Article abstract: Maupassant was one of the major literary figures at the end of the nineteenth century to help move short fiction away from the primitive folktale form to the short story of psychological realism. His most significant contributions to the form may be found in such affecting realistic stories as “Boule de Suif” and such powerful tales of psychological obsession as “The Horla.”
Henri-René-Albert-Guy de Maupassant was born on August 5, 1850. He was the first son of Laure Le Poittevin and Gustave de Maupassant, both from prosperous bourgeois families. When Maupassant was eleven and his brother Hervé was five, his mother, an independent-minded woman, risked social disgrace to obtain a legal separation from her husband. With the father’s absence, Maupassant’s mother became the most influential figure in the young boy’s life.
At age thirteen, he was sent to a small seminary near Rouen for classical studies, but he found the place unbearably dreary and yearned for home, finally getting himself expelled in his next-to-last year. He returned home to the influence of his mother, as well as her brilliant brother Alfred and his student and friend Gustave Flaubert. At age eighteen, Maupassant was enrolled at the Lycée de Rouen, and he began law studies soon afterward in Paris, only to have these studies interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War, for which he enlisted. After the war, he gained a position in the Naval Ministry, but under the tutelage of Flaubert he began to publish poetry and stories in various small journals. He also became part of a group of literary figures, including Alphonse Daudet, Émile Zola, and Ivan Turgenev, who met regularly at the home of Flaubert.
Maupassant’s first published story, “La Main d’écorché” (1875; “The Skinned Hand,” 1909), which was reworked in 1883 as simply “La Main” or “The Hand,” belongs to a tradition of supernatural short fiction that is as old as legend itself; in reworking the story, however, Maupassant grounded it in the revenge-tale tradition popularized by his countryman Prosper Mérimée and at the same time managed to make the story an ironic comment on supernatural fictions.
With the publication of “Boule de Suif” (1880; English translation, 1903), a tale which Flaubert praised extravagantly, Maupassant ceased working for the government and devoted himself to a career as a writer, excelling especially in the genre of the conte, or short story, which was quite popular at the time in periodical magazines and newspapers. Before achieving this initial success, however, Maupassant contracted syphilis, which was to take his life after a relatively brief writing career of ten years.
After the success of “Boule de Suif,” the touching story of the prostitute who reluctantly goes to bed with a Prussian officer in order to procure the release of her traveling companions, only to be scorned by them, 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” (1881; “Madame Tellier’s Establishment,” 1903), 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. These stories were reprinted in volumes containing other Maupassant stories. Many of his stories created much controversy among the French critics of the time because he dared to focus on the experiences of so-called lowlife characters.
In addition to the realistic stories of the lower classes, Maupassant 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 narrator’s obsessions.
After having published as many as sixty of Maupassant’s stories, the newspaper Gil-Blas began the serialization of his first novel, Une Vie (A Woman’s Life, 1888), in February, 1883, which was published in book form two months later. The year 1884 also saw the publication of Maupassant’s most famous short story and his most widely read novel. The story, “La Parure” (1884; “The Necklace,” 1903), 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, despite 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” is much more representative of his genius than this ironically plotted story about a woman who wasted her entire life working to pay back a lost necklace, only to discover that it was fake.
“Le Horla” (1887; “The Horla,” 1890), a story almost as famous as “The Necklace,” is often referred to as the first sign of the syphilis-caused madness that eventually led to Maupassant’s death. As a story of psychological horror, however, it is actually the pinnacle of several stories of madness with which Maupassant had previously experimented. 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 the result of 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—a process which is the very basis of hallucination. The story is too strongly controlled to be the work of a madman.
Moreover, those who argue that with the writing of “The Horla” Maupassant was already going mad cannot explain the fact that the following year he published the short novel Pierre et Jean (1888; Pierre and Jean, 1890), which is one of his best-conceived and best-executed works. This work was his last major contribution, however, for after its publication his intensive production of stories slowed almost to a halt, and he began to complain of migraine headaches, which made it impossible for him to write. His eyesight began to fail, his memory faded, and he began to suffer from delusions.
Just after the first of the year in 1892, Maupassant had to be taken to a sanatorium in a straitjacket after having slashed his own throat in a fit of what he himself called “an absolute case of madness.” In the sanatorium, he disintegrated rapidly until he died on July 6, 1893.
Guy de Maupassant is one of those writers whose contribution to literature is often overshadowed by the tragic facts of his life and whose unique experimentation is often ignored in favor of his more popular innovations. Too often it is his promiscuity and profligate Parisian lifestyle that receive 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 “The Horla” as a fit ending for one who not only wrote about prostitutes but also paid for their dangerous favors with his life. Yet 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, such writers as Bierce and O. Henry are scorned for their so-called cheap narrative tricks. Maupassant falls somewhere in between. On the one hand, he mastered the ability to create the tight, ironic story that depends, as all short stories do, on the impact of the ending. On the other hand, he 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 that 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 as did Chekhov, although in somewhat different ways. Yet, because such stories as “The Necklace” seem so deceptively simple and trivial, his experiment with the form has often been ignored.
Ignotus, Paul. The Paradox of Maupassant. London: University of London Press, 1966. A biographical and critical study that focuses much more on the unsavory aspects of Maupassant’s life than it does on the excellence of his fiction. Ignotus insists, with little evidence to support his arguments, that Maupassant was primarily driven by his sexual appetites, perversions, and immoralities.
Lerner, Michael G. Maupassant. New York: George Braziller, 1975. Primarily a biographical study, although discussion of the publication of Maupassant’s work is often accompanied by some brief discussion of how his novels and stories are influenced by and in turn reflect his own social milieu.
Steegmuller, Francis. A Lion in the Path. New York: Random House, 1949. Not only the best biographical study of Maupassant but also one of the most perceptive critical estimates of Maupassant’s works; it is the one indispensable book on Maupassant by an excellent biographer and critic who clearly understands the important role that Maupassant plays in the history of French literature.
Sullivan, Edward D. Maupassant: The Short Stories. Great Neck, N.Y.: Barron’s, 1962. Although little more than a pamphlet-length introduction to some of Maupassant’s basic themes and story types, this valuable study can serve to orient the reader to Maupassant’s contribution to the short-story form. Particularly helpful is Sullivan’s attempt to place Maupassant’s short stories within their proper generic tradition.
Sullivan, Edward D. Maupassant the Novelist. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1954. A study of the basic themes and technique of Maupassant’s novels, as well as an attempt to synthesize his aesthetic and critical ideas from his essays and newspaper articles. Sullivan admits that Maupassant was a “natural” short-story writer but argues that a study of his novels provides an opportunity to study Maupassant’s creative process.
Wallace, A. H. Guy de Maupassant. New York: Twayne, 1973. A conventional biographical and critical study that adds little to Steegmuller’s earlier work. Wallace focuses on Maupassant’s use of fictional themes and obsessions taken from his own life, primarily the cuckoldry of his father, the women in his life, and his madness.