Having so recently discovered the expansive world of French literature I want to share a paper I wrote on some of Guy de Maupassant's short stories. Maupassant wrote over 300 short stories (and other prose forms as well) during his life. Among this plethora of tales there are a few supernatural ones that I decided to focus on.
Fear, Madness and the Inexplicable: Guy de Maupassant’s Supernatural Stories
From a young age most of us are exposed to ghost stories and these tales of supernatural forces are inevitably linked with both fear and madness. The loss of one’s sanity seems to stem directly from encounters with supernatural forces in many well known tales. For instance: young Prince Hamlet encounters a ghost and begins his fall into madness, Dorian Gray becomes lost in himself when his soul’s sins begin to manifest in a portrait and the narrator of “A Telltale Heart” commits murder because of his belief that the victim’s eye is evil. In trying to further understand insanity it is important to explore the most obvious source: the inexplicable. Guy de Maupassant uses his supernatural stories to seek out the cause of fear and perceived madness that result from these frightening and unexplainable encounters. His work demonstrates that fear (and the subsequent lunacy) is a result of encountering, grappling with and combating the unknown. Finally Maupassant drives his point home with the idea that accepting the presence of the inexplicable as it is allows one to retain their perceived sanity.
Fear seems to be a common reaction to encountering the supernatural. In one of Maupassant’s short stories, “Fear”, the narrator tells one of his companions that he is mistaken in his use of the term fear. He goes on to explain that one only experiences true fear in the face of the unknown: “[Fear] comes upon him in certain abnormal conditions, when certain mysterious influences are at work, in the face of perils which he does not understand. True fear has in it something of the memory of fantastic terrors of long ago.” (Fear, 53) This is a clear indication that the unknown is the source of fear. Another example of fear stemming from the inexplicable can be found in “The Apparation” where the Marquis de la Tour-Samuel tells a story about how he came to be “afraid of the dark.” (Other Tales, 33) In doing a friend the favor of collecting some documents from the man’s estate the Marquis encounter a strange woman. She seems to appear out of nowhere and the narrator’s first reaction is as follows: “Such a shudder ran through all my limbs that I nearly fell backward. No one who has not experienced it can understand that frightful, unreasoning terror!” (Other Tales, 36) Again, fear stems from a seemingly supernatural event. Fear leading to madness is not as certain of a connection. In “The Terror” Maupassant tell the story of an ordinary man encountering something he cannot explain. The narrator, Monsieur Raymon, leads a fairly happy life until one night he is restless and decides to go for a walk. When he returns he notices that his door isn’t locked all the way. He then walks into his room and sees a man sitting by the fire. Monsieur Raymon, believing a friend has come to visit him, goes to greet the gentleman only to discover that no one is there. From then on Raymon knows fear. In reading his confession of this terror one can see how this fear begins Raymon’s descent into madness: “I know he does not exist except in my cowardly imagination, in my fears and in my agony.” (Terror, 221) Despite this knowledge Raymon, “cannot remain at home because [he] know[s] he is there.”(Terror, 221) The reader can easily see that Raymon has succumbed to his fear and let it overpower his rational mind. In these and several other stories involving the unknown Maupassant demonstrates how both fear and insanity can develop.
The encounter alone is not always enough to drive a person insane. While reacting with fear is almost instinctual during a supernatural encounter the onset of madness is usually more gradual in Maupassant’s work. Many of the characters that display symptoms of madness in Maupassant’s stories begin life as sane and even rational men. In “The Horla” the narrator spends much of his time attempting to understand the supernatural events around him in rational terms. He brushes off his feelings of unease as illness. He travels to escape his home when the supernatural pervades too much upon his life and subsequently becomes convinced that it was all his imagination. When all of these rationalizations fail he takes things to the next level. He partially accepts that there is something supernatural going on but he investigates it in a scientific manner. For example, when he discovers the water that he left out before going to sleep had disappeared upon his waking he sets out to find proof that he didn’t drink it in his sleep: “I put out the water and the milk again, but by themselves, taking care to wrap the carafes in white muslin cloths and to tie down the stoppers.” (The Horla, 322) Finally he believes that he has gathered enough information to render the inexplicable explainable when he seemingly discovers the Horla’s origins. This is where the narrator truly falls into madness. The unknown cannot be understood and the narrator, at heart, seems to believe this. If he truly believed that the Horla could be known the way one knows an everyday creature he would have been able to kill it with fire. However, because the fear of the entity has eaten away at his sanity the narrator concludes, despite his efforts to destroy the Horla, that, “I know beyond a doubt that he is not dead. In that case… in that case… I shall have to kill – myself.” (The Horla, 344) In the end the narrator’s attempt to rationalize his encounter with the supernatural only serves to delay his loss of sanity.
While it is possible to combat the instinctive fear of the supernatural it does not seem to be advisable. Looking at “The Horla” again it is easy to see how fighting you fear can end badly. The narrator plots against the invisible Horla in an attempt to escape from its control but as mentioned above this struggle is not only a failure but results in the narrator becoming suicidal. The madman in “The Hair” combats the supernatural in a different way – he embraces it. Again, the narrator begins life as a sane and ordinary man. He is a collector of antiques and at one point acquires a new piece of furniture. From within this new item the narrator discovers a secret drawer. Resting inside this panel is a coil of golden hair. While this in itself is not terribly strange the narrator assigns supernatural qualities to the coil: “I stood amazed, trembling, confused… Was it not strange that this tress should have remained as it was in life, when not an atom of the body on which it grew was in existence?” (Terror, 109) The following obsession on the part of the narrator is the result of the fear that stems from this initial event. Rather than rationalize his encounter the madman chooses to believe that the dead woman from whom the hair originated comes back from the dead and becomes the love of his life. He attempts to fight the supernatural by putting it into terms he finds acceptable. He is so tormented by this coil of hair that he must surpass his fear by giving it form – that of a beautiful woman: “Yes, I saw her; I held her in my arms, just as she was in life, tall, fair and round. She came back every evening – the dead woman, the beautiful, adorable, mysterious unknown.” (Terror, 111) This method of combating fear is intriguing but ultimately proves futile. In shaping his belief in the supernatural the narrator makes a conscious decision to let go of his sanity. He is eventually placed in an asylum for the insane. Once again Maupassant has shown how the unknown can cause both fear and lunacy.
In the end it seems that there is only one way to both encounter the supernatural and avoid going mad – one must accept that the supernatural cannot be explained. This is a difficult conclusion to reach for a rational human being as it seems to be a driving force amongst humanity to explain that which we do not understand. In Maupassant’s supernatural stories the only characters that seem to retain their sanity after coming face to face with the unknown are those who admit that they are unable to explain the seemingly supernatural events that took place. These characters assume that there is a rational explanation for the encounter but go on to state that they are unaware of what that explanation would be. In “The Hand” the examining magistrate tells the story of a case he never solved. He shies away from the use of the word supernatural and instead describes his encounter as inexplicable. The narrator talks about a murder which he was baffled by. The man who was murdered had kept a desiccated severed hand chained to his wall. The way the murder scene was set up the reader is led to believe that the hand itself may have committed the crime. Despite his encounter with the unknown the magistrate seems to have dealt with his fear and avoided falling into madness. In concluding the story of his inexplicable case he says, “I quite simply feel that the legitimate owner of the hand wasn’t dead and that he had come to reclaim it with his remaining hand. But I can’t figure out how he managed to pull it off.” (Other tales, 151) In making very little attempt to explain his story the magistrate is able to deal with the supernatural by accepting it as inexplicable, but as still possessing an unseen explanation. The magistrate moves past the fear of the unknown and as such manages to avoid going mad. “The Apparition” is another example of this acceptance of the inexplicable. Regardless of the fact that the Marquis has lived with fear ever since his encounter with the supernatural he has managed to retain his sanity. The Marquis does this by admitting that he cannot explain what happened on the day he had his brush with the unexplainable. He does not even try to offer an explanation: “That affair so completely upset me, caused me such deep, mysterious and terrible distress, that I never spoke of it to anyone. I will now tell it to you exactly as it happened without any attempt at explanation.” (Other Tales, 33) In these two stories Maupassant is showing his readers that madness stems directly from the fear resultant in encountering the supernatural rather than originating from the presence of the unknown.
Guy de Maupassant’s supernatural short stories are explorations of fear and insanity. Maupassant illustrates how fear is a reaction to the unknown and inexplicable that one may encounter. If allowed to become an obsession this fear can eat away at ones sanity and eventually result in madness. This madness, however, is a direct result of the consuming fear, not the original supernatural event. Maupassant also demonstrates that if this fear is properly dealt with a person can avoid losing their mind.
It's interesting to note the Maupassant himself suffered from a hereditary mental illness. He was well aware of his own condition and seems to have taken it upon himself to make a close study of similar states of mind. Most of these short stories can be found for free online. Maupassant is an amazing writer and I believe amongst his multitude of stories there is something for everyone.