Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The story unfolds in a series of journal entries written by an anonymous narrator. Over four months, the narrator recounts his growing uneasiness over strange incidents occurring in his country house near Rouen, France. It is apparent that he is a man of considerable wealth. He mentions having several servants, he refers to an idyllic childhood in a large country home, and he enjoys a life of leisure throughout his narrative.
On the evening of May 8, the narrator is delighted to see a Brazilian ship sailing down the Seine. In the days that follow, however, he finds himself afflicted with a strange sense of malaise. He suffers from a slight fever and becomes increasingly depressed. He is convinced that he is facing some unknown misfortune, and his condition worsens whenever he walks along the river or as night approaches. The local doctor who cares for him cannot find a physical reason for his malady.
Soon the narrator reports that he is having nightmares. He dreams that an invisible creature approaches him as he sleeps and tries to strangle him. Each time he has this dream, he awakens in a cold sweat, only to find that he is alone and that his door is still locked. In despair, he leaves his country home and spends several days at Mont Saint-Michel. While he is there, his malady appears to vanish entirely, so he returns to his country estate believing himself cured. Almost immediately, however, both his illness and his nightmares return....
(The entire section is 731 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Horla,” a story almost as famous as “The Necklace,” is often considered 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 experimented previously. The predominant mode of these stories is not the manifestation of the ghostly supernatural in the traditional sense; rather, the focus is on some mysterious dimension of reality that exists beyond what the human senses can perceive.
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 narrator begins considering the mystery of the invisible, the weakness of the senses to perceive all that is in the world, and the theory that if there were other senses, one could discover many more things about the reality that surrounds human life. Another 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.
This sense of something existing outside the self but not visible to the ordinary...
(The entire section is 688 words.)