From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The story chronicles Georges Duroy's corrupt rise to power from a poor ex-NCO to one of the most successful men in Paris, most of which he achieves by manipulating a series of powerful, intelligent, and wealthy mistresses.
The novel is set in Paris in the upper-middle class environment of the leading journalists of the newspaper La Vie Francaise and their friends. It tells the story of Georges Duroy, who has spent three years of military service in Algeria. After six months working as clerk in Paris, an encounter with his former comrade, Forestier, enables him to start a career as a journalist. From a reporter of minor events and soft news, he gradually climbs his way up to chief editor. Duroy initially owes his success to Forestier’s wife who helps him write his first articles and, when he later starts writing lead articles, she adds an edge and poignancy to them. At the same time, she uses her connections among leading politicians to provide him with behind the scenes information which allows him to become actively involved in politics. Duroy is also introduced to many politicians in Mme Forestier’s drawing-room. When Madeleine Forestier repulses Duroy’s sexual advances, Duroy becomes the lover of Forestiers' friend Mme de Marelle, another influential woman.
In a few months, Charles Forestier’s health deteriorates and he travels to the south of France to regain his health. Soon afterwards, Duroy receives a letter from Madeleine imploring him to come to join her and help her bear the last moments of her husband’s life. As Forestier dies, Duroy asks Madeleine to marry him. After a few weeks to consider, she agrees. Georges now signs his articles Du Roy in order to add prestige to his name. The married couple travel to Normandy, the region of Georges’s childhood, and meet his peasant parents. Finding the reality different than her romantic expectations, Madeleine feels very uncomfortable with his parents and so their stay with them is short. In the newspaper office, Duroy is ridiculed for having his articles written by his wife, just as the late Forestier had his articles written by her. His newspaper colleagues call him ‘Forestier’, which drives Georges mad and he suddenly becomes heavily jealous of Madeleine, insisting that she admit having been unfaithful to Forestier. However, she never admits that.
In order to suppress the stings of jealousy, Duroy starts an affair with Mme Walter, the wife of the owner of the newspaper. He especially enjoys the conquest as he is her first extramarital lover. Later on, he regrets the decision however, for he cannot get rid of her when he does not want her. Du Roy’s relations with his wife get chillier and chillier and in Chapter Eight of Part Two he takes a police superintendent to come with him to a flat in which his wife is meeting a minister. They catch the two in the act of adultery, which was then a crime punishable by law.
In the last two chapters Du Roy’s ascent to power is further continued. Du Roy, now a single man, makes use of Susanne Walter's, his chief’s daughter’s, infatuation with him, and arranges an elopement with her. The parents then have no other choice but to grant their assent to the marriage. The last chapter shows Du Roy savouring his success at the wedding ceremony at which 'all those who figured prominently in society' were present. His thoughts, however, chiefly belong to Mme de Marelle who, when wishing him all the best, indicates that she has forgiven him for his new marriage and that their intimate meetings can be taken up again.
There are a few symbols in the novel. The chief character’s name and nicknames are among them. The daughter of Mme. Marelle first calls him "Bel Ami" which continues to be the nickname used by the women he uses. Duroy starts to sign his articles Du Roy when he is about to marry Madeleine Forestier, ‘roi’ (the same pronunciation) meaning a king. Duroy thus supplants his former friend, the one who enabled his career in journalism in the first place. The articles he then writes with his wife’s help are considered as good as those produced (officially) by Charles Forestier but ‘more factual, more vigorous, more virile’. Seeing that Madeleine was the one who has cowritten the articles of both Charles and Georges, the latter is spitefully addressed ‘Forestier’ by his colleagues; however, fortunately for him, his affairs remain always hidden. Duroy’s moustache is another symbol of his sexual prowess: it is this that women are said to find impossible to resist about him. The painting Monsieur Louis Pascal by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is said to depict the character Duroy in Bel Ami.
Form of the novel and comparison with Nana
The novel is composed of episodic chapters which frequently represent individual rungs of the social ladder that Duroy climbs. Thus one chapter is focused on a duel he has to undergo in order to defend the good name of Vie Francaise; another on the witnessing the death of a colleague of his (Forestier) which clears the way for his ascent within the newspaper; yet another tells of the preparation and realization of the discovery of Madeleine’s adultery which enables Duroy to make a more satisfying match with his chief’s daughter. There is no one to match Duroy’s appeal to women – just as there is no one in Nana to compete with the chief character’s mastery over the other sex. Analogously, no single character is immune to the sexual attraction that Duroy in Bel Ami and Nana in Nana inspire in the members of the opposite sex. What further connects these two chief characters of two realistic novels is that their origins are humble: Nana is born in a working-class family on the outskirts of Paris while Georges Duroy comes from a poor peasant family in Normandy. Considering the character's background and the quality of education that he received, the talents that he is endowed with which, together with the favours of women, enable his social rise are then all the more astonishing and difficult to believe.
List of characters
- Georges Duroy (Du Roy), an ex-soldier, journalist and a social climber
- Charles Forestier, Duroy's former friend in the army, a journalist
- Madeleine Forestier (Du Roy), Charles's and later Georges's wife who helps her husbands write their articles and has lots of connections among the powerful
- Monsieur Laroche-Mathieu, a friend of Madeleine Forestier, a deputy, later a minister who owes his position and sudden wealth to Vie Francaise, Madeleine Forestier's lover
- Comte de Vaudrec, an old longtime friend and protector and probably also lover of Madeleine Forestier (Du Roy)
- Clotilde de Marelle, the Forestiers' friend whose husband, a railway inspector, is away for long periods of time frequently
- Laurine de Marelle, their young daughter, who comes up with the nickname Bel Ami.
- Jacques Rival, a journalist
- Norbert de Varenne, an old single bitter life-tired poet who is among the Vie Francaise staff
- Monsieur Walter, the owner and chief editor of the Vie Francaise
- Virginie Walter, his wife, later Duroy's lover
- Susanne Walter, their marriageable daughter, later Madame Du Roy
- Rachel, a prostitute to whom Georges turns in times of financial crisis