Following his service in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, Guy de Maupassant studied with the seminal French writer Gustave Flaubert. From Flaubert, de Maupassant learned that his job as a writer was to observe and then report common occurrences in an original way. His stories would show less sympathy for their characters than did those of Anton Chekhov, another writer of his era with whom de Maupassant is often associated. De Maupassant began his career by publishing the story “Boule de Suif” (1880; ball of fat), which sparked a strong reaction to its topic of prostitution and bourgeois hypocrisy in France. He published almost three hundred stories written in the naturalist style before suffering a lingering illness and death from syphilis. His own experience serving as a clerk for the Ministry of Public Instructions informed his writing of “The Necklace.”
Much of de Maupassant’s discourse resembles conversation, echoing the conventions of oral storytelling. His narrator acts as a nonjudgmental observer. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions regarding his characters’ actions, morality, or lack of morality. One of the most prolific writers of his era, de Maupassant influenced many writers, including the American Kate Chopin, whose widely anthologized short story “The Story of an Hour” (1894) owes much to de Maupassant’s enigmatic style.
Formalist critics have noted de Maupassant’s employment of repetition for emphasis. For example, of the first seven paragraphs in “The Necklace,” six begin with the word “She,” clarifying that the focus of the story will remain on Mathilde. De Maupassant sets a cynical tone early in the tale though his vocabulary choice: Words such as “suffered,” “poverty,” “wretched,” “ugliness,” “tortured,” and “angry” all appear in the third paragraph. He then lightens his tone through playful alliteration used to frame Mathilde’s fantasies. Examples include the phrases “dainty dinner,” “shining silverware,” “fairy forest,” “delicious dishes,” and “sphinxlike smile” (all of which are also alliterative in French). De Maupassant’s use of detail helps emphasize the value placed upon objects, the fantasized Oriental tapestry in the story’s opening serving as a fine example. His short cryptic sentences aid in building narrative momentum, and he bolsters imagery through quick staccato descriptions that resemble stage directions, such as “She turned madly toward him,” or “He stood up, distracted.”
“The Necklace” is framed by heavy irony, especially in its conclusion, which helps impart its observations regarding the costs of pride. The Loisels pay an incalculable personal price, both literally and figuratively, for Mathilde’s vanity. De Maupassant provides no evidence of an epiphany that might demonstrate that Mathilde has learned or benefited in any way from her foolish actions. However, readers may realize that her failure to take responsibility for her actions is the flaw that leads to her fall. Although the conclusion of “The Necklace” is meant to surprise, de Maupassant inserts foreshadowing that might be noted by an astute reader, such as the facts that Madame Forestier freely loans the necklace and then does not care even to examine the piece that Mathilde returns to her, suggesting its low value.
With its emphasis on Parisian class structure, “The Necklace” is a prime candidate for application of Marxist criticism. Mathilde is born into a family of clerks, lacks a dowry, is unable to perform any service, and, most important, lacks any expectations: She is thus destined to remain in her low station. However, she possesses a strong sense of imagination that prevents her from accepting her “place.” She fantasizes details about the upper class based on stories she has heard, her daydreams containing a strong emphasis on material things. She pretends through role-playing to be a member of the upper class, and her longings promote dissatisfaction with her middle-class life. A member of the “petite bourgeoisie,” Monsieur Loisel works for wages at the pleasure of the upper class. By the story’s end, Mathilde bears the burdens of the servant class.
Some Marxist critics focus on power structures and control of one group by another based on material possessions. Not only does class structure limit Monsieur Loisel’s income, but it also limits Mathilde’s happiness. In contrast, Monsieur Loisel is accepting of his social place. Any regrets he holds are on behalf of his wife, whose misery greatly affects his existence. Madame Forestier’s reserved attitude toward Mathilde makes clear that, although they began life on the same level, she believes herself superior to Mathilde because she has become a member of the upper class, the haute bourgeoisie, through marriage.
Marxist ideology promotes revolution by the working class, which see all surplus value extracted from the products of its labor for the benefit of the upper classes. Rather than physically revolting against her circumstances, however, Mathilde escapes her circumstances through fantasy, desiring the things that the upper classes possess and thereby accepting bourgeois values as her own. Her situation is untenable, as she can never become a part of the class she longs to join, but neither can she accept her own position.
When Mathilde attempts a temporary shift to the upper class, it is not through revolution but through capitulation, an act that supports the story’s irony. By accepting an invitation to interact on a temporary basis with the members of the upper class, Mathilde complies with their requirements. Not only do these requirements effectively force the Loisels to retain their lower social status, but they also cause a further loss of income by requiring Monsieur Loisel to spend money he cannot afford to dress Mathilde as she desires. Ironically, the Loisels do descend to the working class as a result of Mathilde’s pride.
Other critical schools that may provide useful readings of “The Necklace” include feminism, which would tend to focus on Mathilde’s restrictions as a member of a nineteenth century patriarchal society. Because women cannot work for success, they must depend upon the confines of marriage to advance their social standing, as Madame Forestier does. Women succeed in this society only as fashion objects. A crucial symbol for feminist critics is the mirror in which Mathilde admires herself, which represents objectification. Deconstructionist critics might focus on the binary opposition between wealth and poverty, discussing how in this instance poverty is the preferred condition, because through poverty Mathilde sees that she was not poor in her previous circumstance.