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French Forum 27.1 (2002) 59-79
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(Per)Versions of Masculinity in Maupassant's La Mère aux monstres
Philip G. Hadlock
Few subjects seem to have intrigued Guy de Maupassant as much as monsters. His short stories are replete with deformed and disfigured beings whose presence conditions the trajectory of the narrative as well as the relationship between the narrator and the reader. It is perhaps not surprising that Maupassant would so heavily populate his tales with monsters. As he suggests in his chronicles, the male author himself is "un monstre autant par ses qualités que par ses défauts, car, en lui, aucun sentiment simple n'existe plus" ("La Femme de lettres," II, 430), and thus, Maupassant's very identity as an homme de lettres is entwined in the plight of the monster. Nor is it incidental that Maupassant links monstrousness to the male experience. Monstrousness, as Barbara Johnson remarks in her study of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, has always been much more consonant with masculinity than with femininity (151). Maupassant's seemingly inordinate interest in monsters might best be attributed, then, to the specific esthetic and representational problems posed by the (male) monster's body. One of the monster's most salient features is, of course, its peculiar relationship to beauty: it is a being defined by ugliness; it compels viewing, but is hideous to behold. Maupassant's strategic deployment of the monster thus highlights an unusual aporia in the history of Western cognitive development: the "normative" male experience which has given shape to the history of Western culture has, at the same time, imbued masculinity with monsterism.
La mère aux monstres, one of Maupassant's best-known tales of monsterism, links the cognitive enigmas posed by the monster to the act of storytelling itself. The tale begins when the narrator encounters a beautiful Parisian woman as he strolls along a beach frequented by the [End Page 59] social elite. The encounter evokes the memory of a story which had been told to the narrator long before. The tale, which involves a country girl who gives birth to a series of hideously deformed children, highlights the strange concomitance between monsterism and reproduction, whether biological or artistic. As the narrator indicates in his introduction to the framed narrative, the initial account of the country girl's "misdeeds" took place as he was being conducted on a tour of the most prominent art and architectural features of a friend's hometown:
J'avais été invité par un ami à demeurer quelque temps chez lui dans une petite ville de province. Pour me faire les honneurs du pays, il me promena de tous les côtés, me fit voir les paysages vantés, les châteaux, les industries, les ruines; il me montra les monuments, les églises, les vieilles portes sculptées, des arbres de taille énorme ou de forme étrange, le chêne de saint André et l'if de Roqueboise. (I, 842)
Having exhausted the region's resources in natural and artistic beauty, the narrator's friend, "navré qu'il n'y avait plus rien à visiter" (I, 842), suddenly remembers one of the regions most notable phenomena; he decides to introduce the narrator to la mère aux monstres. The narrative thus engages on a curious quest in which the act of narration, a metaphorical birthing process, is linked to a literal birthing of the monster. The narrator will aid the reader, presumably bored by a paucity of beauty in her or his environment, by giving birth to a monster, just as his friend supplemented his hometown's lack of beauty by (re)producing a monstrous tale for the narrator.
The narrative contract is, in fact, based on a paradox: I will show you further beauty by revealing to you the source of ugliness/monstrousness. This is, in effect, the same paradoxical arrangement that the narrator proposes to the tale's readers in the outermost frame of the tale by implying that he will reveal "cette horrible histoire et cette horrible femme...