Sunday, May 31, 2015

Short Story Month 2015--Guy de Maupassant, "La Horla"


After the success of Boule de Suif ("Ball of Fat")  in 1880, the touching little story of the prostitute who reluctantly goes to bed with a Prussian officer in order to procure the release of her traveling companions and then is scorned by them, Guy de Maupassant began to write anecdotal articles for two newspapers, the practice of which served as preparation for writing the short stories that were to make him famous.
His first full volume of short fiction appeared in 1881 under the title of his second important story, La Maison Tellier ("Madame Tellier's House"), a comic piece about a group of prostitutes who attend a First Communion. After the success of this book, Maupassant published numerous stories in newspapers and periodicals which were then reprinted in the volumes of his stories that began to appear at the rate of approximately two a year. Many of his stories created a great deal of controversy among the French critics of the time because he dared to focus on the experiences of so-called "lowlife" characters.
However, in addition to the realistic stories of the lower-class, Maupassant also experimented with mystery tales, many of which are reminiscent of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.  Instead of depending on the supernatural, these stories focus on some mysterious dimension of reality which is justified rationally by the central character.  As a result, the reader is never quite sure whether this realm exists in actuality or whether it is a product of the obsessed mind of the narrator.
The year 1884 saw the publication of Maupassant's most famous short story, La Parure, usually translated as "The Necklace," which has become one of the most famous short stories in any language. Indeed, it has become so famous that it is the story which most commonly comes to mind when Maupassant's name is mentioned, in spite of the fact that most critics agree that Maupassant's creation of tone and character in such stories as Boule de Suif and La Maison Tellier are much more representative of his genius than this ironically-plotted little trick story about the woman who wasted her entire life to pay back a lost necklace, only to discover that it was fake.
La Horla, a story of psychological horror, is actually the pinnacle of several stories of madness which Maupassant had experimented with previously.  The story focuses on the central character's intuition of a reality which surrounds human life but remains imperceptible to the senses.  Told by means of diary entries, the story charts the protagonist's growing awareness of his own madness as well as his lucid understanding of the process whereby the external world is displaced by psychic projections.
What makes "The Horla" distinctive is the increasing need of the narrator to account for his madness as being due to something external to himself.  Such a desire is Maupassant's way of universalizing the story, for he well knew that human beings have always tried to embody their most basic desires and fears in some external but invisible presence. "The Horla" is a masterpiece of hallucinatory horror because it focuses so powerfully on that process of mistaking inner reality for outer reality which is indeed the very basis of hallucination. The story is too strongly controlled to be the work of a madman.
Of all the Maupassant tales that focus on madness, hallucination, obsession, and the mystery of a dimension beyond the senses, the most sustained and deservedly the most famous is "The Horla."  Although many critics point to the autobiographical elements in this story (for during its writing Maupassant was possessed by the increasing madness caused by syphilis), still others suggest that the work stands on its own merits as a masterpiece of psychological horror. Told by means of diary entries, the story charts the protagonist's growing awareness of his own madness as well as his understanding of the process whereby the external world is displaced by psychic projections.
The story begins with many of the same themes that Maupassant had earlier developed in "Letter from a Madman," even at times using much of the same language as that story.  The narrator begins considering the mystery of the invisible, the weakness of the senses to perceive all that is out there in the world, and the theory that if there were other senses, one could discover many more things about the world around human life.  The second predominant Maupassant theme here is that of apprehension, a sense of some imminent danger, a presentiment of something yet to come.  This apprehension, which the narrator calls a disease, is accompanied by nightmares, a sense of some external force suffocating him while he sleeps, and the conviction that there is something following him; yet when he turns around there is nothing there.
This sense of something existing outside the self but not visible to the ordinary senses is pushed even further when the narrator begins to believe that there are actual creatures who exist in this invisible dimension.  This conviction is then developed into an idea that when the mind is asleep an alien being takes control of the body and makes it obey. All of these ideas then lead easily into the concept of mesmerism or hypnotism; for under hypnosis it seems as if an alien being has control of our actions which, when we awake, we have no awareness of.  Although the narrator doubts his sanity, he also feels he is in complete possession of all his faculties, and he becomes even more convinced that an invisible creature is making him do things that his own mind does not direct him to do.  Thus he finally believes that there are Invisible Ones in the world, creatures who have always existed and who have haunted mankind even though they cannot be seen.
The final event to convince him of the external, as opposed to the psychological, existence of the creatures, is a newspaper article about an epidemic of madness in Brazil in which people seem possessed by vampire-like creatures who feed on them during sleep.  He remembers a Brazilian ship that sailed past his window and believes that one of the creatures has jumped ship to possess him.  Now he knows that the reign of man on earth is over and that the forces of the Horla which man has always feared--forces called spirits, genii, fairies, hobgoblins, witches, devils, and imps--will enslave man.
Finally, in a scene which was used earlier in "A Letter from a Madman," he "sees" the creature in the mirror when its presence blurs his own image by coming between him and the mirror. He decides to destroy the creature by locking it in his room and burning his house to the ground. As he watches the house burn and realizes that his servants are burning too, he wonders if indeed the Horla is dead, for he considers that it cannot, like man, be prematurely destroyed.  His final thought is since the Horla is not dead he shall have to kill himself; the story ends with that decision.
What makes "The Horla" distinctive is the increasing need of the narrator to account for his madness as being something external to himself.  This universalizes the story, for human beings have always tried to embody their most basic desires and fears in some external but invisible presence named gods, devils, spirits, etc. "The Horla" is a masterpiece of hallucinatory horror because it focuses so powerfully on that process of mistaking inner reality for outer reality which is the very basis of hallucination.
Because of his ability to transform the short mystery tale from a primitive oral form based on legend into a sophisticated modern form in which mystery originates within the complex mind of man, Maupassant is an important figure in marking the transition between the nineteenth-century tale of the supernatural and the twentieth-century short story of psychological obsession.
Guy de Maupassant is one of those writers whose contribution to literature is often overshadowed by the tragic facts of his life and whose real experimentation is often ignored in favor of his more popular innovations.  Too often it is his promiscuity and profligate Parisian life style that receives the most attention from the casual reader.  As if to provide evidence for the payment Maupassant had to make for such a lifestyle, these readers then point to the supposed madness-inspired story La Horla--a fit ending for one who not only wrote about prostitutes but paid for their dangerous favors as well with his life.
However, Maupassant's real place as a writer belongs with such innovators of the short-story form as Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Ambrose Bierce, and O. Henry.  Too often, whereas such writers as Turgenev and Chekhov are admired for their so-called lyricism and realistic vignettes, writers such as Bierce and O. Henry are scorned for their so-called cheap narrative tricks.  Maupassant falls somewhere in between.  On the one hand, he indeed mastered the ability to create the tight little ironic story that depends, as all short stories do, on the impact of the ending, but on the other hand he also had the ability, like Chekhov, to focus keenly on a limited number of characters in a luminous situation. The Soviet short-story writer Isaac Babel has perhaps paid the ultimate tribute to Maupassant in one of his stories by noting how Maupassant knew the power of a period placed in just the right place.

Maupassant had as much to do with the development of the short-story genre in the late nineteenth century Chekhov did. in somewhat different ways.  However, because such stories as "The Necklace" seem so deceptively simple and trivial, his experiment with the form has often been ignored.  Not until the short story itself receives the recognition it deserves as a respectable literary genre will Guy de Maupassant receive the recognition he deserves for his contribution to the perfection of the form.

1 comment:

Karl said...

Congratulations on meeting your ambitious goal of a post a day for a month in honor of Short Story Month. And even more so, thank you for the 31 great articles!