Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Maupassant learned much from his godfather and mentor, Gustave Flaubert, displaying in his short stories the same precision and sobriety of language. Maupassant is particularly good in creating atmosphere by describing sights and smells, places and things. He likes to describe his characters through the way that they view their own surroundings:She dreamed of hushed antichambers cushioned with oriental fabrics and illuminated by tall bronze candle sticks, with two imposing footmen in knee breeches, made drowsy by the oppressive heat of the radiators, dozing in large arm chairs. She imagined great rooms bedecked with ancient silk, with splendid furniture decorated with expensive knick-knacks, and of smaller intimate perfumed rooms, intended for five o’clock gossip with the closest friends, the men well-known and sought-after enjoying the envy and attention of every woman.
Although Maupassant tried to suppress his own passions to achieve that objectivity of description for which the realists were known, his sententiousness, nevertheless, shines through:Women have no class and no breeding. Their beauty, their grace, their charm are substitutes for birth and family. Their instinctive shrewdness, their predilection for elegance, their suppleness of spirit are their only system of rank, and in this way the daughters of the common people are the equals of the great ladies.
In this rather pessimistic view of women, Maupassant has descended to the...
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The Third Republic
Following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the expulsion of Napoleon III as emperor, the remains of the French government reestablished itself as a republic. Peace with the Germans had been dearly bought; the French paid a five billion franc indemnity and surrendered valuable land along the eastern frontier. While the Prussian victory helped establish the modern German state France was demoted to a somewhat secondary role in European affairs. Civil war erupted in Paris between Republicans and Monarchists, threatening to tear apart the French state, but a peaceful settlement was eventually reached. By 1879, with the resignation of its Monarchist president, the Third Republic had become the firmly established government, and the French began to look beyond their domestic troubles. During the 1880s, France reinstated itself as a primary force in the geopolitical arena, establishing protectorates in China and Southeast Asia and reasserting its control over areas of Africa. The mood of the French following their defeat by the Prussians in 1871 was somber, but a decade later the nation was buoyant, even though certain factional conflicts still remained.
The Ministry of...
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Maupassant wrote this story set in a present that he knew and had lately lived: Paris in 1880. There, a Breton could find honest labor as a government clerk, and people of modest means or desperate straits could see the jeweled rich living in luxury just out of reach.
By Maupassant's descriptions of Madame Loisel's envies and daydreams and one glorious ball at the house of the Minister, readers get a picture of what Paris looked like for the wealthy, and how elegant and comfortable their lives must have been. By his descriptions of the Loisels' modest and economical apartment, their visits to the theater, and Monsieur Loisel's wish to go shooting with some friends, readers know what Paris looked like for working people, and that their lives were not luxurious but comfortable and far from desperate.
However, working people crippled by debt shared the lifestyle of the uneducated, the unskilled, and the unlucky: the poor. Living in cheap rooms under a mansard roof, the Loisels would have roasted in summer and shivered in winter. With no running water, the simple hauling up four or five flights of stairs every bucket of water for cooking and cleaning and bathing was enough to exhaust a person. Buying the most economical foodstuffs, cooking meals and cleaning afterwards, and doing laundry by hand was for one person more than a modern full-time job.
The office work done by Loisel would have been tedious, repetitive, and unsatisfying for...
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Narration and Point of View
Like most of Maupassant's short stories, ‘‘The Necklace’’ is told by an omniscient third-person narrator, who refrains from judging the characters or their actions. The narrator does have access to the characters' thoughts, and mentions that Madame Loisel is unhappy because she feels that she married beneath her. But for the most part, the narrator simply describes the events of the story, leaving it up to the reader to determine the nature of the characters through their actions. Most of all, the narrator is concerned with Madame Loisel. Though most of the story concerns the events surrounding the ball, the narrator recounts her birth into a humble family, her marriage, and also the many years of poverty they suffer afterward as a result of losing the necklace. This deft narration allows Maupassant to tell a story that stretches many years in the space of only a few pages.
The necklace is the central symbol of the story. Madame Loisel "had no clothes, no jewels, nothing," and while her husband can buy her a dress, they cannot afford jewelry. The necklace thus represents Madame Loisel's greed and also her artificiality. She judges herself by the things that she has, and believes others will too. The necklace of artificial diamonds symbolizes the insincerity of her character. Those who admire the necklace only for its supposed worth have been fooled. Just because it...
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In a few words, Maupassant could portray a figure, in a few pages he could describe a fate. Some of his stories in translation fired the imagination of short story authors around the world.
Maupassant's name has become coupled with the "trick ending" in the short story tradition (his admirer O. Henry took this technique to extreme lengths). It is not fair to associate Maupassant exclusively with the "trick ending," however, as he rarely employed it. This link is probably due to the frequency with which his story "The Necklace" has been anthologized. It is likely that "The Necklace" has been anthologized so often because it has no overt sexual element, and so publishers may feel safe about including it in books intended for young students.
"It is a grave error, and a greater injustice, to associate Maupassant with the naturalists, that all too easy label of the manuals of literature," wrote Professor Artine Artinian in his introduction to The Complete Short Stories of Guy Maupassant. "He shared Flaubert's burning aversion to 'schools,' and he deplored Zola's noisy proclamation of esthetic theories. His was the craftsman's cult of art in practice rather than in theorizing."
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Maupassant never married, and after reading this story one can guess that at least part of the reason may have been that for ten years he was unwilling to take on the responsibility for supporting a wife and family on the wages of a government clerk. After his writing brought him wealth, Maupassant still did not marry; perhaps because he knew then that he had syphilis or perhaps because he knew that he was unsuited to married life. He wrote like a man obsessed and indulged himself in athletic and carnal excesses. He would not have made a good spouse—a better husband by far would be the little Breton Loisel from this story, who schemed to get an invitation to please his wife, gave his entertainment savings to have her dress made, searched on foot for hours for the missing necklace, spent his inheritance and took on a staggering debt to buy a new piece of jewelry, and worked at three jobs for ten years to pay the interest on the loans.
The author never needs to tell the audience in so many words that Loisel is a good, honest man and a good husband. The reader knows this by what the man does.
Maupassant goes to a great deal of effort to describe Madame Loisel's experiences, as a discontented young wife of modest means, as a social butterfly for one night, and as a penny-pinching household drudge. He even mentions her proud and simple joy when the debt is paid.
Monsieur Loisel's labors are summed up in three modest sentences:...
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Compare and Contrast
1880s: During the 1880s, as a republican government solidified following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 France entered into a period of expansionism. In part, their imperialistic attitude was fueled by a desire to restore the national pride that was wounded in the war. During this time, a distorted view of social Darwinism took hold of many Europeans, infusing them with the belief that they were naturally superior to "lesser" races and should therefore rule over them.
1998: French President Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister Alain Juppe are concerned with reducing government spending and lowering taxes. In 1995, Chirac won the presidential election in part because of his promise to address the disparity between the rich and the poor in his country, but within two years growing labor unrest attests to the public's dissatisfaction with his policies.
1880s: Loisel attempts to pay for the lost necklace in a variety of ways. He borrows money from usurers and incurs enormous debts in the process. Usury is the practice of charging more than the legal rate of interest for lending money. Since the sixteenth century, the practice of usury has been the subject of ethical debate, but it is a common practice in Europe.
1990s: Borrowers are protected against usurious rates in the United States by various state and federal laws. Nevertheless, credit card debt reaches...
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Topics for Discussion
1. What does Matilda covet? How does her desire affect her life?
2. What is ambition? Why is it a good servant but a poor master?
3. What was the slogan of the French Revolution? Which aspects are being explored in this story?
4. What are the goals and ambitions of Loisel as the story begins? What has he accomplished by the story's end?
5. What sort of school must Matilda Loisel and Jeanne Forestier have attended? How important is it culturally that the one girl grew up to marry a man of means, and the other married a clerk?
6. What can you guess about the economy in Paris and France at the time the story is set?
7. Why, for a story set in the crowded city of Paris in 1880, are there so few characters in this story?
8. How has technology made this story possible? Why could it not have been set in fourteenth-century France?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. What virtue does Madame Loisel learn in her sustained efforts to run her household with the utmost economy? What has this lesson cost her? Is this price fair or just or necessary? Could she have learned a similar lesson without spending all her youth and prettiness?
2. What does Madame Forestier know of the life experienced by her friend Madame Loisel before and after the loan of the necklace? How truly sophisticated is she to tell her friend that the jewels she worked so hard to replace were paste? What do we know of her from the text, and what can we guess of her personal qualities such as integrity and intelligence? What would a loving friend or a true great lady have done to honor such long, honest labor, rather than make that effort worthless with a single sentence?
3. Why does Maupassant spend so little effort on the character of Monsieur Loisel? Is he unworthy of the reader's attention? Or is his nature and experience so understandable and customary to the reader that it does not need puffed-up explanations? Is Maupassant describing a virtuous man?
4. What were the goals and ideals of the French Revolution? How does Maupassant explore the ideal of "Equality" in this story? Does Matilda believe in equality? What does she do because of her beliefs?
5. What is jealousy? How is it distinct from envy and desire? Are these entirely negative emotions? What good, if any, can these emotions bring to a person's life?...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the development of France's Third Republic and examine how the society depicted in this story reflects the aspirations and apprehensions of the French nation in the 1880s.
Explore the literary circles of which Maupassant was a part and explain how their theories about the role of literature in society affected the development of French, European, and Western fiction.
Read several versions of the Cinderella fable and compare them with this story.
Compare this and other translations of the story with the French original and account for differences between the English versions.
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Readers who have enjoyed this story would be particularly advised to read Maupassant's story "Boule de Suif" and any of dozens of his short stories. A teacher would be well advised to assign both this story and "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin in her short story collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters for comparative study, as both stories discuss the relative and absolute values of material wealth as compared to human misery.
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There are at least three film versions of Maupassant's story available in English. The first, a silent film from 1909, was directed by D. W. Griffith and runs eleven minutes. A 1980 version runs twenty minutes and is distributed by Britannica Films. A 1981 production runs twenty-two minutes and is distributed by Barr Entertainment.
Another film version of "The Necklace," which followed the French title of "La parure," appeared on American television on January 21, 1949. The famous conclusion was changed to a happy ending, which was apparently more to the producing advertiser's liking.
In addition, there are several audio recordings of "The Necklace," most available on both cassette and compact disc: Maupassant's Best-Known Stories (two volumes), distributed by Cassette Works; De Maupassant Short Stories (one volume), distributed by Listening Library; Favorite Stories of Guy de Maupassant (two volumes), distributed by Jimcin Recordings; and the French-language "La parure," "Deuxamix," "Le bapte" (one volume, abridged), distributed by Olivia & Hall.
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What Do I Read Next?
The other short story that competes with "The Necklace" for the title of "Maupassant's masterpiece" is his first published story, "Boule de suif" (1880). Based on Maupassant's experiences as a soldier during the Franco-Prussian War, the story depicts the ravages of war on society and illustrates the hypocrisy of patriotism.
Another of Maupassant's stories, "The Jewels" (‘‘Les bijoux,’’ 1883), offers a plot that is the reverse of that of "The Necklace," with a character discovering that his deceased wife's supposedly imitation jewelry is in fact real.
The American novelist and critic Henry James who considered Maupassant's story a "little perfection," wrote a short story entitled "Paste'' based on "The Necklace." Its plot is remarkably similar to that of "The Jewels."
GustaveFlaubert's 1857 novel Madame Bovary, originally condemned as obscene, is today recognized as one of the classic novels of nineteenth-century French literature. Not only was Flaubert Maupassant's mentor, but there are also certain interesting parallels between the novel's title character and Madame Loisel.
Francis Steegmuller's Maupassant: A Lion in the Path, published in 1949, presents a good overview of Maupassant's life, his career as a writer, and his relationship with Flaubert.
For another example of the surprise...
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For Further Reference
Artinian, Artine, editor. The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant. Garden City, NY: Hanover House/Doubleday, 1955. The introduction discusses Maupassant's writing from a critical viewpoint, praising the artistic merit of this author's many works.
Le Guin, Ursula K. "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." In The Wind's Twelve Quarters. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. A short story describing a fantasy city of great wealth, and the misery of one child whose captivity preserves that wealth by magic.
Maupassant, Guy de. The Best Stories of Guy de Maupassant. Edited by Saxe Commins. New York: Random House, 1945. Includes a fine introduction describing the life and experiences of Maupassant.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
James, Henry. ‘‘Guy de Maupassant,’’ reprinted in his Partial Portraits, Macmillan, 1888, pp. 243-87.
Prince, Gerald. ‘‘Nom et destin dans 'La Parure',’’ in The French Review, Vol. 55, 1982, pp. 267-71.
Sullivan, Edward D. ‘‘Maupassant et la nouvelle,’’ in Cahiers de l'association internationale des etudes francais, Vol. 27, pp. 223-36.
Artinian, Artine. "Introduction" in The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, Hanover House, 1955, pp. ix-xvii.
An introduction to Maupassant's literary reputation, particularly in the United States.
Donaldson-Evans, Mary. ‘‘The Last Laugh: Maupassant's 'Les bijoux' and 'La parure',’’ in French Forum, Vol. 10, 1985, pp. 163-73.
Compares ‘‘The Necklace’’ to ‘‘Les bijoux,’’ another Maupassant story with similar themes, arguing for the superiority of the former based on its greater complexity.
Europe, no. 482, 1969.
A collection of essays in French on Maupassant and his works, which helped reestablish his literary reputation.
James, Henry. ‘‘Guy de Maupassant,’’ in Maupassant's The Odd Number, Harper & Brothers, 1889, pp. vii- xvii.
Also published in the October 19, 1889, edition of the influential periodical Harper's Weekly, this piece served as...
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Guy de Maupassant. Philadelphia, Chelsea House, 2004. Collection of essays on de Maupassant’s short fiction, divided into sections. The section on “The Necklace” includes a plot summary, a list of characters, a summary of critical views on the work, and four full essays relevant to the story.
Bryant, David. The Rhetoric of Pessimism and Strategies of Containment in the Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1993. Using several stories as examples, Bryant discusses de Maupaussant’s depiction of a world hostile to humanity. He describes three constants in the stories that contribute to de Maupassant’s overall unity of vision: the world as a metaphysical farce in which the narrator’s detachment transforms suffering, the power of chance, and writing as a response to fate.
MacNamara, Matthew. “A Critical Stage in the Evolution of Maupassant’s Story-Telling.” Modern Language Review 71, no. 2 (April, 1976): 294-303. Emphasizes the extent to which de Maupassant was influenced by oral tradition and spoken conversation.
Powys, John Cowper. “Guy de Maupassant.” In Essays on de Maupassant, Anatole France, and William Blake. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2006. Highlights de Maupassant’s realist approach and his focus on physical reality.
Worth, George J. “The...
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