The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"Was it a Dream?" (1887)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“Was It A Dream?” (original: “La morte”) was written by Guy de Maupassant and first appeared in Gil Blas (May 31, 1887). Henri-René-Albert-Guy De Maupassant (1850-1893) was one of the great short story writers of France or any other country, and two of his novels, Une Vie (1883) and Pierre et Jean (1888), are counted among the best of the nineteenth century. De Maupassant wrote with an almost brutal realism and an insightful grasp of human psychology; he was sympathetic only to the poor and the outcasts of society. “Was It A Dream?” is a sardonic, bitter short story.

The nameless narrator of “Was It A Dream?” has lost his lover. She, who he loved dearly, who for a year had kept him alive on her kisses and tenderness, has died. She went out into the rain and came home wet, and caught a cold from that damp which took her from him. His grief is all-consuming, so much so that the details of her last week and of her funeral are gone. What did she tell him as she lay dying? What happened at the funeral? He does not remember. All he knows is that she is in a hole, rotting, and he is still alive. So after the funeral he wanders the streets and then returns to the apartment he shared with her–but the rooms retain her atoms and the mirror will not yield up its memories of her, and he has to leave. He goes to the cemetery in which she is buried, and he visits her simple grave, marked just by a white marble cross with the words, “She loved, was loved, and died.” He resolves to spend the night in the cemetery, one last night spent crying for her, even though he knows he will be found by the night watchman and kicked out, and he walks to the end of the cemetery and waits there. It is the oldest part of the cemetery, and the least tended. While he is there, the grave on which he sits moves. From out of it comes a skeleton, pushing the marble aside with its bent back. On the cross are the words, “Here lies Jacques Olivant, who died at the age of fifty one. He loved his family, was kind and honorable, and died in the grace of the Lord.” Olivant picks up a stone, carefully effaces the letters, and then, with the tip of his forefinger, he writes in luminous letters, “Here reposes Jacques Olivant, who died at the age of fifty one. He hastened his father’s death by his unkindness, as he wished to inherit his fortune, he tortured his wife, tormented his children, deceived his neighbors, robbed everyone he could, and died wretched.” All throughout the cemetery the graves give up their dead, all of whom write the truths of their lives on their stones. Thinking that his lover might have written something on her tombstone, the narrator runs to her site, and sees that she has written, “Having gone out in the rain one day, in order to deceive her lover, she caught cold and died.”

“Was It A Dream?” is an intense reading experience. The reader does not get the sense of madness and the splintering mind which “The Horla” conveys, but rather unalloyed, raw grief, the kind people feel when someone close to them has died. De Maupassant wrote “Was It A Dream?” at a time when his beloved younger brother, Hervé, was going insane, and it may be that De Maupassant channeled his own grief at the mental deterioration of his brother into the story. De Maupassant does not engage in histrionics, but merely writes simple questions and statements which carry a powerful undercurrent of sadness. The ending, with its crushing of the narrator’s illusions of his dead lover, is bitter and unhappily powerful.

Recommended Edition

Print: Otto Penzler, ed., Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! New York: Vintage Crime, 2011.