Guy de Maupassant is a writer for whom the states of mind of his characters are sometimes very important, whether they are apprehended from the outside or the inside of the character concerned. To consider this point today, I would like to contrast two stories from Selected Tales of Guy de Maupassant which, though very different in nature, both show how adversely characters can be affected by negative or excited states of mind. The first is “The Horla,” often interpreted as a simple ghost story about possession, and the second is “The Piece of String,” one of de Maupassant’s citizen peasant stories.
In both cases, the main characters are obsessed, but in different ways. “The Horla” is written in the form of diary entries in the first-person by an unnamed person in comfortable circumstances with his own home and servants, and is thus subjective in form. “The Piece of String” is told in the objective third-person voice about an unfortunate citizen peasant, M. Hauchecome, and what results from an encounter he has with an old enemy, M. Malandain. Both main characters in both stories become obsessed by coincidences; in the first case (the unnamed diarist), these coincidences are things such as having seen a ship coming from Brazil in the harbor on the very day he becomes ill with “melancholy,” having read an article about a supposed vampire from Brazil, having watched a “doctor” hypnotize his cousin, and having a male servant in his absence fall ill from the illness which he himself seems free of as long as he is not at home. Each and all of these things can be explained away, but the character takes them all together and concludes that he is more or less possessed by a demon spirit. M. Hauchecome in “The Piece of String” starts out with a much simpler obsession: he sees a piece of string in the street and due to his being “economical like a true Norman,” perhaps another sort of obsession, must bend and retrieve it. His enemy M. Malandain, seeing him, and either hearing fortuitously of a missing pocketbook or just spreading gossip before the fact, sets it about that M. Hauchecome has found the pocketbook and not returned it. The obsession of the writing character in “The Horla” is one for which there is no visible outside objective cause easily observable by others. In “The Piece of String,” though there is only a preexisting interior conflict between the main character and his chief enemy to start with, it is a real objective situation with real legal consequences which comes about.
The two main characters both suffer from obsession, it is true, but in the case of the aristocratic diarist, he diagnoses himself as suffering from “melancholy” at a time when melancholy was a general term for almost any kind of mental illness other than mania, no matter how simple or how severe. In some manifestations, it was simply a sort of hobby for upperclass people just as minor psychological traumas are today, in other cases it was quite serious and was treated in the asylums of the time by doctors other than medical doctors. It could range from mild depression to depression plus psychotic episodes. The character is wealthy, apparently has nothing much to amuse himself with, spends a lot of time alone by himself in the surrounding landscape brooding, and is thus in one sense “asking for it,” assuming that is, that one takes this as a purely psychological story. But it also has key features of a good rousing vampire story complete with ghostly elements, much as the story of the governess in Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” did. People have argued over James’s story for a very long time as well, some arguing that it is a ghost story plain and simple, others insisting that the governess was a hysteric. By contrast, in the story “The Piece of String,” the events are shown from an objective point of view as a simple obsession which entirely takes over a man’s mind due to external circumstances which are real to start out with. In this case the results are brought on by the deliberate connivance of an enemy and disbelief of the other townspeople in M. Hauchecome’s honesty. The obsession, however, causes him to go into what used to be known as a “decline,” an illness usually reserved in fiction for aristocrats and wealthy people, in this case suffered by a citizen peasant with a peculiar inability to let well enough alone.
In M. Hauchecome’s case, his isolated social status as an apparently unmarried citizen peasant is such that his final demise affects mostly himself. Again, though it is brought on at first largely by the ribbing of others about his dishonesty, the real irony in the case is that he is painfully aware that he is intrinsically dishonest and cunning enough to have done what they insist he did, though this one time he happens to be innocent. In the case of the unnamed wealthy diarist, his social status, though he is isolated sometimes at home by his own choice, is one in which his final dissolution of sanity affects his servants as well. Other people die because of his obsession, part or all of which may be a vampire, or part or all of which may be due to hypnotism or hallucination. He himself at first verges toward hypnosis as an explanation before becoming totally taken up totally supernatural answers–but because we see this all from within the orbit of his own mind, we don’t finally know which it is.
Thus, though Maupassant is too good a story-teller to engage in many outright “morals to the stories,” one thing he seems to be quite determined to communicate, whether in the lighter handling of “The Piece of String” or in the more solemn and spooky atmosphere of “The Horla,” is that obsession is not only an unhealthy state in and of itself, but it can also prevent one from seeking adequate terms in which to combat oppression, whether by a ghost or by a doubtful populace. The diarist does most of what he does in order to convince himself that he is sane, yet also seems to be trying to persuade himself at the same time that he “sees” a vampire; the citizen peasant, instead of returning cunning for cunning and trying to think of a way out of the dilemma his enemy caused him, instead allows himself to be put in the much weaker position of protesting vociferously to one and all on every occasion (even that of his own death) that he is innocent. If there is a “message” to these two stories, it is perhaps this one: obsession can visit both high and low status people, without regard for person or circumstances, and if persisted in leads to extremely negative consequences for someone. Taking it thus with a grain of salt, whether by shaking one’s head ruefully at the diarist (or perhaps looking over one’s shoulder to make sure there are no invisible vampires about!) or by laughing with and at the peasants is often the best we can do when confronted with such lapses of luck and judgement.