Although Guy de Maupassant is not known as a master of the detective genre, many of his stories fall within the tradition of the mystery tale developed by Edgar Allan Poe. After beginning with the supernatural legend and the revenge tale, Maupassant created stories of madness and obsession and thus helped to develop the mystery tale from its focus on unknown forces existing outside the self to uncontrollable forces originating within the mind of man. Consequently, he was part of a larger movement that helped bring the short story as a genre into the twentieth century.
Maupassant’s mentor Flaubert encouraged the aspiring poet to turn to writing short stories, for the form was very popular at the time, and magazine publishers had been buying short tales since the 1860’s. Maupassant’s first published story, “La Main d’écorché” (“The Skinned Hand”), later 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 its 1883 reworking, however, Maupassant grounds it within the revenge-tale tradition popularized by his countryman Prosper Mérimée, while at the same time making the story an ironic comment on supernatural fictions. The narrator, a Corsican police magistrate quite familiar with cases of vendetta, revenge, murder, massacre, and hatred, tells of an Englishman living in Corsica who has a dried human hand mounted and chained on his wall. When the Englishman is found murdered, the hand is gone—but a finger is found between his teeth. Later, when the hand itself is found on the Englishman’s grave, as is usual with such supernatural stories, one of the fingers is missing. Although the narrator explains that perhaps the owner of the hand has come to exact revenge on the Englishman, his listeners are not satisfied with such a rational answer, preferring instead the more grisly supernatural one.
There are other stories of savage revenge and the supernatural in the Maupassant canon—such as “Une Vendetta” (“The Vendetta”), in which a Corsican widow teaches her dog to kill to exact a fearful vengeance on the murderer of her son, and “Apparition” (“The Specter”), in which a man confronts the ghost of a young woman who urges him to comb and braid her long hair. Nevertheless, the Maupassant stories that more properly belong within the tradition of the mystery tale are the group of short pieces focusing on madness, hallucination, and murder. The primary stories in this group are: “Fou?” (“Am I Insane?”), “Lui?” (“He?”), “La Peur” (“Fear”), “Un Fou” (“The Madman”), “Lettre d’un fou” (“Letter from a Madman”), and “The Horla.”
The predominant mode of these stories is not the manifestation of the ghostly supernatural in the traditional sense; instead, the stories focus on some mysterious dimension of reality existing beyond that which the human senses can perceive. Yet despite this realm of reality being justified rationally, the reader is never sure whether it truly exists “out there” in the world of the story or is a product of the obsessive mind of the narrator. The style of several of these tales is reminiscent of some of the works of Poe, particularly the stories of the perverse that combine narrative story line with narrator’s quasi-philosophical considerations of madness, murder, and the mysterious realm beyond the pale of ordinary understanding.
“Letter from a Madman”
The story that focuses most explicitly on this realm is “Letter from a Madman,” parts of which were used later in the more famous story “The Horla.” As told by the narrator to a doctor, the story unfolds a theory that the human mind receives only sparse and uncertain information about the external world because the limitations of the five senses restrict perception. The narrator argues, for example, that if humans had additional senses, they could perceive a reality that is closed to their present senses. From this assumption he tries to infer, rather than directly perceive, the mysterious, impenetrable world that lies all around. As a result, he believes himself to be in the presence of noncorporeal beings, although he does not actually have the sense organ that would make it possible for him to “see” them. Once, while sitting in front of a mirror, he could not see himself, for the invisible thing stood between him and the mirror and blocked his reflection. Since that time, he has spent hours before his mirror, going mad waiting for “It” to return, knowing that he will wait until death.
The story “He?” is similar to “Letter from a Madman” in its focus on some unseen but felt presence; it differs thematically, however, in that it emphasizes the appearances of the apparition as a result of the narrator’s loneliness, and it differs stylistically in that it features a more developed narrative with less discursive meditation. “He?” is very similar to stories by Poe that focus on the fear of fear itself and that emphasize the power of hallucination. The narrator acknowledges that he suffers from the disease of fear, an incomprehensible terror that causes him to fear the very madness or confusion of mind that constitutes the fear itself. He describes entering his room after a walk and seeing a man sitting in his chair before the fire. When he reaches out to touch him, there is nothing there. Although convinced that the figure was obviously a hallucination, he cannot shake the fear that it will appear again. Even though he knows that it does not exist except in his own apprehension, he cannot escape that apprehension. In both of these stories, it is the narrators’ own intense self-consciousness that constitutes their insanity; they push what they consider to be reasonable assumptions to such extremes that the inevitable result is madness—that is, the perception of a state of being that exists outside the normal everyday limits of human experience, perception, and thought.
“Am I Insane?”
In “Am I Insane?” and “The Madman,” Maupassant’s focus is on how an obsession becomes so powerful that it is translated into murderous action. In “Am I Insane?” the simpler of the two, the narrator loves a certain woman to madness. He also hates her passionately, however, for he knows that she is impure and without a soul; he intensely desires both to possess her and to kill her. When she tires of him, he becomes insanely jealous, determines that her horse (which she rides enraptured) is his rival, and executes it with a bullet to the brain before also killing his mistress. His madness is similar to the meaningful madness in many Poe stories; there is some basis for the narrator’s jealous obsession, both figuratively in the powerful male symbolism of the horse and literally in the narcissism and autoeroticism that the woman’s daily rides suggest.
In “The Madman,” Maupassant carries to extremes the concept of madness resulting from carrying a line of reasoning to its ultimate conclusions. The story consists of the journal entries of a dead judge who always seemed to know the secret hearts of criminals. Over and over again, he considers the pleasure there must be in killing. He justifies his obsession in long discursive passages in which he wonders why it is a crime to kill when killing is indeed the law of nature; inevitably, he puts his theories into action. Equating his desire to kill with the power of sexual passion, he describes in graphic detail, reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade, his murder of a young boy by strangulation and his killing of a fisherman by splitting his head open with a spade. After he sentences the fisherman’s nephew to death for the murder that he himself committed, he describes watching the boy’s head being chopped off and wishing that he could have bathed in the blood. Although the ostensible theme of the story is that many such madmen exist secretly in society, the predominating motif is the notion philosophically examined by Friedrich Nietzsche and fictionally explored by Fyodor Dostoevski that killing is the nearest thing to creation.
Of all the Maupassant tales that focus on madness, hallucination, obsession, and the mystery of a dimension beyond the senses, the most sustained and deservedly the most famous is “The Horla.” Although many critics point to the autobiographical elements in this story (for during its writing Maupassant was possessed by his increasing madness), others suggest that the work stands on its own merits as a masterpiece of psychological horror. 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 story begins with many of the same themes that Maupassant had earlier developed in “Letter from a Madman,” at times using much the same language as that story. The narrator begins considering the mystery of the invisible, the weakness of the senses to perceive everything in the world, and the theory that if there were other senses, one could discover many more things about the world around human life. The second predominant consideration 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; when he turns around, however, there is nothing there.
This sense of something existing outside the self but not visible to the ordinary senses is pushed even further when the narrator begins to believe that there are actual creatures who exist in this invisible dimension. This conviction is then developed into an idea that when the mind is asleep an alien being takes control of the body and makes it obey. These ideas then lead easily into the concept of mesmerism or hypnotism, for under hypnosis it seems as if an alien being has control of actions of which, when he is awake, he has no awareness. Although the narrator doubts his sanity, he also believes that he is in complete possession of all of his faculties; he becomes even more convinced that an invisible creature is making him do things over which his mind has no control. Thus, he finally believes that there are Invisible Ones in the world, creatures that have always existed and that have haunted humankind even though they cannot be seen.
The final event to convince him of the external, as opposed to the psychological, existence of the creatures, is a newspaper article about an epidemic of madness in Brazil in which people seem possessed by vampirelike creatures that feed on them during sleep. He remembers a Brazilian ship that sailed past his window and believes that one of the creatures has jumped ship to possess him. Now he knows that the reign of humankind on earth is over and that the forces of the Horla that mankind has always feared—forces called spirits, genies, fairies, hobgoblins, witches, devils, and imps—will enslave man.
Finally, in a scene taken from “Letter from a Madman,” he “sees” the creature in the mirror when its presence blurs his own image by coming between him and the mirror. He decides to destroy the creature by locking it in his room and burning his house to the ground. As he watches the house burn and realizes that his servants are inside, he wonders if indeed the Horla is dead, for he considers that it cannot, like humans, be prematurely destroyed. His final thought is that because the Horla is not dead he shall have to kill himself; the story ends with that decision.
“The Horla” becomes distinctive with the increasing need of the narrator to account for his madness as being something external to himself. This universalizes the story, for human beings have always tried to embody their most basic desires and fears in external but invisible presences called gods, devils, and spirits. “The Horla” is a masterpiece of hallucinatory horror because it focuses so powerfully on that process of mistaking inner reality for outer that is the very basis of hallucination.
Because of his ability to transform the short mystery tale from a primitive oral form based on legend into a sophisticated modern one in which the mystery originates within the complex mind of man, Maupassant is an important figure in marking the transition between the nineteenth century tale of the supernatural and the twentieth century short story of psychological obsession.