Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Short stories of the Romantic period generally demonstrate one of two contrasting qualities: realism or a preoccupation with fantasy and the supernatural. Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla” skillfully unites both qualities. The tale begins realistically enough with the narrator’s account of his stay at a country house and an almost clinical description of his illness. Only gradually does fantasy begin to intrude on this realistic environment. Maupassant’s combination of objectivity and horror thus make “The Horla” unusual in the canon of his works. Heavily influenced by the realistic novels of his mentor Gustave Flaubert, Maupassant is best known for stories of social criticism and portrayals of peasant life in Normandy. “The Horla” differs substantially from these stories. Falling midway between the genuine horror of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and the psychological horror of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), “The Horla” combines realism and terror in a manner uncommon in Romantic literature.

The central theme of “The Horla” is well expressed in a statement made by William Shakespeare’s character Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Maupassant’s narrator first appears as a confirmed skeptic, dismissing the legend of a ghost near Mont Saint-Michel and refusing to believe in hypnosis. By the end of the story, however, he becomes...

(The entire section is 423 words.)