Guy de Maupassant's Existential Fear

Updated on August 17, 2018
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A writer of very considerable powers, Maupassant produced hundreds of short stories as well as a few novels.

A famous writer

Guy de Maupassant was a very important author. Leo Tolstoy and Friedrich Nietzsche were admirers of his. His early work belonged to the genre of Realism, but during the last decade of his life he produced a number of more ominous and foreboding writings, which seem to have been largely autobiographical; to be accounts of his own descent into madness.

Many literary critics have, accordingly, divided his literary production into two distinct periods. This powerful intellectual, who Nietzsche had once described as “a formidable psychologist”, wrote a large collection of dark and hypnotizing tales that present a state of mental disintegration. Their protagonists become insane, powerless as they are to put to rest their persistent fear: that nothing in our world is actually as it seems. They regard themselves as being surrounded by an unknown void; they can no longer regard their physical environment as familiar or safe.

Guy de Maupassant
Guy de Maupassant

The World as Illusion

In The Horla, one of his most famous short stories, Maupassant mentions a quote by his countryman, Montesquieu, according to which our impressions of the world would differ entirely if we happened to just have one less or one more organ in our body. This sentiment, which is prevalent in certain types of philosophical idealism, certainly seemed to have struck a chord with this once lively and adventurous veteran of the Franco-Prussian war: Maupassant will spend the rest of his life trying to examine if he in fact truly knows anything real, or whether his whole way of life has up to then been based on unquestioning acceptance of his environment as an actual source of insight.

He specifically claims, in a number of his works, that a life which doesn't involve reflection on this problem is one virtually identical to those led by lowly animals, purely on instinct.

In The Horla, one of his most famous short stories, Maupassant mentions a quote by his countryman, Montesquieu, according to which our impressions of the world would differ entirely if we happened to just have one less or one more organ in our body. This sentiment, which is prevalent in certain types of philosophical idealism, certainly seemed to have struck a chord with this once lively and adventurous veteran of the Franco-Prussian war.

A Mother of Monsters

Maupassant's works do have to be distinguished from those belonging to the concurrent French sub-genre of the “conte cruel” (a type of story mastered by Maurice Level), given that instead of focusing on brutality alone they feature an existential agony. The Mother of Monsters is the title of another of his celebrated – and sinister – creations.

In that story the protagonist is invited by his friend, to visit the countryside. After his host has taken him to see all the other sights, he insists that they also pay a visit to a woman he refers to as “The monster of monsters”... This woman makes her living by deliberately giving birth to children with deformities; she does so by using tight corsets. The protagonist is sickened by the callousness of this destructive mother, who sells her unlucky offspring to traveling circus companies... And yet, by the end of the story, he happens to observe that a very similar attitude is shown by a famous Parisian actress: a coquette respected by all, that also keeps wearing tight corsets – in her case it is done so as to help her maintain her beauty – and due to this tactic has caused many of her children to be born with deformities...

It is quite interesting to note that, owing to his deliberate production of so many frightening and bleak stories, De Maupassant had, by that time, become a metaphorical “mother of monsters” in his own right.

One more organ or one less in our body would give us a different intelligence. In fact, all the established laws as to why our body is a certain way would be different if our body were not that way.

— Baron de Montesquieu

Another Type of Trauma

In many of his works we read about the narrator experiencing terrifying hallucinations, or feeling dread and being at a loss to explain what is happening to him. Perhaps the most masterful example of this type is the short story titled He?. But we rarely get a glimpse into a less ambiguous source of trauma.The exception to this is found in the tale Waiter, another beer!. There we read of a man who, as a young adolescent, witnessed his father mercilessly beating his mother; and from that time on this youth didn’t want to do anything in this world other than drink and smoke his pipe.

De Maupassant’s many love affairs are widely documented, but it certainly is evident in his stories that he was highly sensitive in regards to the issue of females lacking social status, as he often writes that, sadly, the only actual wealth that a woman can aspire to possess is her physical beauty; and that type of wealth is never to last for long. Regardless of whether this view of his was hyperbolic, the fact remains that he felt deeply wounded from this state of affairs.

De Maupassant Becomes an Animal

The ending of De Maupassant’s life is, indeed, as impressive, violent and explosive, as were the endings of his best stories: he tried to take his own life, by cutting his throat. He failed, and was then committed to a mental institution. In a line of his overseeing doctor’s papers, written down only days before Maupassant's death, we read a line which can cause quite a bit of alarm: “Monsieur De Maupassant is regressing to an animal state”.

Let us recall how, a few years ago, Maupassant felt the urge to stop living as “an animal”. In conclusion, it can be argued that – much like his admirer, Nietzsche – he was carrying a crushing load, which in the end caused him to collapse. In his art he did manage to capture the threatening sparkles in the eyes of that Nemesis which was rapidly gaining up on him, never losing his scent: the personal and deep sorrows this writer had, sorrows both of the physical and of the metaphysical type, kept providing the beast which was pursuing him with all that was needed so as to close in for the horrific final attack.

© 2018 Kyriakos Chalkopoulos


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    • The Chrysalis profile imageAUTHOR

      Kyriakos Chalkopoulos 

      22 months ago from Thessaloniki, Greece

      Thank you!

      A very good question. Maupassant was suffering from physical illness as well (including STDs, as a direct result of his lifestyle). But the last decade of his life was a lot bleaker than the previous part. Today he is mostly known for writing those ominous stories...

    • profile image


      22 months ago

      Very well written article, and it sounds like Mauppasant struggled internally with quite the mental struggle.

      I wonder what happened in his life that caused what seemed to be a mental breakdown. Based on what you've written, it seems as though it was society as a whole at the time.


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