For half a century, the bourgeois ladies of Pont-l'Évêque envied Madame Aubain her maid Félicité.
What is bourgeois, anyway, besides a word that sounds kind of like bougie? Well, it's the French term for the middle class, and turned out to be pretty important in the class-revolution-filled mess that was the 19th century.
Outside the inn, she approached a bourgeois lady in a widow's wide-brimmed hat, who, as it happened, was looking for a cook. The girl did not know much, but seemed so willing and so undemanding that at last Madame Aubain said, 'All right, I'll take you!' (2.16)
Félicité is able to tell the social class that Madame Aubain belongs to just by looking, and instinctively knows that she's the kind of woman who she can ask for a job. French society at the time was built on strictly divided class lines, which made it clear that someone like Félicité would work for someone like Madame. So simple, so stratified.
Every Thursday, a group of regulars came for a game of boston. Félicité would prepare the cards and the foot-warmers in advance. They would arrive on the stroke of eight, and leave by eleven. (2.19)
It might not be clear what this quote has to do with society and class, but think about what factors have to be in place for such a game night to take place. First of all, everyone has to be pretty stable in their positions, they have to have free time, and they also have to be educated enough to play the game. They also need the lower class to warm their feet for them. Who would have known something as simple as a card game would require so much work.
Mother Liébard was overjoyed to see her mistress. She served them lunch—a sirloin, tripe, black pudding, a fricassee of chicken, sparkling cider, a stewed fruit tart and plums in brandy—all the while complimenting Madame, who seemed in the best of health, Mademoiselle, who had grown 'so beautiful', Monsieur Paul who had 'broadened out' remarkably, not to mention their deceased grandparents, whom the Liébards had known, having been in the family's service for generations. (2.42)
The relationships between masters and servants can seem very friendly. The way Mother Liébard cooks for Madame Aubain and her kids you'd think she really was their mother. But the last clause in this quote gives away the fact that, as familiar as they are, there is always a division between the boss and the worker.
They would often come across them outside the kitchen, or when they were out walking. The husband never appeared. (2.52)
Félicité's sister and son show up either outside of Madame Aubain's kitchen or when the family is away from the house. This is because, as lower class people, they can't make a proper visit to Madame Aubain's bourgeois home. They're on the servant side of the system, and have to know their place, which reminds us of a certain hit television series…hmm, we wonder why.
It was clear that they were exploiting her—much to the annoyance of Madame Aubain, who in any case did not like the fact that Félicité's nephew was so familiar towards her son. (2.53)
Félicité is happy to help her family members, who are even less fortunate than she. But Madame Aubain isn't having it. She seems to think that she's protecting Félicité from being taken advantage of, but it seems more like she's protecting her bourgeois son from being tainted by lower class friends. The horror!
Monsieur Bourais helped her to choose a school. The one in Caen was said to be the best. Paul would be sent there. (2.54)
A very important part of being bourgeois is keeping up appearances. Madame Aubain sends her son Paul to "the best" school, not because he's the best student, but because she wants to maintain the family's slightly tarnished status. If he rubs elbows with the best (in terms of class), maybe he can pull them out of their rut. Unfortunately, all these efforts may be in vain. Madame Aubain certainly shouldn't get her hopes up with this unruly son of hers.
Madame Aubain wanted to make her daughter an accomplished person. As Guyot could not teach her either English or music, she decided to send her as a boarder to the Ursuline convent school in Honfleur. (3.10)
Virginie finds herself in a similar position to Paul. She's to be "accomplished," not by being a doctor or an architect, but by being a good, middle-class wife. And to do that she needs to know some slightly useless skills that make her seem educated, like how to speak English and how to play piano. Off to the nuns with her.
'Oh, your nephew!' Shrugging her shoulders, Madame Aubain resumed her pacing, as if to say, 'I'd forgotten all about him! And why should I care anyway? A ship's boy, a rogue, so what? Whereas my daughter… Think of that!' (3.38)
When Félicité has the nerve to compare the way she misses her nephew to the way that Madame Aubain misses her daughter, all kinds of snobbery comes flowing out of dear Madame. For her it's obvious that the two children are incomparable, but only because of their social classes.
Madame Aubain opened her arms, Félicité threw herself into them, and they embraced, united in grief. It was the first time this had ever happened, Madame Aubain not being naturally forthcoming. (3.89-90)
It is only when Félicité and Madame Aubain both lose their beloveds (though for Félicité it was a double whammy since she loved her nephew and Virginie), the class lines seem to loosen up a bit. For once, they're able to hug and bond. Grief unites them even as their classes divide them.