Théophile Gautier’s short fiction can be divided into two general categories: fantastic stories and stories dealing with Egypt and the Middle East. Thanks to the work of Jean-François Champollion, who deciphered the Rosetta Stone, ancient Egyptian culture became very popular and this explains Gautier’s choice of ancient Egypt as the locale for his short stories “Une Nuit de Cléopâtre” (“One of Cleopatra’s Nights”) and “Le Roi Candaule” (“King Candaules”).
Gautier’s other major contribution to short fiction was his creative use of fantastic elements. The term “fantastic literature” may have two different meanings. It may refer to seemingly incomprehensible occurrences for which a logical explanation is given at the end of a short story. The term may also refer to occurrences for which no logical explanation exists or is given by the writer.
“Omphale” is a first-person narrative told by a man who lived during his adolescence in a dilapidated house in Paris. The narrator clearly remembers that a rococo tapestry in his bedroom depicted Hercules and his lover Omphale. One night, possibly during a dream, the narrator sees Omphale leave her tapestry to talk with him. She explains to him that she was the Marquise of T***, who had married one of the narrator’s ancestors. The ancestor had an artist depict his wife as Omphale and him as Hercules in the tapestry. The second night the marquise returns, goes to the narrator’s bed, and begins to seduce the adolescent, who is afraid that the deceased marquis will be jealous. The attention and caresses from Omphale bring the seventeen-year-old much pleasure. Gautier never makes it clear whether this is a sexual fantasy or a supernatural appearance by a dead woman. After the death of his uncle, the tapestry is sold and the aged narrator expresses the tongue-in-cheek regret that he is now too old for attractive women to leave tapestries and caress him in bed.
“The Beautiful Vampire”
As in “Omphale,” the mystery in Gautier’s 1836 short story “La Morte amoureuse” (“The Beautiful Vampire”) is never resolved. Neither Gautier nor his first-person narrator Fr. Romuald try to explain whether Fr. Romuald’s obsession with Clarimonde is caused by delusions or whether Clarimonde is a female demon who tried to take over Fr. Romuald’s mind. As this first-person narrative begins, the sixty-six-year old Fr. Romuald is telling a friend about a series of very disturbing events of forty years earlier, which he still does not understand. As a young seminarian, his sole desire was to become a priest and serve God. During his ordination ceremony, however, he inadvertently looked away from the altar and toward the worshipers. He saw a beautiful and mysterious woman. This was a life-changing experience for him. His friend Fr. Sérapion is very perceptive, and he begins to realize what has happened. He warns him that Clarimonde is a devil whose goal is to lead him into a life of sin and to cause him to lose his immortal soul. One day Fr. Romuald is asked to go the house of a dying woman so that she can receive the sacrament of extreme...
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