The Short Stories

Guy de Maupassant

Letter Found on a Drowned Man
(Lettre trouvée sur un noyé)

First published in 1884.

This edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

Last updated Tuesday, January 26, 2016 at 14:17.

To the best of our knowledge, the text of this
work is in the “Public Domain” in Australia.
HOWEVER, copyright law varies in other countries, and the work may still be under copyright in the country from which you are accessing this website. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country before downloading this work.

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

Letter Found on a Drowned Man

You ask me, madame, whether I am laughing at you? You cannot believe that a man has never been smitten with love. Well, no, I have never loved, never!

What is the cause of this? I really cannot tell. Never have I been under the influence of that sort of intoxication of the heart which we call love! Never have I lived in that dream, in that exaltation, in that state of madness into which the image of a woman casts us. I have never been pursued, haunted, roused to fever-heat, lifted up to Paradise by the thought of meeting, or by the possession of, a being who had suddenly become for me more desirable than any good fortune, more beautiful than any other creature, more important than the whole world! I have never wept, I have never suffered, on account of any of you. I have not passed my nights thinking of one woman without closing my eyes. I have no experience of waking up with the thought and the memory of her shedding their illumination on me. I have never known the wild desperation of hope when she was about to come, or the divine sadness of regret when she parted with me, leaving behind her in the room a delicate odor of violet powder and flesh.

I have never been in love.

I, too, have often asked myself why is this. And truly I can scarcely tell. Nevertheless, I have found some reasons for it; but they are of a metaphysical character, and perhaps you will not be able to appreciate them.

I suppose I sit too much in judgment on women to submit much to their fascination. I ask you to forgive me for this remark. I am going to explain what I mean. In every creature there is a moral being and a physical being. In order to love, it would be necessary for me to find a harmony between these two beings which I have never found. One has always too great a predominance over the other, sometimes the moral, sometimes the physical.

The intellect which we have a right to require in a woman, in order to love her, is not the same as virile intellect. It is more and it is less. A woman must have a mind open, delicate, sensitive, refined, impressionable. She has no need of either power or initiative in thought, but she must have kindness, elegance, tenderness, coquetry, and that faculty of assimilation which, in a little while, raises her to an equality with him who shared her life. Her greatest quality must be tact, that subtle sense which is to the mind what touch is to the body. It reveals to her a thousand little things, contours, angles, and forms in the intellectual order.

Very frequently pretty women have not intellect to correspond with their personal charms. Now the slightest lack of harmony strikes me and pains me at the first glance. In friendship, this is not of importance. Friendship is a compact in which one fairly divides defects and merits. We may judge of friends, whether man or woman, take into account the good they possess, neglect the evil that is in them, and appreciate their value exactly, while giving ourselves up to an intimate sympathy of a deep and fascinating character.

In order to love, one must be blind, surrender oneself absolutely, see nothing, reason on nothing, understand nothing. One must adorn the weakness as well as the beauty of the beloved object, renounce all judgment, all reflection, all perspicacity.

I am incapable of such blindness, and rebel against a seductiveness not founded on reason. This is not all. I have such a high and subtle idea of harmony, that nothing can ever realize my ideal. But you will call me a madman. Listen to me. A woman, in my opinion, may have an exquisite soul and a charming body, without that body and that soul being in perfect accord with one another. I mean that persons who have noses made in a certain shape are not to be expected to think in a certain fashion. The fat have no right to make use of the same words and phrases as the thin. You, who have blue eyes, madame, cannot look at life, and judge of things and events as if you had black eyes. The shades of your eyes should correspond, by a sort of fatality, with the shades of your thought. In perceiving these things I have the scent of a bloodhound. Laugh if you like, but it is so.

And yet I imagined that I was in love for an hour, for a day. I had foolishly yielded to the influence of surrounding circumstances. I allowed myself to be beguiled by the mirage of an aurora. Would you like me to relate for you this short history?


I met, one evening, a pretty enthusiastic woman who wanted, for the purpose of humoring a poetic fancy, to spend a night with me in a boat on a river. I would have preferred a room and a bed; however, I consented to take instead the river and the boat.

It was in the month of June. My fair companion chose a moonlight night in order to excite her imagination all the better.

We had dined at a riverside inn, and then we set out in the boat about ten o’clock. I thought it a rather foolish kind of adventure; but as my companion pleased me I did not bother myself too much about this. I sat down on the seat facing her; I seized the oars, and off we started.

I could not deny that the scene was picturesque. We glided past a wooded isle full of nightingales, and the current carried us rapidly over the river covered with silvery ripples. The toads uttered their shrill, monotonous cry; the frogs croaked in the grass by the river’s bank, and the lapping of the water as it flowed on made around us a kind of confused murmur almost imperceptible, disquieting, and gave us a vague sensation of mysterious fear.

The sweet charm of warm nights and of streams glittering in the moonlight penetrated us. It seemed bliss to live and to float thus, and to dream and to feel by one’s side a young woman sympathetic and beautiful.

I was somewhat affected, somewhat agitated, somewhat intoxicated by the pale brightness of the night and the consciousness of my proximity to a lovely woman.

“Come and sit beside me,” she said.

I obeyed.

She went on:

“Recite some verses for me.”

This appeared to be rather too much. I declined; she persisted. She certainly wanted to have the utmost pleasure, the whole orchestra of sentiment, from the moon to the rhymes of poets. In the end, I had to yield, and, as if in mockery, I recited for her a charming little poem by Louis Bouilbet, of which the following are a few strophes:

“I hate the poet who with tearful eye
  Murmurs some name while gazing tow’rds a star,
Who sees no magic in the earth or sky,
  Unless Lizette or Ninon be not far.

“The bard who in all Nature nothing sees
  Divine, unless a petticoat he ties
Amorously to the branches of the trees
  Or nightcap to the grass, is scarcely wise.

“He has not heard the eternal’s thunder tone,
  The voice of Nature in her various moods,
Who cannot tread the dim ravines alone,
  And of no woman dream ‘mid whispering woods.”

I expected some reproaches. Nothing of the sort. She murmured:

“How true it is!”

I remained stupefied. Had she understood?

Our boat was gradually drawing nearer to the bank, and got entangled under a willow which impeded its progress. I drew my arm around my companion’s waist, and very gently moved my lips towards her neck. But she repulsed me with an abrupt, angry movement:

“Have done, pray! You are rude!”

I tried to draw her towards me. She resisted, caught hold of the tree, and was near flinging us both into the water. I deemed it the prudent course to cease my importunities.

She said:

“I would rather have you capsized. I feel so happy. I want to dream — that is so nice.” Then, in a slightly malicious tone, she added:

“Have you, then, already forgotten the verses you recited for me just now?”

She was right. I became silent.

She went on:

“Come! row!”

And I plied the oars once more.

I began to find the night long and to see the absurdity of my conduct.

My companion said to me:

“Will you make me a promise?”

“Yes. What is it?”

“To remain quiet, well-behaved, and discreet, if I permit you — ”

“What? Say what you mean!”

“Here is what I mean! I want to lie down on my back at the bottom of the boat with you by my side. But I forbid you to touch me, to embrace me — in short to — to caress me.”

I promised. She warned me:

“If you move, I’ll capsize the boat.”

And then we lay down side by side, our eyes turned towards the sky, while the boat glided slowly through the water. We were rocked by the gentle movements of the shallop. The light sounds of the night came to us more distinctly in the bottom of the boat, sometimes causing us to start. And I felt springing up within me a strange, poignant emotion, an infinite tenderness, something like an irresistible impulse to open my arms in order to embrace, to open my heart in order to love, to give myself, to give my thoughts, my body, my life, my entire being to someone.

My companion murmured, like one in a dream:

“Where are we? Where are we going? It seems to me that I am quitting the earth. How sweet it is! Ah! if you loved me — a little!!!”

My heart began to throb. I had no answer to give. It seemed to me that I loved her. I had no longer any violent desire. I felt happy there by her side, and that was enough for me.

And thus we remained for a long, long time without stirring. We caught each other’s hands; some delightful force rendered us motionless, an unknown force stronger than ourselves, an alliance, chaste, intimate, absolute of our persons lying there side by side which belonged to each other without touching. What was this? How do I know. Love, perhaps?

Little by little, the dawn appeared. It was three o’clock in the morning. Slowly, a great brightness spread over the sky. The boat knocked against something. I rose up. We had come close to a tiny islet.

But I remained ravished, in a state of ecstasy. In front of us stretched the shining firmament, red, rosy, violet, spotted with fiery clouds resembling golden vapors. The river was glowing with purple, and three houses on one side of it seemed to be burning.

I bent towards my companion. I was going to say: “Oh! look!” But I held my tongue, quite dazed, and I could no longer see anything except her. She, too, was rosy, with the rosy flesh tints with which must have mingled a little the hue of the sky. Her tresses were rosy; her eyes were rosy; her teeth were rosy; here dress, her laces, her smile, all were rosy. And in truth I believed, so overpowering was the illusion, that the aurora was there before me.

She rose softly to her feet, holding out her lips to me; and I moved towards her, trembling, delirious, feeling indeed that I was going to kiss Heaven, to kiss happiness, to kiss a dream which had become a woman, to kiss the ideal which had descended into human flesh.

She said to me: “You have a caterpillar in your hair.” And suddenly I felt myself becoming as sad as if I had lost all hope in life.

That is all, madame. It is puerile, silly, stupid. But I am sure that since that day it would be impossible for me to love. And yet — who can tell?

[The young man upon whom this letter was found was yesterday taken out of the Seine between Bougival and Marly. An obliging bargeman, who had searched the pockets in order to ascertain the name of the deceased, brought this paper to the author.]

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005