To What Extent Does Le Horla imply That Madness Is A Form Of Wisdom?

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Psychologists in modern times have often focused attention on the complex relationship between genius and madness, and Guy de Maupassant appears to have been ahead of his time in exploring this topic in Le Horla, which deals both with the supernatural, and the nature of insanity. Perhaps this reflected his own inner torments, as it was well known even during his time that de Maupassant both studied psychiatry and suffered from madness himself (perhaps as the result of having contracted syphilis). It is well-known that Maupassant was himself part genius and part mad. To what extent does the author suggest in Le Horla that madness may actually be a form of wisdom? This is the central issue that will be discussed in this essay.

The title of this short story or novella might be an appropriate place to begin a discussion of the theme of madness and wisdom: The words “hors là” in French suggest one who is outside, or The Outsider - 'the thing that is out there' - and, by extension, one who does not belong or one who cannot be understood. The narrator, who presents the story in the form of journal entries, a bachelor, himself constantly wonders whether he belongs and whether he is in fact losing control of his senses. After having seen a vision of 'a three mast Brazilian boat' which he impulsively waves to, the narrator writes that he is immediately seized by a sense of anguish and starts to wonder whether he has inadvertently invited a supernatural being - the Horla - which he believes to be haunting the boat - into his home.

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Who or what is this Outsider that operates outside the self or the persona of the narrator? Why should it occasion such dread and anguish in the narrator as he is forced to move outside his self and to confront the nature of what lies outside his persona and his mental makeup? Or is his anguish caused by the precise fact that the Outsider operates in fact within his mind, thus tormenting him and challenging him to confront the very nature of who he is? This focus by Maupassant on some hidden dimension of existence which may be 'out there' but which, in fact, exists if at all within the obsessive mind hints, if not of madness, then of an altered sense of reality.

At first, the narrator believes his anguish to be a form of fever, of insomnia, a dread of impending doom. He writes: « Je suis malade, décidément ! Je me portais si bien le mois dernier ! J’ai la fièvre, une fièvre atroce, ou plutôt un énervement fiévreux, quir end mon âme aussi souffrante que mon corps ! J’ai sans cesse cette sensation affreuse d’un danger menaçant, cette appréhension d’un malheur qui vient ou de la mort qui approche, ce pressentiment qui est sans doute l’atteinte d’un mal encore inconnu, germant dans le sang et dans la chair. » (Maupassant, 1887)

He wakes from this febrile state with the distinct feeling that someone is watching him, even kneeling on him. He starts to question his own sanity at this point, after having found his glass of water (by his bedside) to be empty, in spite of his distinct impression he has not touched it. Just as suddenly he feels he is in fact perfectly fine, capable of analyzing his condition with perfect lucidity.

All this to-ing and fro-ing from one extreme to another suggests instability, if not insanity per se. Any psychiatrist today would be certain to detect all sorts of psychosis in this pattern of behaviour or manner of thinking. Nothing, at least so far in the narrative, to suggest sagesse of any kind on the part of the narrator.

At this point, after more bouts of insomnia, the narrator decides a trip would do him good, and he sets out on a voyage outside Rouens, on the belief that perhaps his nightmares may be taking place only within his home. This voyage away from his home, a place of refuge - a safe haven - is suggestive of a further departure from reason and security. This is an attempt to try to come to one's senses, an effort to understand this 'thing' that is outside oneself and that destroys one's self of reason and respectability.

The narrator sets out to the Mont St. Michel, at the summit of which he engages in a discussion with a monk. He asks the monk, in general terms, about the existence of spirits, as to whether these might exist. The monk's response only seems to add to the narrator's confusion when he responds: « Est-ce que nous voyons la cent millième partie de ce qui existe ? Tenez, voici le vent, qui est la plus grande force de la nature, qui renverse les hommes, abat les édifices, déracine les arbres, soulève la mer en montagnes d’eau, détruit les falaises, et jette aux brisants les grands navires, le vent qui tue, qui siffle, qui gémit, qui mugit, – l’avez-vous vu, et pouvez-vous le voir ? Il existe, pourtant. » (Maupassant, 1887) Have you seen the wind? No, but it still exists.

So, the Horla exists even if one cannot view it. This message from the monk - from one who is supposed to know - only serves to further confuse the narrator. The suggestion here is that there is inherent limitation in the power of our senses to in fact accurately perceive existence. He starts to question the nature of evolution itself: is the Horla in fact the next step in evolution, he wonders? The monk suggests that it is impossible to accurately perceive the mysterious world around us, just as we cannot 'see' the wind that represents one of the most powerful forces of nature.

It would appear that the Horla is nothing more than the personification of mental illness itself. If one is so haunted by images, dreams and insomnia as the narrator, in what way could this be said to represent wisdom? There is nothing sage about the hallucinations of the protagonist, the narrator, as he lurches from one insane thought to another, from one anxious state to another.

The narrative itself, though, has a certain lucidity. The narrator clearly describes to his doctor his feelings, his emotions, the torment he feels...To whom is he describing in such detail, his train of thought and events as they develop. Can someone who is insane develop this kind of clear and measured narrative?

It is significant, in this regard, that the narrator is depicted as a bachelor. In describing his mental condition, is the author in fact suggesting that bachelors - or the male identity at the end of the 19th century - is doomed to anxiety and madness as a result of shifting gender roles in fin du siècle France? Is the narrator a symbol of male identity in crisis? (Brossillon, 2017). This is an interesting possibility, which also raises the issue of what happens to individuals who choose to isolate themselves socially - is madness a predictable and inevitable outcome for such people? Philosophers, as early as Aristotle, observed that “man is by nature a social animal…” (Aristotle, 350BC). Bachelors, like the protagonist in Le Horla are by definition at risk of becoming reclusive, and hence in danger of becoming isolated and hence vulnerable to mental illness. « Quand nous sommes seuls longtemps, nous peuplons le vide de fantômes,» (Maupassant, 1887) the narrator observes. In a sense, the Horla is the Double or Alter Ego of the narrator, both outside him and yet nothing more than a reflection of his tortured and isolated self.

The Horla is thus presented as a strange presence, one who is outside and yet one who dominates one's mind and hence one's entire being. This division so torments the narrator that he sets out to destroy this alternate presence, by setting fire to the very things that have stood by him and kept him sane thus far: his home and his servants who have served him loyally and faithfully. Although fire is a destructive force, it has always been associated in literature and in religious custom as a cleansing element, one that can purify. Is the protagonist's intent, then, to purify rather than to kill and destroy? He is seeking to destroy his Double, his other self, so that he can be spared the torment he has to continually suffer. Ironically, even after this the Horla does not leave his mind, and it is on this note of despair that the novella ends: «Non... non... sans aucun doute, sans aucun doute... il n’est pas mort... Alors... alors... il va donc falloir que je me tue, moi !...» (Maupassant, 1887) He thus capitulates fully to his madness.

Shortly before burning his home down, the narrator looks up at the sky and wonders what life forms exist within the stars, and whether the Horla in fact represents an alien life force. The question posed by the author here is the relationship between nature and the supernatural, between one's self and, quite literally, with what lies outside the realm of human and mental experience. The ambiguities in the construction of the novella appear to have been carefully constructed, and it thus seems difficult to discern whether the novella is essentially about madness or an examination of the supernatural and the relationship between the self and the supernatural. Perhaps the author intended the novella to be both. Insofar as the narrator's spiral descent into destructive behaviour is concerned, it is a tale about madness and the disintegration of a seemingly rational man. But seen from the perspective of the narrator's ruminations on nature and the supernatural, the novella borders on philosophy and enters the realm of wisdom and sage self-inquiry. This tension is never fully resolved in the novella, and the reader is thus left to choose between these differing interpretations.

On the other hand, the frequent references to supernatural elements also raises the possibility that the Horla is, rather than the narrator's Alter Ego, an alien force which has possessed him. In this context, the author also delves into the role of hypnotism as a potential release from such possession. This is evident, for instance, in the discussion of the narrator's cousin who, while hypnotized, asks the narrator for a five thousand franc loan for her husband. Once released from her trance, she no longer has any recollection of ever having been ordered by her husband to ask for the loan. The author suggests, however, that it is only people with a nervous condition, such as the narrator's cousin, who are capable of being hypnotized. The narrator himself, it is suggested, may not be able to find such release as he is incapable of succumbing to hypnosis. (Abecassis, 2007)

Overall, it is difficult to see Le Horla in terms other than a powerful description of the narrator’s downwards spiral to madness. The Horla penetrates into the narrator’s mind and house, inhabits his nights and his very being and literally enslaves him. The narrator seeks freedom by taking the desperate step of setting his home on fire, but even then he cannot liberate himself from the Horla. It is only then that the narrator realizes that he is himself the cause of his hallucinations, and that the only way to free himself and to get rid of the Horla is to kill himself. The narrator sense of reality is a very distorted one, and it is hard to discern any hint of wisdom in the midst of this insanity.


  1. Abecassis, J. (2007). On Reading Maupassant’s Le Horla Problematologically., [online] 242, pp.391-413. Available at: [Accessed 1 Apr. 2019].
  2. Brossillon, C. (2017) The figure of the ‘Horla’ in Guy de Maupassant’s short stories: from isolation and alienation to annihilation. [ebook] Dix-Neuf, 21:1, 16-30, DOI: 10.1080/14787318.2016.1245378 [Accessed 1 Apr. 2019].
  3. Maupassant, G. (1887). Le Horla. [ebook] Available at: [Accessed 1 Apr. 2019].
  4. Marsico, n. (2016). Insanity, the Invisible, and the Unfamiliar in Maupassant’s Le Horla. [ebook] Available at: [Accessed 1 Apr. 2019].
  5. Paun, C. (2016). The Rationality of a Social Animal. [ebook] ResearchGate, pp.125-140. Available at: [Accessed 1 Apr. 2019].
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