George Duroy is the Jason Bourne of literary social climbers. Not once does he make a mistake, not once does he find himself back to square one watching the world he has built come crashing down around him like Nana. Not once is he in danger of losing everything, only one day to wake up with nothing, cold and alone in an empty apartment like Becky Sharp. No, it is almost like he has been nefariously programmed to cheat his way to the top, taking advantage of all that fall across his path, manipulating one person after another with his wily charms and charismatic mustache.
When we meet Duroy he has once again found himself down to the last dregs of his limited savings, forced to make the decision between two dinners without "luncheon" or two luncheons without dinner. As he wanders about, looking at his fellow pedestrians and wondering why the gods of solvency have taken a particular dislike to him, he feels in his heart "all the instincts of a noncommissioned officer let loose in a conquered country."
As he wanders about, nearly destitute, his attitude is a bit more carefree than one would expect. While having little to boast of, he is the proud owner of a fine physique and if it comes to that he should be able to make a few sous loitering in front of the opera house. All he has to do is catch the eye of a beautiful and desperate lady, or rich and desperate as the more likely situation would be, and then he should have enough to get by for at least a week or so…
His plan is momentarily suspended when he happens upon an old friend, another comrade of the Sixth Hussars, Forestier, who is now the political editor of the Vie Francaise. After Duroy quickly lays out his cards, Forestier says maybe there’s something for him at the old editorial desk, and asks if Duroy is up on his Cicero and Tiberius. Duroy assures him that he is and then Forestier utters what is to become the life motto of our hero:
“Good, no one knows any more, with an exception of a score of idiots who have taken the trouble. It is not difficult to pass as being well-informed; the great thing is not to be caught in some blunder. You can maneuver, avoid the difficulty, turn the tables and floor by means of a dictionary. Men are stupid as geese and ignorant as donkeys.”
Little does Forestier know that he is paving the way for his usurper to slowly crawl into his life and gradually consume it from within.
One thing leads to another. A dinner party is organized by the Forestiers and all notable editors and writers from the Vie Francaise are invited including the head honcho, the ploy being of course, to land Duroy with a spectacular job. While Duroy says “yes, yes of course I’ll go old boy” what he really means is “hang it all”. Duroy is the type that admires himself in mirrors and storefront windows etc. and he is very aware of his lack of appropriate dress. He quickly rents a thing here and buys a pawned thing there until he has mustered up something he hopes will pass for dinner attire. As he makes his way up the regal stairs to his friend’s apartment he catches a glimpse of a well dressed and somewhat gruff and judgmental man- only to realize it’s just his reflection! This party is destined for success and as he makes his way through the door…the reality of his situation comes crashing down on him and he remains mute and nonverbal for the majority of the evening.
Finally, after being almost catatonic with nerves and the profound realization that he is out of his milieu, he is thrown a bone. The great question, posed by Monsieur Morel in the Chamber representing the colonization of Algeria comes up again and for a fleeting second a wave of confidence mixed with terror washes over our hero. Algeria? Why he’s been there…
“George Duroy opened his mouth and said, feeling as much surprised at the sound of his voice as if he had never heard himself speak: “What is chiefly lacking there is good land…”
His monologue on Algerian agricultural practices goes over very well. He is given a job almost immediately and promises to have Part 1 of his “Recollections of a Chasseur d’Afrique” handed in ASAP.
He leaves the party feeling very pleased with himself…only to realize he actually doesn’t know how to write. But since he’s Jason Bourne and is a nonhuman robot when it comes to upward mobility, he doesn’t get bogged down in the details of grammar and appropriate verbiage, no…he finds the people that he can manipulate into doing his work for him and that person for the moment happens to be Madame Forestier, or Madeleine as we will soon know her. While she does not seem particularly overcome by the irresistibility of his mustache, she does have a secretive past, one that allows her to see the potential in a rising star and pay forward with the anticipated dividends tucked away in the back of her mind.
She agrees to dictate his paper, the newspaper knows her handwriting from years of writing her husband’s assignments, and within a couple hours they have concocted the perfect “recollection” filled with heroism and danger and just enough bawdy gossip to keep the lower classes interested. And that is that. He hands in his paper and is a sensation.
Only…it’s not like he can show up on Forestier’s doorstep every morning so that his wife can write his assignments for him. As his natural writing is quickly exposed as very mediocre, he has managed to convinced himself that he’s seconds away from becoming editor in chief and continues to live a life of excess, before long finding himself even further in debt than before.
What he really needs is Forestier’s little wife to write his papers…but all in good time. Forestier has developed a chest cough which bodes well for our protagonist and in the interim, Duroy has begun an affair with one of Madeleine’s unhappily married friends, Clotilde.
While Clotilde has access to all the right people, she demands a certain lifestyle that is infinitely beyond Duroy’s means. At first it’s just expensive meals and evenings at the opera, but quickly Duroy’s apartment becomes inconvenient and Clotilde procures a much better flat in a much better neighborhood, and since it was all Clotilde’s idea, Duroy is happy to let her pay the rent. This does not count as being “kept” in his mind and he appreciates the aesthetic lifestyle change, after all his garret quarters were hardly acceptable for the soon to be editor in chief of the most popular Parisian newspaper. But one day, after complaining to Clotilde that he literally doesn’t even have a sous left to his name, he returns home to find a gold piece in his pocket and another in his boot. “What luck” he thinks for about a nano second…until the creeping realization that he is after all someones “manstress.”
One would think since Duroy was not above a quick promenade about the opera in search of an unhappily solvent woman and some easy cash, that being a “kept” gentleman would be a step above, but one would be wrong. The affair has lost the excitement that comes from risky unscrupulous behavior and instead has become a banal farce. A rich woman, unhappy with her absent older husband, takes up with the new writer. It’s all so predictable.
He has played his hand well thus far and has transformed himself from street urchin to political writer, biding his time as he anticipates his next metamorphoses to be even grander.
All at once, Madeleine sends word that Forestier is very sick and they are leaving for the seaside to take a palliative cure of sea air. Duroy waits until he is officially sent for and then makes haste to be at his good old friend’s bedside. While his friend declines and slowly, raspingly is at death’s door, Duroy makes furtive glances at Madeleine, suggesting “this is all very sad, my dear girl, and when it is all over I promise to be by your side.”
If flirting over the warm corpse of a close friend isn’t bad enough, the second Forestier is declared officially dead Duroy is offering his hand in marriage: “He’s aways admired and secretly coveted his friends wife, he’s said often to himself ‘if only I could find a wife like that one…only now the facsimile can be set aside and he would find himself being truly honored to be the husband of the original”… of course she should not reply immediately, that would be too coarse and base, but when the dust settles and she is ready to move on…he will expect to hear her acceptance speech. And with that he departs, and heads home to see if Clotilde is free for a few months while he has time to kill before his impending marriage.
And mind-blowingly his plan works! A few months later, like clock work, the wealthy, (and now even wealthier having come into her late husband’s estate) Madeleine is ready to officially become Mrs. Duroy. She does have one condition. Can he just change his name slightly to make it sound more regal? With a stroke of the pen George Duroy has become George du Roy de Cantel.
“She looked at her writing, holding it at a distance, charmed by its effect, and said “Wth a little method we can manage whatever we wish.”
Duroy has entered the chrysalis phase. He is wealthy and made even more so each day by his equally brilliant and conniving wife. She writes his papers and organizes the right social acquaintances that will propel him forward and he works on his charm and irresistibility. Perhaps for a moment he thought that he had found his soul mate, they are after all two peas in the same rapacious pod, but it is quickly made evident that Madeleine’s scheming and conniving is her first love and there is little love or emotion left to create a sense of intimacy with her new husband. This should have been obvious considering the circumstances in which she agreed to marry Duroy…but Duroy rather than being introspective, decides he’ll use her for what he can and wait for his next big opportunity.
“George reflected: I should be very stupid to fret about it. Every one for himself. Fortune favors the bold. Everything is only egotism. Egotism as regards ambition and fortune is better than egotism as regards woman and love.”
When Duroy’s boss and owner of the newspaper comes into an enormous fortune after a slightly shady insider trading scenario, his two homely daughters all of a sudden find themselves in the spotlight of enterprising eligible young bachelors.
This is a real fortune, millions upon millions, nothing compared to the simple hundreds he and his wife have accumulated in such a short period of time. Now they seem almost poor comparatively, and Duroy finds himself resenting his wife and scheming for ways to get rid of her.
While walking arm in arm with the least homely and unattractive daughter, Susan Walters, George thinks to himself:
“If I had been really clever, this is the girl I should have married. I could have done it. How is it I did not think of it? How did I come to take that other one [this could either be his wife whom he obviously resents or Susan’s mother with whom he has had a recent and flagrant affair. The mother is absolutely obsessed with him and he finds this very boorish and exhausting.] What a piece of stupidity! We always act too impetuously and never reflect sufficiently.”
But one should never underestimate a charming mustache. Duroy wedges himself into Susan’s heart and vows to be her protector, and with each turn around the pavilion extracts another promise until she has all but pledged herself to him. Now he must find a way to get rid of that horribly provoking wife.
From his stint at the newspaper he happens to know all the right police commissioners. He also happens to know that his wife meets a certain political gentleman (the reason her political writing is so on point) at the hotel at a certain time. So he calls a small militia together to surround the hotel and surprise his wife in flagrante, therefore allowing him to file for an immediate divorce. He quickly writes the whole thing up and submits it for publication in the next days paper. He of course is written as the innocent victim, his wife the nefarious adulterer.
The plan goes flawlessly. With his wife out of the way and Susan in love with him, all he has to do is convince her to elope with him which will force her parents into allowing them to marry to avoid a scandal.
Despite the fact that Mrs. Walter is apoplectic with rage and disgust that her “manstress” is about to become her son in law…there is no way to explain her rage and disgust to her husband without implicating herself as well.
Duroy’s previous wedding is annulled due to a technicality, allowing them to be married in the church and he finds himself the unlikely star of Parisian society. Everyone of notable personage must be at the wedding and those that don’t make the cut flock to the church to catch a glimpse of the heiress and her husband. The glorious man with impeccable mustache.
His metamorphose is complete. He is George Duroy.
“He felt little quiverings run all over his skin, those cold shivers caused by overpowering happiness. He saw no one. His thoughts were solely on himself. When he saw the crowd collected- a dense agitated crowd, gathered there on his account- on the account of George Duroy. The people of Paris were gazing at and envying him. Then, raising his eyes, he could see afar off, beyond the Place de la Concorde, the Chamber of Deputies, and it seemed to him that he was going to make one jump from the portico of the Madeleine to that of the Palais Bourbon.”