Maupassant's An Old Man: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson summarizes the story of 'An Old Man,' by French author Guy Maupassant. We will learn about the plot and themes of this shorter-than-short story, and what Maupassant intended to convey through his characters.

The Fear of Death and the Limits of Mortality

''An Old Man'' is a short story by prominent French author Guy Maupassant (1850-1893). In this shorter-than-short story, coming in at just 4 pages, Maupassant tackles themes of death, mortality, and self-importance. ''An Old Man'' concerns 86-year-old Monsieur Daron. M. Daron is fiercely obsessed with his own mortality, to the extent that he denies the fact that he will one day die from old age. He believes that a healthy lifestyle and 'careful living' will allow him to reach a ripe old age. However, along the way, he has deprived himself of life's joys and pleasures. By steering clear of intoxicants and protecting himself from illness, he has managed to live a long life, though was it one worth living?

Through M. Daron, Maupassant questions what makes life worth living. Is it the amount of time spent on earth, or is it the extent to which the individual has enjoyed the time spent? The author suggests that the latter is the better option by characterizing his protagonist as a self-important, controlling, lonely man.

The Health Spa at Rodelis

The story opens with a newspaper advertisement promoting the grand opening of a health spa in the town of Rodelis, France. M. Daron travels to Rodelis to seek a consultation with the doctors, encouraged that the rejuvenative powers of the spring's healing waters have enabled local residents to extend their lives.

Historical illustration of rejuvenative hot springs

Upon arrival, M. Daron meets with the clinic's lead doctor. He settles in to a private residence in town and requests that the doctor make weekly visits. He asks explicitly that the doctor provide him information about the town's residents exceeding 80 years of age. Daron lies about his own age, confident that his 'careful lifestyle' has allowed him to maintain a youthful appearance.

So, each week, the doctor from Rodelis comes to visit M. Daron. Over a meal, they discuss the health of the 17 Rodelis residents over the age of 80. When an old Henri Brissot dies a sudden death, M. Daron is quick to diagnose the cause: pleurisy, an inflammation of the lungs due to accumulation of fluid. He exclaims, 'Only fools die of pleurisy.'

Portrait of a lonely, old man. Rembrandt, Old Man with Beard
old man

Maupassant paints M. Daron as an eccentric, self-important old man who cares nothing for others: 'He had never regarded other men as anything but puppets of a sort, created to fill an empty world.' He came to Rodelis and chose those 17 elders as experiments. All M. Daron is concerned about is his own longevity. Maupassant shows this through M. Daron's insistence on using the possessive pronoun ('my, mine'), which shows his determination to cheat death. He refers to his body, body parts, and his life incessantly as 'his own.'

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