Olalla (short story)

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"Olalla" is a short story by the Scottish novelist, poet, essayist and travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson. It was first published in Christmas 1885 issue of The Court and Society Review, then re-published in 1887 as part of the collection The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables. It is set in Spain during the Peninsular War.

The story is told in first person by a nameless English soldier. He is recovering from his wounds in a Spanish hospital, where his doctor suggests he take up temporary residence with a local family. The once-noble family consists of a mother, a son (Felipe) and a daughter (Olalla). The Englishman is welcomed by the son and begins to develop a casual friendliness with the mother. Both are described as "stupid" and "slothful" but the narrator emphasises the simple pleasure of their company.

Some time passes without sight of Olalla and when she finally appears, our hero falls desperately in love with her, and she with him. He recognises an extraordinary intellect in the girl and expresses a desire to take her away from the decaying home of her kinsmen. They profess their love for one another, but Olalla urges the Englishman to leave at once, keeping her always in his memory. He refuses and during the night, he breaks his window trying distractedly to open it. The shattering glass cuts his wrist and he applies to Olalla's mother for help. At the sight of his wound, she leaps upon him and bites into his arm. Felipe arrives in time to wrestle his mother away from our hero and Olalla tends to his injuries.

He leaves the residencia very shortly thereafter, but lingers in the nearby town. He is sitting on a hill beside an effigy of the crucified Christ when he meets Olalla for the last time. She tells him, "We are all such as He," and states that there is a "spark of the Divine" in all human beings. "Like Him," she says, "we must endure for a little while, until morning returns bringing peace." At this, the narrator departs, looking back but once to see Olalla at the foot of the cross.

Gothic tradition[edit]

"Olalla" contains many of the trademark elements of Gothic fiction. There is a once-proud family of failing nobility, a lonely home in a mountain setting and a preoccupation with death and decay. Stevenson also focuses on the subject of heredity, demonstrated by a family portrait to which Olalla bears an uncanny resemblance. This was a very popular Gothic device, famously employed by Sheridan Le Fanu in his short story "Carmilla" and by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Most significantly, the story shares a similarity with the popular vampire lore of the Victorian era. Olalla's family have symbolically "impure" blood due to centuries of inbreeding brought on by the exclusive nature of the nobility. By attacking the Englishman and drinking his blood, Olalla's mother is seeking a more "pure" source of blood in the hope of rejuvenating her weakening lineage.