for an evening's pleasant chat with upper-class ladies.

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I’m not sure, but here’s a guess.

If we look at the original, we see that the judge is referred to as “le premier président de Mortemain,”

Mais Padoie, saisi soudain d’une colère folle, balbutia:

—Où … où … où nous sommes.... Malheureux … misérable … infâme.... Où nous sommes … Chez monsieur le premier président!… chez monsieur le premier président de Mortemain … de Mortemain … de … de … de … Mortemain.... Ah!… ah!… canaille!… canaille!… canaille!…

I can’t find a real town named Mortemain (perhaps this is the judge who deals with the legal matter of mortmain?), but the fact that this was translated to “judge” makes me think that the author is talking about the président of a Parlement, which office Wikipedia assures me only existed up to the Revolution (meaning the story is set before Maupassant was born, but that’s not impossible, I suppose).

Anyway, during the pre-Revolution period, I believe, “mademoiselle” would have referred to a unmarried woman of quality, which is to say an upper-class woman. “Demoiselle,” which is what Varajou says when the translation says he’s looking for “girls,” would just be any unmarried woman, but of course Varajou means to talk about prostitutes.

But he’s talking to a waiter who might not be so smart:

“Tell me, where does one amuse oneself here?”

The man looked stupid, and replied:

“I do not know, sir. Here, I suppose!”

Or might be elderly and potentially hard of hearing:

“Thank you, old man. There is something for you.”

And who, most importantly, probably speaks very good Breton and very poor French:

The peasants did not understand his explanations, the collector did not understand their line of argument. He spoke French, they spoke Breton, and the clerk who acted as interpreter appeared not to understand either.

So when Varajou says “demoiselles,” the waiter hears “mademoiselles.” And in a small, sleepy town…

He sauntered slowly through the quiet Breton town, so sleepy, so calm, so dead, on the shores of its inland bay that is called “le Morbihan.” He looked at the little gray houses, the occasional pedestrians, the empty stores, and he murmured….

…the only young “ladies” are going to be the daughters of the judge!

No wonder the waiter was confused!

  • I don't think the language barrier is important in that conversation. We know that Varajou's brother-in-law doesn't speak Breton, but it isn't said that Varajou himself doesn't speak Breton. And even if he does, he never tries to be explicit, so the confusion works just as well in French. “Demoiselles” can mean any unmarried woman, with no indication of social standing. “Mademoiselle” is the way you address somebody, it's like “lady” vs “milady”. – Gilles Mar 10 '18 at 2:02
  • @Gilles - That's the current distinction, but is it the historical one? That's why I provided a reference (admittedly it's vague, so I could be wrong). – Obie 2.0 Mar 10 '18 at 9:27
  • It's the etymology of “mademoiselle” = ma+demoiselle, just like “milady” comes from my+lady, so I don't think this distinction has changed over time. (Ma)demoiselle was reserved for upper-class ladies at some point, the 1762 edition of the Dictionnaire de l'Académie française mentions that, but it was an obsolete sense by 1762, let alone by Maupassant's time. – Gilles Mar 10 '18 at 9:46

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