Monday, 8 February 2016

Story of a Madman by Émile Zola.

Caricature of the portrait of Émile Zola by Manet (below),
by André Gill (1868).
Story of a Madman (Histoire d'un fou) is a short story by Émile Zola, first published in Esquisses de la vie parisienne in 1868, a year after the publication of Thérèse Raquin (1867) and six years before La Conquête de Plassans (1874) - the two novels that share many similarities with this story.

In it, Zola tells the story of Isidore-Jean-Louis Maurin who, at the age of forty, married an eighteen year old woman Henriette. She, however, embarks on a passionate affair with a young doctor living in the flat above theirs and they conspire to "get rid of" Maurin. They are unable to bring themselves to kill him so they plot to convince others that Maurin is mad:
One night the whole house was aroused by dreadful screams coming from the owner's flat. They forced open the door and found the young woman in a terrible state, kneeling on the floor, all dishevelled and shrieking, her shoulders covered in red weals. Maurin was standing in front of her, trembling and quite bewildered. His speech was slurred like that of a drunken man and when pressed he was quite incapable of replying coherently. 
"I can't understand it," he stammered, "I didn't go near her, she suddenly started screaming." 
When Henriette had somewhat recovered her composure, she herself stammered something, giving her husband a strange look full of a kind of frightened pity. The neighbours went away great;y intrigued and even rather horrified, muttering to themselves that "it wasn't all that clear".
This is repeated "regularly" and Maurin is so worried he can't sleep, loses weight, and looks pale and ill. A rumour goes around that he has gone mad; Maurin is aware of this and tries to avoid any kind of behaviour that could be interpreted as showing madness, but the more he so the more he convinces other people he is losing mind. Eventually the police are called and he is taken to a lunatic asylum (Charenton, where the Marquis de Sade was incarcerated and also André Gill, the caricaturist whose 1868 cartoon of Zola I've used for this post. He died there in 1885).

The lovers are able to enjoy their relationship without the worry of discovery, but Henriette grows tired of the farce and decides to travel to Charenton to make a full confession and be reunited with her husband, however:
When they took her to her husband she saw in a shadowy corner of his cell a pale, thin, filthy, animal-like figure, more ghost than man, who stood up and looked at her with eyes full of mindless, imbecilic horror. The poor man failed to recognise her. And as she stood there in terror, he began to sway to and fro with an idiotic laugh. Suddenly he burst out sobbing, and stammered: "I can't understand it, I can't understand it... I didn't go near her!..." 
Then he hurled himself flat on the floor, exactly as Henriette had done, and kept hitting himself on the shoulders as he screamed and rolled around on the ground. 
"He does that trick twenty times a day," said the warder who had accompanied the young woman. 
With her teeth chattering with fear and almost fainting, she covered her eyes to avoid looking at the man she had reduced to this brute beast. 
Maurin was mad.
And there ends Story of a Madman.

Portrait of Émile Zola by Édouard Manet (1868).
Psychiatry and lunatic asylums were a popular subject in the late 19th Century, and as the century grew on the number of those in lunatic asylums grew from a few hundred at the beginning of the century to hundreds of thousands by the end (in France asylums often housed double their capacity). The understanding of mental illness was based on the idea of social Darwinism, that madness is inherited. Jacques Joseph Moreau de Tours is one such psychiatrist who advocated this belief in France, and another - Benedict Augustus Morel. Paul Turnbull writes of Morel,
In 1856 he was appointed director of the mental asylum at Saint-Yon in northern France. Here, he combined political radicalism with Catholicism when approaching mental disorders. As with many men of his time, Morel was shocked at the increase in crime, sickness, and forms of insanities, and attempted to identify the underlying "natural forces" that shaped mental disorders. Morel was struck that many of his patients looked unusual and he noticed that asylum patients often had a special physiognomy. For example, he noted that some of his patients with mental retardation ("the cretins") had goitres. He suggested that psychological disorders, and generally all abnormalities of human behaviour, were an expression of an abnormal constitution in the organisms that displayed disorders. He believed that an abnormal constitution could be inherited and was subject to progressive evolution towards decay.
Zola was very interested in this idea of inherited traits and characteristics, indeed his Rougon Macquart series is partly based on this, and in 1868, the year this story was published, he began to conceive an idea that combined theology and physiology. This would be his 1874 novel La Conquête de Plassans

For this, Story of a Madman is an interesting read, but even the Émile Zola fan has to admit that Zola's stories of women cheating on their husbands and causing great upset is rather ironic given that Émile Zola had a mistress and a 'secret family' causing his wife Alexandrine considerable pain when she discovered this fact. Nonetheless it is still an important part of Zola's works.

(This was my sixth Deal Me In title. Next week: The Dorsetshire Labourer by Thomas Hardy)

Further Reading


  1. I must read this! The lovers' plot reminds me a little of Charles Boyer's character's efforts in the classic film "Gaslight." I think I've only read Zola's "The Flood" but was very impressed. This story sounds great also.

    On a semi-related note, just last week I learned of another book, Mary Jane Ward's "The Snake Pit" which deals with the subject of someone sent to an institution when not necessary, or at least against her will. It's by another Indiana author so will fit in well with my bicentennial reading. :-)

    1. The Snake Pit sounds very interesting - just read the synopsis of the film version on Wiki. I'll look out for that!

  2. The story sounds interesting, but I know I can only take these type of stories in small doses. I'm actually ready for my Zola-dose soon, but as you know, I have The Dream ready to go.

    I was just reading about Robert Burns' womanizing and it kind of turned me off of him. He wrote about equality and treating people fairly, but didn't seem to act according to his beliefs in his life. Given that many of his flings were with maids, it indicates someone in a position of power taking advantage of someone else. Not cool. And poor Madame Zola.

    1. I know what you mean - I was a little disappointed as well when I learned about Zola. But I do try and separate it all, just focus on the book and forget about what was going on behind the scenes. I do feel very sorry for Alexandrine. If I remember correctly she more or less trashed the house when she found out. Can't say I blame her.

      This, by the way, is why I'm reluctant to read my Hardy biography - many of the authors I love are awful in real life. I mean, look at Virginia Woolf! She gave "mean" a whole new meaning :)

  3. It is such a heartbreaking story! I don't know how the language played out, but the premises is so very sad! I agree with you on the irony...I echo Cleo...Poor Madame Zola!

    1. It really is - Maurin was a good guy. That last bit was a shock - I think Zola did well with that, the story's so short you see, only a few pages, but I was into it straight away. To make someone care about a character in such a short space is rather admirable I think :)


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