Théophile Gautier Gautier, Théophile (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Les Jeunes-France, romans gouenards [The Young-France, Stories in a Jesting Manner] (satire) 1833

L'Eldorado (novella) 1837; also published as Fortunio, 1838

Nouvelles (novellas) 1845

*Un trio de romans (novels and novellas) 1852

Avatar (short novel) 1857

Jettatura (short novel) 1857

Romans et contes (novels and short stories) 1857

Le roman de la momie [The Romance of the Mummy] (short novel) 1858

Spinte, nouvelle fantastique (novella) 1866

Contes fantastiques (short stories) 1962

*This volume contains "Arria Marcella."

Other Major Works

Poésies (poetry) 1830

Albertus (poetry) 1833

Mademoiselle de Maupin (novel) 1835-36

La comédie de la mort (poetry) 1838

Une larme du diable [A Tear Shed by the Devil] (drama) 1839

Giselle, ou les Wilis [with Vernoy de Saint-Georges] (ballet scenario) 1841

Tra los montes (travel essay) 1843; also published as Voyage en Espagne, 1845

Les grotesques (criticism) 1844

Zigzags (travel essays) 1845; also published as Caprices et zigzags (enlarged edition) 1852

Emaux et camées (poetry) 1852

Italia (travel essay) 1852; also published as Voyage en Italie (enlarged edition) 1875

Constantinople (travel essay) 1853

Les beaux-arts en Europe (criticism) 1855

Historie de l'art dramatique en France depuis vingt-cinq ans (criticism) 1858-59

Le Capitane Fracasse (novel) 1863

Voyage en Russie (travel essay) 1867

The Works of Théophile Gautier. 24 vols. (novels, short stories, travel essays, criticism, drama, novellas, and poetry) 1900-03

The Romantic Ballet (criticism) 1908

Poésies complètes. 3 vols. (poetry) 1962

Frédérick César de Sumichrast (essay date 1903)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Théophile Gautier, Colorist," in The Critic, New York, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, July, 1903, pp. 47-50.

[In the following excerpt, Sumichrast underscores the importance of beauty in Gautier's short stories.]

In the happy youth of Romanticism, Gautier, like many another enthusiast, madly worshipped those painters in whom the gift of color oft outweighed the sense of form. He was an adorer of the most glowing palettes, and the Venetians on the one hand and Rubens on the other won his constant praise. It so happened that the Museum of the Louvre was well provided with masterpieces of the one and the other school, and there it was that Gautier made his first acquaintance with the beauty and splendor of color that, it must be owned, was sadly lacking in the works of the school of David and his successors.

Then, though he was later on to become one of the most persistent globetrotters that France has ever turned out, he had not begun to travel when he felt the fascination of Rubens. That charm he has described time and again in his various articles and books; it held him fast; it compelled him to a quest as important in his eyes, at that time, as that of Jason or Sir Galahad. So he started for Belgium in the belief that it was a land filled to overflowing with splendid creatures golden-haired, blue-eyed, and voluptuously formed. "The notion," he says in his account of the trip, "came into my mind in the Louvre Museum, as I was walking through the Rubens Gallery. The sight of his handsome women, with full forms, of those lovely and healthy bodies, of those mountains of rosy flesh with their wealth of golden hair, filled me with the desire to compare them with their living prototypes. .. . I was on my way to the North in quest of the fair-haired female."

On that trip the one and only Rubens he beheld was "a stout kitchen-wench, with huge hips and amazingly large breasts, who was quietly sweeping the gutter, never for an instant suspecting that she constituted a most authentic Rubens. This find aroused in me hopes that proved subsequently absolutely deceitful."

It is on this disappointing experience that Gautier built up the pretty tale of "The Fleece of Gold" (1839), in which the hero is, naturally enough, a painter in search of just the same rarity, and, like Gautier, finds one specimen only. To have made the heroine of the tale a mere blowsy kitchen-wench would not, however, have suited the author's temperament. Gautier above all things was an artist, a lover of the Beautiful in its most refined and most exquisite form; quite capable, therefore, of idealizing the somewhat gross type he had come upon in Valenciennes into the ethereal and delicate maiden engaged in the congenial and appropriate occupation of making lace instead of sweeping the gutter. Beyond this, [the] real object of ["The Fleece of Gold"] is to afford opportunity for the writer to talk upon art, and Rubens in particular; to develop his views upon color in painting, and to indulge his taste for the description of a quaint old place such as Antwerp has not altogether ceased to be. The love story is merely subordinate to this principal purpose, just as at times in Balzac's novels one wonders whether the conflict of human passions and greed has not been introduced merely as a sop to a reader whom the prolonged...

(The entire section is 1383 words.)

Albert J. George (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Second Generation," in Short Fiction in France, 1800-1850, Syracuse University Press, 1964, pp. 166-204.

[In the following excerpt, George offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Gautier's short fiction, maintaining that he "stands forth as one of the earliest to construct a formal short story. "]

The petits romantiques, the second generation of romantics, boasted fewer distinguished names than the original group, but they made up for this lack in devotion to a cause. Their faith in their destiny flamed even higher than that of the founders of the movement; they developed an overpowering sense of the sanctity of their mission. Tragically, most...

(The entire section is 8079 words.)

Albert B. Smith (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Changing Ideal in Two of Gautier's Fictional Narratives," in The Romanic Review, Vol. LX, No. 3, October, 1969, pp. 168-73.

Between 1831 and 1865 Gautier published more than a dozen narratives—short stories, novelettes, and novels—which treat different aspects of the quest of an ideal. Taken in their chronological order, these narratives show that over the years Gautier's concept of the ideal changed radically. The change is reflected most clearly in motifs which recur in stories written several years apart. For example, the same two motifs are integral elements in both "La Morte amoureuse" and "Arria Marcella." It is my intention here, by comparing these motifs and the...

(The entire section is 2373 words.)

Albert B. Smith (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Summary and Conclusion," in Ideal and Reality in the Fictional Narratives of Theophile Gautier, University of Florida Press, 1969, pp. 49-58.

[In the following essay, Smith examines the changing ideal in Gautier's short stories and discusses the autobiographical aspects of his work.]

Study of Gautier's narratives shows that the character of the ideal which his heroes posit as a potential source of happiness changes gradually but radically from the early to the later works. The evolution which takes place is visible in the heroines, who either symbolize a given ideal or, as in the case of Lavinia, reside in the ideal milieu and thus are able to describe its...

(The entire section is 2096 words.)

Harry Cockerham (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gautier: From Hallucination to Supernatural Vision," in Yale French Studies, No. 50, 1974, pp. 42-53.

[In the following essay, Cockerham discounts the notion that Gautier relied on drugs or alcohol for creative inspiration.]

"I am like the hippopotamus" [Gautier wrote in Poésies complètes, edited by René Jasinski, 1932]: The legend of his insensitivity, which Gautier seems at times almost to have willed into existence, has been, over the past twenty-five years, if not buried, then at least brought under control. The "threader of pearls" is now credited with imagination, perhaps even with vision, and in the course of the slow revaluation of his work,...

(The entire section is 3810 words.)

Richard B. Grant (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gautier the Storyteller," in Théophile Gautier, Twayne Publishers, 1975, pp. 107-32.

[Grant is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he discusses the defining characteristics of Gautier's "Oriental" stories, asserting that they stem from a "desire to escape from daily reality into ancient cultures endowed with finer esthetic sensibilities and a greater degree of permanence than modern bourgeois France."]

Viewed as a whole, Gautier's contes and nouvelles fall roughly into two groups. One consists of tales of the fantastic, the other of evocations of exotic Oriental splendor. We shall deal with the latter. . . . The Oriental...

(The entire section is 4182 words.)

Rae Beth Gordon (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Le Merveilleux scientifique and the Fantastic," in L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 9-22.

[In the following essay, Gordon investigates the influence of nineteenth-century psychiatric theories on Gautier's short fiction.]

The title of my essay might have been: "Qu'est-ce qui fait travailler l'Imaginaire des lecteurs parisiens du XIXe siècle?" I believe an evolution, both in the themes/exploration of the unconscious and in the production of the effects that make up the Fantastic can be traced through the study of the psychiatric theories and nosography of the nineteenth century. In what measure did authors have recourse...

(The entire section is 5147 words.)

Grant Crichfield (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fantasmagoria and Optics in Théophile Gautier's 'Arria Marcella'," in The Shape of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Seventh International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, edited by Olena H. Saciuk, Greenwood Press, 1990, pp. 85-92.

[In the following essay, Crichfield explores how the scientific acceptance of optical illusion propelled its use as a literary device in Gautier's "Arria Marcella. "]

Recent scholarship on nineteenth-century French literature, and on the fantastic specifically, has increasingly turned its attention to the relevance of the relationships between scopic pulsions and literary illusion. In La Fantasmagorie: Essai sur...

(The entire section is 3132 words.)

Joseph Andriano (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: '"Animated Corse': Archetypal Travesties in Three Gothic Tales," in Our Ladies of Darkness: Feminine Daemonology in Male Gothic Fiction, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993, pp. 69-90.

[In the following excerpt, Andriano explores psychodynamic aspects of Gautier's "Le morte amoureuse, " contending that the female demon, Clarimonde, is a manifestation of Romuald's troubled unconscious.]

The demonic feminine in Romantic and Modern fiction is often manifest in the gruesome figure of the animated corpse. Even when the apparition is a ghost or an automaton, authors often allude to the idea of an "animated corse" (as M. G. Lewis called his Bleeding Nun) or...

(The entire section is 4153 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Richardson, Joanna. Théophile Gautier: His Life and Times. London: Max Reinhardt, 1958, 335 p.

Considered the definitive English biography of Gautier.


Dillingham, Louise Bulkley. The Creative Imagination of Théophile Gautier. Princeton, N.J., and Albany, N.Y.: Psychological Review Co., 1927, 356 p.

Presents Gautier as a transitional figure between naturalism and early romanticism.

Giraud, Raymond. "Gautier's Dehumanization of Art."

L'Esprit Createur III, No. 1 (Spring 1963): 3-9.

Contends that Gautier's "Art for Art's...

(The entire section is 196 words.)