Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Delusory Denouement and Other Strategies in Maupassant's Fantastic Tales

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Delusory Denouement and Other Strategies in Maupassant's Fantastic Tales

Article excerpt

Tzvetan Todorov's seminal work, Introduction a la litterature fantastique, establishes the fantastic as a genre, defining it as a hesitation between the supernatural and the uncanny. The supernatural, like fantasy, deals with an "unreal" world, a world not defined in terms of the laws we know. In the world of the supernatural, frogs can turn into princes at the touch of the beautiful princess, and princesses can be awakened by the kiss of a heroic prince. The domain of the supernatural, then, is the realm of the fairy tale, of fantasy literature, in which the author's creative imagination knows no ground rules, no restraints in spinning the tale for the reader's delectation.(1)

On the other hand, the uncanny abides by the rules and laws of the order we know. It is firmly rooted in phenomena which could actually occur, representing an event which is strange, yet plausible. The word Todorov uses for the uncanny is l'etrange, which is literally translated as strange. The uncanny is just that, strange yet plausible. It could occur although it is a phenomenon which should not normally be brought into the open light of public attention.

The fantastic is the bridge between the supernatural and the uncanny - it is the moment of hesitation the reader undergoes before classifying the text's events as belonging to the realm of the supernatural or the uncanny. Charles Grivel comments on the nature of this hesitation, the paradox inherent in the fantastic, and the close ties between the genre and narrative logic:

Le fantastique designe une feinte de la raison narrative: quelque chose est pose qui m'en est donne. Tout tient, dans le fantastique, a ce paradoxe dubitatif, ace trouble ephemere, a cette hesitation localisee: une impossible cause a ete invoquee, et ce qu'on m'en dit conforte son apparition. Cette indetermination ou je suis, ce suspens d'un ordre evident nie par tout aussi evident que lui rattache a son existence et m'en detache aussi. (27)(2)

The questions which concern us in this study are: How do texts create the atmosphere of the fantastic? How do they represent the rupture into the well-ordered universe? How is traditional narrative logic subverted to encourage the presence, albeit ephemeral, of another kind of logic?(3)

The process of identification plays a central role in producing the fantastic. The reasons for this importance are rather self-evident: the reader actively participates in the work, continually interpreting actions, trying to classify them (i.e., Do they respect the laws of reality, or are they governed by another order, one with which we are unfamiliar?). Involving the readers emotionally in the narrative allows the author to catch them off-guard. That is, one is caught up in the action and is surprised along with the characters by the sudden eruption of an inexplicable occurrence. Consequently, the moment of shock, of hesitation, caused by this abrupt action is felt by the reader along with the characters in the text. (S)he is participating in the action with the characters, forming images with them and, as such, experiencing shock along with them. Therefore, identification is a crucial criterion for producing the fantastic. To successfully evoke the fantastic, all the components of the text must work together to elicit identification and participation.

Authors working in the fantastic often choose the short story in order to overcome the problems of retaining identification and suspense posed by longer works. In the short story, the task of sustaining the readers' attention and of building suspense is facilitated - when assured that curiosity regarding the denouement will be satisfied within a short period of time, we are less likely to read ahead or to lose interest.

In discussing fantastic production, Todorov singles out Maupassant's texts as the last aesthetically satisfying examples of the fantastic (174-75). Although the veracity of the adjective last is debatable, Maupassant's fantastic work is undeniably aesthetically pleasing, and a study of it would help to understand the art of the fantastic tale. …

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