"Solitude" and "The Hermit": Two Short Stories by Guy de Maupassant
Maupassant's short stories focus on the psychology of his characters, often on one character with strong emotions and feelings, living out the result of one fateful experience or insight. In "Solitude," the chief character extrapolates his understanding of solitude as the predicament of every human being. In "The Hermit" ("L'Ermite") the chief character reveals what brought him to become a solitary in a deserted place far from people.
"Solitude," by Guy de Maupassant (1884)
We had been dining at the house of a friend, and the dinner had been very gay. After it broke up, one of the party, an old friend, said to me:
"Let us take a stroll in the Champs-Elysees."
I agreed, and we went out, slowly walking up the long promenade, under trees hardly yet covered with leaves. There was hardly a sound, save that confuse and constant murmur which Paris makes. A fresh breeze fanned our faces, and a legion of stars were scattered over the black sky like a golden powder.
My companion said to me:
"I do not know why, but I breathe better here at night than anywhere else. It seems to me that my thoughts are enlarged. I have at times, a sort of glimmering in my soul, that makes me believe, for a second, that the divine secret of things is about to be discovered. Then the window is closed, and my vision is ended."
From time to time we saw two shadows glide along the length of the thickets; then we passed a bench, where two people, seated side by side, made but one black spot.
My friend murmured:
"Poor things! They do not inspire me with disgust, but with an immense pity. Among all the mysteries of human life there is one which I have penetrated; our great torment in this existence comes from the fact that we are eternally alone -- all our efforts and all our actions are directed toward escaping this solitude. Those two lovers there on the benches in the open air are seeming, as we -- as all creatures are seeking -- to make their isolation cease, if only for a minute or less. They are living and always will live alone; and we also.
"This is more or less apparent to all of us. For some time I have endured this abominable pain of having understood, of having discovered the frightful solitude in which I live, and I know that nothing can make it cease -- nothing. Do you hear? Whatever we may attempt, whatever we may do, whatever may be the misery of our hearts, the appeal of our lips, the clasp of our arms, we are always alone. I have asked you to walk tonight, so that I shall not have to enter my own house, because now I suffer horribly from the solitude of my home.. What good does it do me? I speak to you, you listen to me, yet we are both alone, side by side but alone. You understand?
"'Blessed are the poor in spirit,' say the Scriptures. They have the illusion of happiness. They do not feel our solitary misery, the do not wander, as I do, through life, without contact save of elbows, without joy save the egotistic satisfaction of understanding, of seeing, of divining, and of suffering eternally from the knowledge of our never-ending isolation.
"You think me slightly deranged -- do you not? Listen to me. Since I have felt the solitude of my being, it seems to me that I am daily sinking more deeply into a dark vault, whose sides I cannot find, whose end I do not know, and which, perhaps, has no end. I sink without anyone with me, or around me, without any living person making this same gloomy journey. This vault is life. Sometimes I hear noises, voices, confused sounds. But I never know exactly from whom they come; I never meet anybody, I never find another hand in this darkness that surrounds me. Do you understand?
"Some men have occasionally divined this frightful suffering. De Musset has written:
Who comes? Who calls me? No one.
I am alone. One o'clock strikes.
O Solitude! O Misery!
"But with him there is only a passing doubt, and not a definite certainty as with me. He was a poet; he peopled life with fantasies, with dreams. He was never really alone. I -- I am alone.
"Gustave Flaubert, one of the great unfortunates of this world, because he was on of the great lights, wrote to a friend this despairing phrase: 'We are all in a desert. Nobody understands anybody.'
"No, nobody understands anybody -- whatever one thinks, whatever one says, whatever one attempts. Does the earth know what passes in those stars that are hurled like a spark of fire across the firmament -- so far that we perceive only the splendor of some? Think of the innumerable army of others lost in infinitude -- so near to each other that they form perhaps a whole, as the molecules of a body!
"Well, man does not know what passes in another many any more. We are farther from one another than the stars, and far more isolated, because thought is unfathomable.
"Do you know anything more frightful that this constant contact with beings that we cannot penetrate? We love one another as if we were fettered, very close, with extended arms, without succeeding in reaching one another. A torturing need of union hampers us, but all our efforts remain barren, our abandonment useless, our confidences unfruitful, our embraces powerless, our caresses vain. When we wish to join each other, our sudden emotions make us only clash against each other.
"I never feel myself more alone than when I open my heart to some friend, because I then better understand the insuperable obstacle. He is there, my friend; I see his clear eyes above me, but the soul behind them I do not see. He listens to me. What is he thinking? Yes, what is he thinking? You do not understand this torment? He hates me, perhaps, -- or scorns me, -- or mocks me! He reflects upon what I have said; he judges me, he rails at me, he condemns me, and considers me either very mediocre or a fool.
"How am I to know what he thinks? How am I to know whether he loves me as I love him, and what is at work in that little round head? What a mystery is the unknown thought of a being, the hidden and independent thought, that we can neither know nor control, neither command not conquer!
"And I! I have wished in vain to give myself up entirely; to open all the doors of my soul, and I do not succeed in giving myself up. I still remain in the depth, the very depth, the secret abode of me, where no one can penetrate. No one can discover it, or enter there, because no one resembles me, because no one understands anyone.
"You, at least, understand me at this moment; no: you think I am mad! You examine me; you shrink from me! You ask yourself: "What's the matter with him tonight?' But if you succeed in seizing, in divining, one day, my horrible and subtle suffering, come to me and say only: 'I have understood you!' and you will make me happy, for a second, perhaps.
"Women make me still more conscious of my solitude. Misery! Misery! How I have suffered through women: because they, more than men, have often given me the illusion of not being alone!
"When one falls in love it seems as though one expands. A superhuman felicity envelopes you! Do you know why? Do you know why you feel then this sensation of exceeding happiness? It is simply because one imagines himself no longer alone. Isolation, the abandonment of the human being seems to cease. What an error!
"More tormented even than we, by this eternal need of live which gnaws at our solitary heart, are women, the great delusion and the dream.
"You know those delicious hours passed face to face with a being with long hair, charming features, and a look that exited us to live. What delirium misleads our mind! What illusion carries us away! Does it not seem that presently our souls shall form but one? But this 'presently' never comes; and, after weeks of waiting, of hope, and of deceptive joy, you find yourself again, one day, more alone than you have ever been before.
"After each kiss, after each embrace, the isolation is increased. And how frightfully one suffers!
"Has not Sully Prudhomme written:
Caresses are only restless transports,
Fruitless attempts of poor love which essay
The impossible union of souls by the bodies.
"And then -- goodbye. It is over. One hardly recognizes the woman who has been everything to us for a moment of life, and whose thoughts, intimate and commonplace, undoubtedly, we have never known.
"At the very hour when it would seem, in that mysterious accord of beings, in the complete intermingling of ideas and of aspirations, that you were sounding the very depth of her soul, one word -- one word only, sometimes -- will reveal your error, will show you, like a flash of lightning in the night, the black abyss between you.
"And still, that which is best in the world is to pass a night near a woman you love, without speaking, completely happy in the sole sensation of her presence. Ask no more, for two beings have never yet been united.
"As to myself, no, I have closed by soul. I tell no more to anybody what I believe, what I think, or what I love. Knowing myself condemned to this horrible solitude, I look upon things without expressing my opinion. What matter to me opinions, quarrels, pleasures, or beliefs! Being unable to participate with anyone, I have withdrawn myself from all. My invisible self lives unexplored. I have common phrases for answers to the questions of each day, and a smile which says, 'Yes,' when I do not even wish to take the trouble of speaking. Do you understand?"
We had traversed the long avenue to the Arc de Triomphe, and had then walked back to the Place de la Concorde, for he had said all this slowly, adding many other things which I no longer remember.
He stopped, and stretching his arm toward the great granite obelisk standing on the pavement of Paris, losing its long Egyptian profile in the night of the stars -- an exiled monument, bearing on its side the history of its country written in strange signs -- said brusquely:
"Look -- we are all like that stone."
Then he left me without adding a word. Was he intoxicated? Was he mad? Was he wise? I do not yet know. Sometimes it seems to me that he was right; sometimes it seems to me that he had lost his mind.
"The Hermit," by Guy de Maupassant (1886)
We had gone to see, with some friends, the old hermit installed on an antique mound covered with tall trees, in the midst of the vast plain which extends from Cannes to La Napoule.
On our return we spoke of those strange lay solitaries, numerous in former times, but now a vanished race. We sought to find out the moral causes, and endeavored to determine the nature of the griefs which in bygone days had driven men into solitudes.
All of a sudden one of our companions said:
"I have known two solitaries -- a man and a woman. The woman must be living still. She dwelt, five years ago, on the ruins of a mountain top absolutely deserted on the coast of Corsica, fifteen or twenty kilometers away from every house. She lived there with a maid-servant. I went to see her. She had certainly been a distinguished woman of the world. She received me with politeness and even in a gracious manner, but I know nothing about her, and I could find out nothing about her.
"As for the man, I am going to relate to you his ill-omened adventure:
Look round! You see over there that peaked woody mountain which stands by itself behind La Napoule in front of the summits of the Esterel; it is called in the district Snake Mountain. There is where my solitary lived within the walls of a little antique temple about a dozen years ago.
Having heard about him, I resolved to make his acquaintance, and I set out for Cannes on horseback one March morning. Leaving my steed at the inn at La Napoule, I commenced climbing on foot that singular cave, about one hundred and fifty perhaps, or two hundred meters in height, and covered with aromatic plants, especially cysti, whose odor is so sharp and penetrating that it irritates you and causes you discomfort. The soil is stony, and you can see gliding over the pebbles long adders which disappear in the grass. Hence this well-deserved appellation of Snake Mountain. On certain days, the reptiles seem to spring into existence under your feet when you climb the declivity exposed to the rays of the sun. They are so numerous that you no longer venture to go on, and experience a strange sense of uneasiness, not fear, for those creatures are harmless, but a sort of mysterious terror. I had several times the peculiar sensation of climbing a sacred mountain of antiquity, a fantastic hill perfumed and mysterious, covered with cysti and inhabited by serpents and crowned with a temple.
This temple still exists. They told me, at any rate, that it was a temple; for I did not seek to know more about it so as not to destroy the illusion.
So then, one March morning, I climbed up there under the pretext of admiring the country. On reaching the top, I perceived, in fact, walls and a man sitting on a stone. He was scarcely more than forty years of age, though his hair was quite white; but his beard was still almost black. He was fondling a cat which had cuddled itself upon his knees, and did not seem to mind me. I took a walk around the ruins, one portion of which covered over and shut in by means of branches, straw, grass and stones, was inhabited by him, and I made my way towards the place which he occupied.
The view here is splendid. On the right is the Esterel with its peaked summit strangely carved, then the boundless sea stretching as far as the distant coast of Italy with its numerous capes, facing Cannes, the Lerins Islands green and flat, which look as if they were floating, and the last of which shows in the direction of the open sea an old castellated fortress with battlemented towers built in the very waves.
Then, commanding a view of green mountain-side where you could see, at an equal distance, like innumerable eggs laid on the edge of the shore the long chaplet of villas and white villages built among the trees rose the Alps, whose summits are still shrouded in a hood of snow.
"Good heavens, this is beautiful!"
The man raised his head, and said:
"Yes, but when you see it every day, it is monstrous."
Then he spoke, he chatted, and tired himself with talking -- my solitary, I detained him.
I did not tarry long that day, and only endeavored to ascertain the color of misanthropy. He created on me especially the impression of being bored with other people, weary of everything, hopelessly disillusioned and disgusted with himself as well as the rest.
I left him after a half-hour's conversation. But I came back, eight hours later, and once again in the following week, then every week, so that before two months we were friends.
Now, one evening at the close of May, I decided that the moment had arrived, and I brought provisions in order to dine with him on Snake Mountain.
It was one of those evenings of the South so odorous in that country where flowers are cultivated just as wheat is in the North, in that country where every essence that perfumes the flesh and the dress of women is manufactured, one of those evenings when the breath of the innumerable orange-trees with which the gardens and all the recesses of the dales are planted, excite and cause languor so that old men have dreams of love.
My solitary received me with manifest pleasure. He willingly consented to share in my dinner.
I made him drink a little wine, to which he had ceased to be accustomed. He brightened up and began to talk about his past life. He had always resided in Paris, and had, it seemed to me, lived a carefree bachelor's life.
I asked him abruptly:
"What put into your head this funny notion of going to live on the top of a mountain?"
He answered immediately:
"Her! it was because I got the most painful shock that a man can experience. But why hide from you this misfortune of mine? It will make you pity me, perhaps! And then -- I have never told anyone -- never -- and I would like to know, for once, what another thinks of it, and how he judges it.
Born in Paris, brought up in Paris, I grew to manhood and spent my life in that city. My parents had left me an income of some thousands of francs a year, and I procured as a shelter, a modest and tranquil place which enabled me to pass as wealthy for a bachelor.
"I had, since my youth, led a bachelor's life. You know what that is. Free and without family, resolved not to take a legitimate wife, I passed at one time three months with one, at another time six months with another, then a year without a companion, taking as my prey the mass of women who are either to be had for the asking or bought.
"This every day, or, if you like the phrase better, commonplace, existence agreed with me, satisfied my natural tastes for changes and silliness. I lived on the boulevard, in theaters and cafes, always out of doors, always without a regular home, though I was comfortably housed. I was one of those thousands of beings who let themselves float like corks, through life, for whom the walls of Paris are the walls of the world, and who have no care about anything, having no passion for anything. I was what is called a good fellow, without accomplishments and without defects. That is all. And I judge myself correctly.
"Then, from twenty to forty years, my existence flowed along slowly or rapidly without any remarkable event. How quickly they pass, the monstrous years of Paris, when none of those memories worth fixing the date of find way into the soul, these long and yet hurried years, trivial and gay, when you eat, drink and laugh without knowing why, your lips stretched out towards all they can taste and all they can kiss, without having a longing for anything. You are young, and you grow old without doing any of the things that others do, without any attachment, any root, any bond, almost without friends, without family, without wife, without children.
"So, gently and quickly, I reached my fortieth year; and in order to celebrate this anniversary, I invited myself to take a good dinner all alone in one of the principal cafes.
"After dinner, I was in doubt as to what I would do. I felt disposed to go to a theater; and then the idea came into my head to make a pilgrimage to the Latin quarters, where I had in former days lived as a law-student. So I made my way across Paris, and without premeditation went in to one of those public-houses where you are served by girls.
"The one who attended at my table was quite young, pretty, and merry-looking. I asked her to take a drink, and she at once consented. She sat down opposite me, and gazed at me with a practiced eye, without knowing with what kind of a male she had to do. She was a fair-haired woman, or rather a fair-haired girl, a fresh, quite fresh young creature, whom you guessed to be rosy and plump under her swelling bodice. I talked to her in that flattering and idiotic style which we always adopt with girls of this sort; and as she was truly charming, the idea suddenly occurred to me to take her with me --always with a view to celebrating my fortieth year. It was neither a long nor difficult task. She was free, she told me, for the past fortnight, and she forthwith accepted my invitation to come and sup with me in the Halles when her work would be finished./p>
"As I was afraid lest she might give me the slip -- you never can tell what may happen, or who may come into those drink-shops, or what wind may blow into a woman's head --I remained there all the evening waiting for her.
"I, too, had been free for the past month or two, and watching this pretty debutante of love going from table to table, I asked myself the question whether it would not be worth my while to make a bargain with her to live with me for some time. I am here relating to you one of those ordinary adventures which occur every day in the lives of men in Paris.
"Excuse me for such gross details. Those who have not loved in a poetic fashion take and choose women, as you choose a chop in a butcher's shop without caring about anything save the quality of their flesh.
"Accordingly, I took her to her own house -- for I had a regard for my own sheets. It was a little working-girl's lodgings in the fifth story, clean and poor, and I spent two delightful hours there. This little girl had a certain grace and a rare attractiveness.
"When I was about to leave the room, I advanced towards the mantelpiece in order to place there the stipulated present, after having agreed on a day for a second meeting with the girl, who remained in bed, I got a vague glimpse of a clock without a globe, two flower-vases and two photographs, one of them very old, one of those proofs on glass called daguerreo-types. I carelessly bent forward towards this portrait, and I remained speechless at the sight, too amazed to comprehend .... It was my own, the first portrait of myself, which I had got taken in the days when I was a student in the Latin Quarter.
"I abruptly snatched it up to examine it more closely. I did not deceive myself -- and I felt a desire to burst out laughing, so unexpected and queer did the thing appear to me.
"'Who is this gentleman?'
"'Tis my father, whom I did not know. Mamma left it to me, telling me to keep it, as it might be useful to me, perhaps, one day -- '
"She hesitated, began to laugh, and went on:
"'I don't know in what way, upon my word. I don't think he'll care to acknowledge me.'
"My heart went beating wildly, like the mad gallop of a runaway horse. I replaced the portrait, laying it down flat on the mantelpiece. On top of it I placed, without even knowing what I was doing, two notes for a hundred francs, which I had in my pocket, and I rushed away, exclaiming:
"'We'll meet again soon -- bye-bye, darling, bye-bye.'
"I heard her answering:
"I was on the dark staircase, which I descended, groping my way down.
"When I got into the open air, I saw that it was raining, and I started at a great pace down some street or other.
"I walked straight on, stupefied, distracted, trying to jog my memory! Was this possible? Yes. I remembered all of a sudden a girl who had written to me, about a month after our rupture, that she was going to have a child by me. I had torn or burned the letter, and had forgotten all about the matter. I should have looked at the woman's photograph over the girl's mantelpiece. But would I have recognized it? It was the photograph of an old woman, it seemed to me.
"I reached the quay. I saw a bench, and sat down on it. It went on raining. People passed from time to time under umbrellas. Life appeared to me odious and revolting, full of miseries, of shames, of infamies deliberate or unconscious. My daughter!... I had just perhaps possessed my own daughter! And Paris, this vast Paris, somber, mournful, dirty, sad, black, with all those houses shut up, was full of such things, adulteries, incests, violated children, I recalled to mind what I had been told about bridges haunted by the infamous votaries of vice.
"I had acted, without wishing it, without being aware of it, in a worse fashion than these ignoble beings. I had entered my own daughter's bed!
"I was on the point of throwing myself into the water. I was mad! I wandered about till dawn, then I came back to my own house to think.
"I thereupon did what appeared to me the wisest thing. I desired a notary to send for this little girl, and to ask her under what conditions her mother had given her the portrait of him whom she supposed to be her father, stating that he was entrusted with this duty by a friend.
"The notary executed my commands. It was on her death-bed that this woman had designated the father of her daughter, and in the presence of a priest, whose name was given to me.
"Then, still in the name of this unknown friend, I got half of my fortune sent to this child, about one hundred and forty thousand francs, of which she could only get the income. Then I resigned my employment -- and here I am.
"While wandering along this shore, I found this mountain, and I stopped there -- up to what time I am unable to say!
"What do you think of me, and of what I have done?"
I replied as I extended my hand towards him:
"You have done what you ought to do. Many others would have attached less importance to this odious fatality."
He went on:
"I know that, but I was nearly going mad on account of it. It seems I had a sensitive soul without ever suspecting it. And now I am afraid of Paris, as believers are bound to be afraid of Hell. I have received a blow on the head -- that is all -- a blow resembling the fall of a tile when one is passing through the street. I am getting better for some time past."
I quitted my solitary. I was much disturbed by his narrative.
I saw him again twice, then I went away, for I never remain in the South after the month of May.
When I came back in the following year the man was no longer on Snake Mountain; and I have never since heard anything about him.
This is the history of my hermit.