Friday, August 5, 2011

Guy de Maupassant and the Psychological Mystery Story

In the decade between 1880 and 1890 Guy de Maupassant published over three hundred short stories in a variety of modes, including the supernatural legend, the surprise-ending tale, and the realistic story. Although he is best-known for such surprise-ending tales as La Parue (1884; "The Necklace," 1909) and most-respected for such affecting realistic stories such as Boule de Suif (1880; "Ball of Fat," 1909), Maupassant also contributed to the sophistication of the horror story by pushing it even further than Edgar Allan Poe into the modern mode of psychological obsession and madness.

The predominant mode of Maupassant’s psychological stories is not the manifestation of the ghostly supernatural in the traditional sense; rather the stories focus on some mysterious dimension of reality that exists beyond what the human senses can perceive. But even as this realm of reality is justified rationally, the reader is never quite sure whether the realm truly exists "out there" in the world of the story or whether it is a product of the obsessive mind of the narrator. The style of several of these tales is similar to some of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce, particularly the stories of the perverse which combine narrative story line with the narrator's quasi-philosophic considerations of madness, murder, and the mysterious realm beyond the pale of ordinary understanding.

The most explicit story to focus on this realm, parts of which are used later in the more famous La Horla, is "Letter from a Madman." As told by the narrator to a doctor, the story unfolds a theory that the human mind receives only sparse and uncertain information about the external world because the limitations of the five senses restrict what humans can perceive. The narrator argues, for example, that if we had additional senses we could perceive a reality that is closed to our present senses. From this assumption he tries to infer, rather than directly perceive, the mysterious impenetrable world that lies around us. As a result he feels in the presence of non-corporeal beings, although he does not actually have the sense organ that would make it possible for him to "see" them. While sitting in front of a mirror he cannot see himself, for the invisible thing stands between him and the mirror and blocks his reflection. Since that time he has spent hours before his mirror, going mad waiting for "It" to return, knowing that he will wait until death.

The story "He" is similar to "Letter from a Madman" in its focus on some unseen but felt presence; however, it differs thematically in that it emphasizes the appearances of the apparition as a result of the narrator's loneliness, and it differs stylistically in that it features a more developed narrative with less discursive meditation. "He" is very similar to Poe stories which focus on the fear of fear itself and which emphasize the power of hallucination. The narrator acknowledges that he suffers from a disease of fear, an incomprehensible terror that causes him to fear the very madness or confusion of mind that constitutes the fear itself. He describes entering his room after a walk and seeing a man sitting in his chair before the fire. When he reaches out to touch him, there is nothing there. Although convinced that the figure was obviously an hallucination, he cannot shake the fear that it will appear again. Even though he knows that it does not exist except in his own apprehension, he cannot escape that apprehension. In both of these stories, it is the narrators' own intense self-consciousness which constitute their insanity; they push what they consider to be reasonable assumptions to such ultimate conclusions that the inevitable result is madness--that is, the perception of a state of being that exists outside of the normal everyday limits of human experience, perception, and thought.

In "Am I Insane?" and "The Madman," Maupassant's focus is on how an obsession becomes so powerful that it is translated into murderous action. In "Am I Insane?" the simpler of the two, the narrator loves a certain woman to madness. However, he also hates her passionately, for he knows that she is impure and without a soul; he intensely desires both to possess her and to kill her. When she tires of him, he becomes insanely jealous, determines that her horse (which she rides enraptured) is his rival, and executes it with a bullet to the brain before also killing his mistress. The madness here is similar to the meaningful madness in many Poe stories; there is some basis for the narrator's jealous obsession, both figuratively in the powerful male symbolism of the horse and literally in the narcissism and autoeroticism that the woman’s daily rides suggest.

In "A Madman," Maupassant carries to even further extremes the theme of madness resulting from carrying a line of reasoning to ultimate conclusions. The story consists of diary entries of a dead judge who always seemed to know the secret hearts of criminals. Over and over again in the diary he questions what pleasure there must be in killing. He justifies his obsession in long discursive passages in which he wonders why it is a crime to kill when killing is indeed the law of nature; inevitably he puts his theories into action. Equating his desire to kill with the power of sexual passion, he describes in graphic detail reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade his murder of a young boy by strangulation and his killing of a fisherman by splitting his head open with a spade. Even after he sentences the fisherman's nephew to death for the murder that he committed, he describes watching the boy's head being chopped off and wishing he could have bathed in his blood. Although the ostensible theme of the story is that many such madmen exist secretly in society, the more predominate motif is the notion philosophically examined by Nietzsche and fictionally explored by Dostoevsky that killing is the nearest thing to creation.

However, 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 that 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. 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. In the last few years of his life, due to syphilis, his eyesight weakened, his memory failed, his thinking became erratic, and he suffered from delusions. After undergoing several unsuccessful treatments for his disease and even attempting suicide, Maupassant was incarcerated in a sanatorium in Passy, where he died on July 6, 1893.

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 his story “Guy de Maupassant” 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.

Thanks to Caroline for asking for my opinion of Maupassant--a query I obviously cannot resist.


Caroline said...

Thank you for this fascinating post! I was also thinking of Checkov and especially The Black Monk, while reading your passage on Le Horla. I need to re-read it.
What struck me when reading Bierce was the similarity of the descriptions, even in those I found a likeness to Maupassant.
I think that Bierce is less appreciated and known because, unlike Maupassant, he hasn't written any novels.
I'm really glad I found your blog as I love short stories and deplore that they are read far less than novels. I had comments on my blog in which people wrote "I simply don't know how to read a short story". I knew about the skills of being a short story writer but not a reader.
I reviewed a novella of Balzac recently La Vendetta and realized that he lacks the skill of short story writing. He thinks, compressing a novel into less pages equals a short story. That's why whenever we read one of his novellas it feels as if something was missing. Maupassant is quite the opposite. No matter how short it will feel complete.
Sorry for a somewhat lenghty comment.

Alain Gomez said...

I have added your blog to my own blog's blogroll (try fitting the word "blog" a few more times in that sentence). Most of the people who read my blog are short story readers and writers. You have some excellent insight to offer. One of the worst things short stories have going for them right now is a lack of education.

On to the post... the psychological mystery/thriller is one of my favorite types of short stories. I think the form perfectly suits it. And Maupassant does do them exceptionally well. Far too often I find that authors fall into the trap of explaining too much. I think they're terrified that their reader might not "get it." So they spoon feed. I hate that.

The idea of what shapes reality is especially interesting to me. Maupassant is a perfect example of being able suck the reader in to the point that even the reader is uncertain of reality. I find this to be far more engrossing than being an impartial observer watching someone go insane.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks to Alain for her generous comment. I agree that short stories are not often read because most readers are not sure how to read them. I am just not sure what to do about that without seeming didactic and aggravatingly "instructional."

Anonymous said...

I am doing my thesis on Maupassant's selected short stories and am looking for deviant behavior of characters in them and analyzing it by adopting psychoanalytic approach.. this was really helpful and i want to thank you.

Charles E. May said...

I am very glad my comments were helpful. Good luck to you on your Maupassant thesis.