Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1303
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 unction. When he arrives, it is too late, but he sees that the dead woman is none other than Clarimonde. Fr. Sérapion tries to exorcize the demon from his friend’s mind by digging up the grave of the long-deceased Clarimonde, forcing Fr. Romuald to view her earthly remains. Like the narrator in “Omphale,” Fr. Romuald does not know what to think. He cannot decide whether Clarimonde is a female devil or whether he is suffering severe delusions. Once again, Gautier never answers this question. These two short stories are classic works of fantastic literature because the reader never knows whether the explanation for these strange occurrences is real or supernatural.
“One of Cleopatra’s Nights”
Gautier’s 1838 short story “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” also deals with obsessive love. Gautier describes Cleopatra as bored with her existence. She does enjoy throwing elaborate feasts and boating down the Nile River in her elegant ships, but she senses the need for new adventures to alleviate her boredom. Because of her reputation for great beauty, Cleopatra inspires passion even in men whom she has never met. Such a man is a commoner named Meiamoun. He risks his life to swim toward her boat. Gautier describes Cleopatra as capricious and cruel. She wants men to pay attention to her, but if any uninvited man dares to approach her, he is put to death. When Meiamoun is brought into her presence, she decides to toy with him. She spares his life temporarily and offers to throw an exquisite party in his honor. She mentions in passing, however, the he will exchange his life for one night of pleasure. Meiamoun does not believe that Cleopatra is serious, but it soon becomes clear to Gautier’s readers that her intention is to poison him the next morning. Gautier describes in great style the details of the orgy organized by Cleopatra for Meiamoun. He stresses repeatedly that the French language is not sufficient to express the luxuriousness of this feast. The narrator disparagingly compares the feast to an orgy, in which grotesque and thus culturally strange dances are performed by Cleopatra’s slaves. Through his narrator, Gautier distances himself from ancient Egyptian culture and portrays Cleopatra as a lascivious and rather sadistic person, who enjoys seeing Meiamoun enjoy ephemeral pleasures before she poisons him. When Marc Anthony enters and asks her why there is a dead man on the floor, she calmly answers that it is nothing more than an experiment designed to test the effectiveness of a newly created poison, which she planned to use on herself if Caesar Augustus tried to limit her freedom. There are several levels of irony in the ending of this short story. Cleopatra seems to the reader an extremely unsympathetic character, who takes pleasure in misleading Meiamoun, but her reference to her suicide reminds us that she did, in fact, take her own life, albeit not with poison.
Like “One of Cleopatra’s Nights,” Gautier’s 1844’s short story “King Candaules” also deals with an oriental theme. King Candaules married an exquisitely beautiful woman named Nyssia who refused to reveal anything other than her eyes in the presence of any man other than her husband. Nyssia explains very calmly to her husband that it is a tradition in her country for married women to be exceedingly modest. She is totally faithful to her marriage vows, and she hopes that her new husband will respect her wishes. King Candaules, however, views his wife as a sexual object, whose physical beauty he wants other men to admire as well. His desire is to discuss his wife’s physical beauty with another man. He orders a servant named Gyges to hide behind a wall in their bedroom, and Candaules cuts a small hole in the wall so that Gyges can observe the disrobing of Nyssia. The description of this scene is highly voyeuristic, and Gautier suggests that Gyges becomes sexually aroused as he views Nyssia’s naked body. Nyssia spots the small opening in the wall, and she feels defiled. She keeps quiet and plans her revenge. The very next day she calls Gyges into her apartment and gives him a choice. Either she will have Gyges killed, or he will kill Candaules. Gyges decides to save his own life, and he kills Candaules. Thanks to the efforts of Nyssia, the palace guards are persuaded to turn their allegiance to Gyges, who becomes the new king. “King Candaules” is a rather violent short story, but it does depict a powerful and resourceful woman who refuses to allow men to treat her as a sexual object.
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