Gautier, Théophile 1811-1872
French poet, novelist, short story and novella writer, critic, travel writer, and dramatist.
One of the best-known and most highly respected literary personalities in France in the nineteenth century, Gautier is noted for his fantastic stories and novellas that portray protagonists searching for an ideal. Critics commend his experimental style, which blends genres while incorporating various narrative modes, irony, and a mix of humor and seriousness.
Gautier was born in Tarbes in southwestern France. His family moved to Paris when he was three, and he lived there for the rest of his life. As a student at the Collége Charlemagne, he met and developed a lifelong friendship with the novelist Gérard de Nerval, who would introduce Gautier to Victor Hugo, an association that would greatly influence his work. During this time, Gautier began painting and writing in a variety of genres. Although a prolific and well-respected author, Gautier turned to journalism in order to financially support his family and mistresses. His theater and art columns in Presse and Moniteur universel established him among the most influential critics of the period. Among the writers of his time, Gautier counted as friends Hugo, Nerval, Heinrich Heine, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Charles Baudelaire. Beset by physical trials, financial problems, professional uncertainties, and domestic displacements, Gautier died in 1872.
Major Works of Short Fiction
From the earliest narratives to the works written near the end of his career, Gautier's fiction is marked by the portrayal of protagonists in search of an ideal, the realization of which, they believe, will bring them supreme happiness. In the earlier works the desired good is an ideal of perfect beauty to be enjoyed in the here and now. For example, in "La morte amoureuse" a young priest is drawn to the courtesan Clarimonde not only for her dazzling physical beauty but also for everything around her—splendid clothing, opulent surroundings, and a lavish lifestyle. He subsequently discovers his love to be a female vampire, yet finds it difficult to extricate himself from the relationship. In Gautier's later fiction the focus shifts to an ideal of beauty belonging to a distant past, which can be enjoyed only in metaphysical realms such as the imagination or dreams. In his novella Spirite, the protagonist Malivert is visited by the spirit of a dead woman who had loved him in life but failed to profess her feelings. Malivert eventually finds happiness by breaking with the real world and existing in the spiritual, transcendental domain.
Praised for the innovative aspects of his writing, Gautier is credited with stretching the bounds of dark comedy with his experimental narrative forms, for example where he interweaves epistolary form with dialogue in order to tell a story. Commentators note his inclusion of copious references to diverse literary works, events and personages throughout history, characters and stories from mythology and folklore, and painters, sculptors, and works of art from diverse ages and lands. Yet it is Gautier's concentration on beauty, and his protagonists' quests for it, that has spurred much critical appreciation and debate and remains the defining characteristic of his fiction.