Clarimonde by Théophile Gautier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"Clarimonde" is a fantastical tale that undoubtedly falls into the Gothic horror genre. Gautier's story is incredibly short, but it leaves a firm impression upon the reader's mind. The last lines are a harrowing reminder of the great tragedies of a wandering eye, especially when it lands upon a beautiful woman like Clarimonde. Gautier's final lines are the following:
Never gaze upon a woman, and walk abroad only with eyes ever fixed upon the ground; for however chaste and watchful one may be, the error of a single moment is enough to make one lose eternity.
This short story recounts the memories of a priest, Romuald, and his chance encounter with Clarimonde. Their eyes meet at the most inopportune time, right when he is about to make his sacred vows to chastity and to live out a religious life for all the rest of his days. He utters the holy vows mechanically, but already his heart is lost to the great beauties of this young woman. He chances to meet her yet again, a year later at Clarimonde's death bed where she is covered over in a white veil and adorned with flowers in her hair. Her beauty is so exquisite he can hardly believe that she is truly dead- the absence of her breath and the cold skin feel like a betrayal when he looks upon the gorgeous face of this woman that has left an everlasting place in his heart. In a moment of profound passion, Romuald digresses:
Ah, must I confess it? That exquisite perfection of bodily form, although purified and made sacred by the shadow of death, affected me more voluptuously than it should have done, and that repose so closely resembled slumber that one might well have mistaken it for such. I forgot that I had come there to perform a funeral ceremony; I fancied myself a young bridegroom entering the chamber of the bride...
In a state of despair he passes out over her bed, unable to chant the holy prayers to let her spirit depart from her body. Days later he chances to meet her yet again! Is it really Clarimonde that has come back from the dead? Or is this all a maddening form of fanatical illusions in the dead of night? In vain, he tries to forget the young woman's promise that she will return to him on the 'morrow, hoping it was just some sensuous dream, but in his soul Romuald knows that everything about Clarimonde is not as it appears to be...
I highly recommend this story for anyone that is a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." There is a similar theme prevalent between the two, where the characters cannot fathom how they are capable of such evil, and yet, be also morally good. There is a lot of inward conversations about morality and philosophical questions about the lives that people are able to lead. Romuald had wanted to be a priest, it was supposed to be his life's calling, but the second he laid his eyes on Clarimond it forces his heart to change. He could not love or worship God, or even sacrifice his life to chastity and loneliness once this beauteous woman caught his eye. The Gothic horror element of night creatures, evil spirits and vampires added a paranormal/supernatural element to this short novel. I recommend this read to all that have a fascination with this type of genre. Furthermore, I look forward to reading more of Gautier's work in the future.
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