“The Hand”

This week’s bit of weird fiction being examined at LibraryThing is from a French writer best known for his story “The Horla”.

I apologize for not providing a translator’s name. I read this out of a massive Project Guttenberg collection of all of Maupassant’s short stories. It listed multiple translators but didn’t tie them to specific stories.

Review: “The Hand”, Guy de Maupassant, 1883. 

This is a short, jocular story though its central image, a severed hand, is memorable enough. 

The story starts with M. Bermutier, a judge, talking at a party about some “inexplicable” crime in Paris. A woman comments that it was a terrible crime, verging on the supernatural. “The truth will never be known.” 

Bermutier agrees about the truth. However, he disagrees with the use of the word “supernatural”.  It’s simply a

very cleverly conceived and executed crime, so well enshrouded in mystery that we cannot disentangle it from the involved circumstances which surround it.

Then he talks about another case he was involved “in which the uncanny seemed to play a part”.

And that’s, of course, the main story. 

Right up front he says there is nothing in the tale about “supernatural influences”. He believes in only “normal causes”. He thinks “inexplicable” should be used rather than “supernatural”. 

He was a judge in Ajaccio on the coast. He waxes rhapsodic about “the most beautiful causes for revenge”, sometimes centuries old, behind the cases he heard for two years. 

He then heard about a local Englishman who rented a coastal villa for a few years and hired a French servant. This rouses the town folk’s suspicions. He keeps to himself, never goes into town, and blasts a way an hour or so every day in rifle and pistol practice. Is he a political exile?  Is he wanted for crimes? 

The Englishman is Sir John Rowell, and Bermutier visits him. They have five or six conversations in a month’s time since Rowell is happy to see Bermutier, and Rowell seems to possess “nothing of the so-called English stiffness”. 

It turns out that Rowell has had many adventures. He’s also a big-time hunter. He’s killed a hippopotamus, tiger, elephant, and a gorilla. When Bermutier asks him if those animals are dangerous to hunt, Rowell just smiles and says “Man is the worst”. He’s frequently hunted them.

The talk then turns to weapons, and Rowell invites him to look at his collection. 

In one room of Rowell’s house is a chained up hand on a screen of cloth:

Not the clean white hand of a skeleton, but a dried black hand, with yellow nails, the muscles exposed and traces of old blood on the bones, where were cut off as clean as though it had been chopped off with an axe.

Bermutier asks who the hand belongs to, and he gets sort of a frank answer but not a complete one:

That is my best enemy. It comes from America, too. The bones were severed by a sword and the skin cut off with a sharp stone and dried in the sun for a week. 

Was he a strong man, asks Bermutier? Yes, says Rowell, but not stronger than him. The chains are there to hold him. 

Bermutier makes the obvious observation: how is a dead hand going to hurt Rowell now? Why chain it up?

Because, replies Rowell, “It always wants to go away.” 

Bermutier wonders if Rowell is insane. If so, it’s a serious kind of insanity. Rowell has three loaded revolvers in the room with the hand.

A year goes by, and Rowell’s servant showed up one night told Bermutier that Rowell has been murdered.  He was strangled, his face swollen and contorted with fear. In his mouth was one of the hand’s fingers. In his neck are five or six holes. 

An investigation was started. Rowell’s room was locked with no forced entry. None of the watchdogs barked. The servant says that for a month Rowell had been excited. He got lots of letters and burned them. He madly took a switch to the hand. At night he locked himself in his room with loaded weapons and would talk loudly “as though he were quarreling with some one”.  There was no noise the night of the murder. 

About three months after the murder, Bermutier had a dream with the hand running about his room “like an immense scorpion or spider”. 

The following day Bermutier got the actual hand. It was found on the grave of Rowell. He was buried in town because no family could be located for him. The hand had a finger missing. 

There Bermutier concludes his story. The woman from the start of the story is outraged: Bermutier hasn’t given us a climax or explanation. 

Bermutier just says that he doesn’t think the owner of the hand was really dead, that he came to get it with his remaining one. It was a kind of vendetta. But he doesn’t know how the murder was committed. 

The woman says that can’t be an explanation. 

And the story’s final line is from Bermutier: “’Didn’t I tell you that my explanation would not satisfy you?’” 

Should it satisfy us? Bermutier’s materialistic solution could be correct though, as he implicitly acknowledges, he can’t explain how the hand’s owner got in Rowell’s locked room.  Bermutier’s explanation implies those letters Rowell were threats or warnings of a future attack. (On the other hand, Rowell must have a lot of enemies to have a “best” one.)  Of course, we know nothing about the owner of the hand other than that he lived in America. (Or even that it’s a “him”.) And why was Rowell hunting men? 

You could see this story as de Maupassant commenting on people’s preference for the sensational story over a rational materialist explanation. But it could be the reverse – an attempt to rationalize something truly supernatural.

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