Last Updated on May 16, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2042
Maupassant occupies an ambiguous place in the history of modern literature. On the one hand, his short fiction has been disparaged as, at its best, mere trickery, and at its worst, probable pornography. O. Henry, who was highly influenced by Maupassant, bridled at comparisons with Maupassant, saying he did not wish to be compared with a “filthy writer.” On the other hand, the Russian short-story writer Isaac Babel gladly acknowledged his debt to Maupassant by devoting one of his best short stories to him, acknowledging that Maupassant knew the power of a period put in just the right place. At the end of the nineteenth century, only Anton Chekhov loomed larger than Maupassant as a powerful influence on the short-story form. In fact, British short-story writer A. E. Coppard once said that if he ever edited a collection of stories, it would be an easy job, for half would be by Chekhov and half by Maupassant.
In the range of short-fiction subtypes, it is obvious that Maupassant’s work falls on the side of the patterned anecdote, while Chekhov’s work is more impressionistic and lyrical. Whereas Chekhov’s stylized realism has influenced such twentieth century writers as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and Raymond Carver, Maupassant has influenced the work of such short-story masters as Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Bernard Malamud. Maupassant falls somewhere in between writers such as Ivan Turgenev and Chekhov, who are admired for their lyricism and realism, and writers such as Ambrose Bierce and O. Henry, who are scorned for what are called narrative tricks. On the one hand, he had the ability, like Chekhov, to focus in a highly perceptive way on a small group of characters in a meaningful and revealing situation; on the other hand, like Bierce, he was able to create tight little ironic masterpieces that depend, as all short stories do, on the impact of a luminous ending. Maupassant perfected the technique originated by Edgar Allan Poe, and continued by modern short-story writers as seemingly diverse as Hemingway and Malamud, of creating a fictional realm in which everyday reality takes on a hallucinatory effect and hallucination assumes the concreteness of the physical world. It is unfortunate that, like his predecessor Poe, his lifestyle often receives more attention than his work.
“Madame Tellier’s Establishment”
First published: “La Maison Tellier,” 1881 (collected in The Necklace, and Other Tales, 2003)
Type of work: Short story
A group of prostitutes attend the First Communion of the Madame’s niece in a small French village and are welcomed as if they are fine ladies.
“Madame Tellier’s Establishment” (sometimes translated as “Madame Tellier’s House”) is often called Maupassant’s masterpiece, although it is not as generally well known as his ironic-ending story “La Parure” (“The Necklace”) or his psychological thriller “Le Horla (“The Horla”). Written while he was still under the influence of his mentor Gustave Flaubert, the story is unlike his later works in that it depends more on realistic detail and detached comic tone than on anecdote and narrative irony. The story begins with a brief portrait of Madame Tellier, who, although she keeps a house of prostitution, is herself quite virtuous. The girls in the house are described as the epitome of each feminine type so that each customer might find the realization of his ideal: the country girl blond, the mysterious Jewess, the plump “ball of fat,” and two others representing the classic French and the classic Spanish woman.
The central event of the story is a simple one. The Madame is invited to the First Communion of her little niece, and since she cannot...
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leave her frequently quarreling girls alone, she closes the brothel and takes them all to the country with her. The arrival of the prostitutes in the small town is a classic comic scene as they march down the street in their flashy elegance while the townspeople peek out their windows in amazement. It is the scene in the church during the communion, however, that constitutes the center of the story. Remembering their own communions, the prostitutes begin to cry. Soon, throughout the church, wives, mothers, and sisters are struck by a pervasive sympathy, and everyone begins to cry. Something superhuman pervades the church, a “powerful breath of an invisible and all-powerful being.” It is as though the Holy Spirit has visited the occupants of the modest country church, a “species of madness” that passes over the people like a gust of wind. Thus, a more general communion than that of the niece is effected, and all are united in harmony and peace.
At the end of the story, the prostitutes return to Madame Tellier’s house and to their lives there, not with a sense of guilt but with a sense of having had a holiday that makes it possible for them to return to work refreshed and rested. The quarrels that formerly plagued the house no longer exist, for a true sisterhood is affirmed. Only Maupassant could carry off such a potentially sentimental situation as the whores crying in church about their lost innocence and not have it lapse into banal sentimentality. It is his genuine identification with the prostitutes, his refusal to reduce them to objects of either pity or ridicule, and his consequent elevation of them, with no hint of sarcasm, to the rank of true ladies that makes the story a masterpiece of comic realism.
First published: “La Parure,” 1884 (collected in The Necklace, and Other Tales, 2003)
Type of work: Short story
A young woman loses a borrowed necklace, works for ten years to pay for it, and then discovers that it was made of paste.
What makes Maupassant’s famous story “The Necklace” so popular is not merely the ironic shock that the reader feels at the end when Madame Loisel discovers that she has worked long and hard to pay for a worthless bit of paste, but rather the more pervasive irony that underlies the entire story and makes it a classic exploration on the difference between surface flash and hidden value.
The story begins with a pretty young girl who thinks she is really a lady and feels that she needs only the external trappings of her true status. Although she is married to a simple clerk, she acts as though she has fallen from her proper station; she feels that she was born for luxuries but must endure poverty. Determined to make the best of an opportunity when she and her husband are invited to an elegant party, she borrows a necklace from an acquaintance to impress those not easily impressed and, like Cinderella at the ball, has all of her desires fulfilled as she is transported into the fairy-tale world about which she has dreamed. All of this comes crashing down to reality, however, when she reaches home and discovers that the necklace is missing. Her husband exhausts his meager inheritance and then borrows the rest, mortgaging their life away to buy a replacement for the necklace.
Now that Madame Loisel knows true poverty, she shows herself to be made of something more valuable than her petty desires for surface flash have suggested. With heroism and pride, she shoulders her responsibility with her husband and for ten years does brutal manual labor until she has paid for the necklace. When the reader discovers that the necklace was made of paste, it is a momentary shock; on closer reflection, this final knowledge proves to be anticlimactic, for one realizes that the story is about deeper ironies. What was taken to be real is found to be false. What looked rich on the outside is actually very poor. Yet Madame Loisel, who has looked poor on the outside, turns out to be genuine inside. “The Necklace” is a classic example of the tight ironic structure of the short story in which the unified tone dominates every single word.
First published: “Le Horla,” 1887 (collected in The Necklace, and Other Tales, 2003)
Type of work: Short story
A man slowly goes mad as he is seemingly possessed by an occult external force.
“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 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. All of these ideas lead easily into the concept of mesmerism or hypnotism; under hypnosis, it seems as if an alien being has control of an individual’s actions, of which, upon awakening, he or she has no awareness. Although the narrator doubts his sanity, he also feels that he is in complete possession of all of his faculties, and he becomes even more convinced that an invisible creature is making him do things that his own mind does not direct him to do. Thus, he finally believes that there are Invisible Ones in the world, creatures who have always existed and who have haunted humankind even though they cannot be seen.
The final event that persuades 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 vampire-like 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 humanity on earth is over and that the forces of the Horla, which humankind has always feared—forces called spirits, jinn, fairies, hobgoblins, witches, devils, and imps—will enslave the world.
Finally, 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 burning too, he wonders if indeed the Horla is dead, for he considers that it cannot, like a human being, be prematurely destroyed. His final thought is that, since the Horla is not dead, he will have to kill himself; the story ends with that decision.
What makes “The Horla” distinctive is the increasing need of the narrator to account for his madness as being caused by 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, which is indeed the very basis of hallucination.