The Novel in a Corset: Maupassant, Monsters, and the Short Story

This study situates Maupassant’s short story “La Mère aux monstres” in the context of nineteenth-century debates about teratology, fashion, and literary form. I trace the evolution of the corset’s social meaning over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as it evolved from a protective (and even remedial) garment to one that came to be associated with female and fetal deformity. The eponymous character of Maupassant’s tale exemplifies traits that nineteenth-century dress reformers associated with tight-lacing women: venality, deformity, and corrupt reproductivity. Maupassant’s story thus reflects post-war cultural fears about dénatalité and degeneration. The corset also serves as a metaphor for Maupassant’s artistic production as a short story writer. As the corset is the compressive creator of beauty and deformity in “La Mère aux monstres,” the formal strictures of the short story also create beauty and deformity—Maupassant’s literary achievement and the monstrous characters in his story, respectively.