Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

06 May 2011

(Short Story) Massacre of the Innocents by Maurice Maeterlinck

(Reaction) Senseless by: Antonio Conejos

Maeterlinck's short story appears to be a retelling of the massacre of the holy innocents found in the bible. The commander who initiates the attack on the town explicitly references this, he intended to massacre them, in accordance with what is written in the Gospel of St. Matthew.

As recounted in the Gospel, shortly after the birth of Christ, Herod (the King of Judea) orders his troops to kill all boys two years old and younger in the town of Bethlehem. He does so in an attempt to kill Jesus who, it has been foretold, will supposedly supplant him as king in the future. Unknown to Herod, Jesus and his family have already left Bethlehem by means of a secret route. The soldiers carry out their orders and the ensuing slaughter is known to Christianity as the massacre of the holy innocents.

In the Gospel of Matthew the killing of the children (or more accurately, infants) serves no purpose as Jesus is no longer in Bethlehem. Similarly, in Maeterlinck's short story, there is no reason behind the massacre of the innocents. The story focuses graphically on the killing of the children by implacable soldiers. Then he who held the innkeeper's child by one leg, cut off its head with a stroke of the sword. The peasants saw the head fall, and the body bleeding on the ground.

The nonchalance of the soldiers, their gestures of resignation, What can I do? I'm not to blame!, echo the central conceit of the story that the suffering of this world is often without reason; committed by man not so much because he is evil but that he is indifferent.

Violence is the controlling force in Maeterlinck's short story. The terrible slaughter is emphasized by the story's insistent attention to the color of the buildings of the town and the clothing of its inhabitants. To quote from a variety of passages:

Other soldiers climbed into lime trees in front of a farmhouse painted the color of lilacs... One of them [a child], who wore a yellow dress, got up and ran with unsteady feet toward the sheep. A solder ran after it with his naked sword
As the foot-soldiers went along the street they noticed a large blue farmhouse.
In the square a woman dressed in yellow had fainted away... Another woman, in red, clutched her little girl...
As the action of the story takes place amongst the white of winter, the colors throw in stark relief the violence being visited on the townsfolk and their children.

In their hour of need, the townspeople turn to god for salvation. God takes the form of two men, the priest and the feudal lord. The story cloaks each with an air of divinity, describing both like gods.

First, their priest, who arrived like a god covered with gold. Yet the priest is impotent and is reduced to begging and blubbering before the carnage, Alone in the orchard, the cure fell to his keens and begged the Spaniards, in a piteous voice, with arms crossed over his breast, going from one to the other on his knees....

Second, the feudal lord whose responsibility it is to defend the land entrusted to him. At least the priest attempts, however futile, to aver the killings. In contrast, the feudal lord is content to watch from his high walls, never deigning to descend into the violence which his people are mired in.

They had caught site of their lord on the battlements, watching the massacre. Men and women, young and old, extended their hands toward him in supplication as he stood there in his velvet cloak and golden cap like a king in Heaven. But he only raised his hands and shrugged his shoulders to show that he was powerless, while the people supplicated him in growing despair... He turned slowly back into his tower. Their last hope had vanished.

Amidst the violence and their lord's apathy, the townspeople turn to despair, men and women... cursing and raising their arms to heaven as they contemplated the pink, red, and white clothes of their motionless children on the ground among the trees.

Ultimately Maeterlinck's Massacre of the Innocents asks why and receives no answer. The characters in the story ask deliverance from god and they are met with his back as he turns away from his children who suffer. And their suffering is caused by other children of God who cannot account for their actions, who inflict suffering without reason.


The historical setting of this short story is unclear to me so I can't speculate on why the story relates that Spaniards are attacking a town called Nazareth whose inhabitants speak Flemish. Even for fiction this premise seems a bit odd and out of sorts with any historical record that I'm familiar with. Further adding to the mystery of this short story is that no motive is given why the Spaniards bear ill will to the people of Nazareth and vice versa.

The lack of motivation for the attack/animosity may be deliberate as it highlights the cruel lack of reason for the slaughtering of the children. This insane absurdity - why kill defenseless children - is after all the theme of the story.

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