Guy de Maupassant and obsessive states of mind

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.


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

8 responses to “Guy de Maupassant and obsessive states of mind

  1. We Australians have come up with a mindset that seems quite like your interpretation of Maupassant’s message. Whenever it seems like someone is wallowing in their grievances, which isn’t caused by a death, we tell them to “Suck it up, princess”.

    It seems people of higher social status get depressed from the reliance on money to buy happiness for them, as jealousy divides them from others who do not have as much. For those of lower social status, they get depressed from the ‘grass is greener’ observance of others with more than them. Basically, it seems to all come back to money and its allocating of social status.

    I am interested in your description of an ‘outright moral to the story’. If there is a good character, there has to be a moral to the story because it defines their goodness?


    • That’s an interesting point you make about goodness and having a moral to the story, yet de Maupassant seems simply to state (without much illustration) that his characters are wise or foolish, virtuous or not, and most often every character is foolish or at least short-sighted in some way. For some reason, his “messages” to his stories come out sounding more like some witticism of La Rochefoucauld’s than a real endorsement of goodness. That is, the good characters, on the rare occasions when I’ve seen them labelled as simply “good,” don’t necessarily get things their way. Think of this saying of La Rochefoucauld: “There is always something in the misfortune of our best friends which does not entirely displease us.” This sort of witty cynicism is often behind some at least of the stories of de Maupassant.


      • The aim of letting the reader/viewer judge if the end result justifies one’s actions is definitely much more prevalent these days in any good drama. It needs to be so because not everyone walks the same path in getting to the final destination. And if a person is pure good, people do not like that because no-one believes it is humanly possible.

        My current favourite ‘good bad guy’ is Tyrion Lannister in the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series by George R.R. Martin. The story world is black hole dark, and many of his actions are as questionable as the most evil characters, yet his motivations and backstory make him likeable compared to everyone else in his family.


      • Yes, I think you’re right that often what is good is a matter of comparison with what is far worse.


  2. Too bad, I cannot remember whether I have read The Piece of String as I would need to know its French title. I would have liked to compare te two stories. I’ve read Le Horla more than once. I must admit I always read it as an autobiographical novella and found it fascinating that a man who wrote so many intense but joyful stories also came up with a dark tale like this. I wonder if he hadn’t been ill and prone to madness himself if he had ever written anything this dark.
    I totall agree with you about the “morals to the story”. He never blames his charcaters. It’s up to the reader to interpret. Even a rather “bad” perosn like Bel-Ami could be interpreted in a positive way, as a winner who uses people as steppig stones.


    • Caroline, It was in fact the mention of Bel-Ami which got me back to my reading of de Maupassant’s short fiction (I’m still waiting to get the novel from the library). Yes, de Maupassant did himself go through a period of severe mental illness during some of the time that he was writing his best stories, partly due to a fear of losing his eyesight and partly due to other pressures. He also tried to commit suicide several times, suffered from hallucinations, and ended his life being cared for in an asylum. So, “The Horla” has a real life component. But I wanted to handle just the literary stuff in a comparison between the two stories, so that’s what I did. De Maupassant seems in a lot of stories to blame the characters more for a sort of foolishness or rashness; real vice in any of his characters he seems to accept as a matter of course. Thanks for writing in–I know I can always count on you for stimulating discussion.


  3. I love this astute analysis of two astute stories. How interesting what animates them both and what concerns the writer in both cases. It would be interesting to know how often obsession is one of his main themes throughout his work.


    • Thanks so much, Richard, I love praise. About de Maupassant, he has a number of novels, travel books, some poems and a few plays, and more than 300 short stories, though it’s this last that I think people mostly think of him in connection with when it’s not the novels. Caroline at Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat has recently reviewed his novel “Bel-Ami,” which is what started all my enthusiasm for his stories anew. He’s something of a cynic, but a happy one quite often, who despite some unhappy endings to stories loves telling tales on his characters’ foibles and motivations.


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