How does the setting in "The Necklace" by Guy de Maupassant influence the story, characters and events?

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susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The setting of Maupassant's "The Necklace" is crucial to understanding the author's themes and characterization.  Written and set in the the latter part of the 19th Century, Maupassant satirizes the materialism and desires of the French bourgeoisie.  Maupassant does not provide us with descriptive images of the story's setting--Paris.  We have very few details about place except for mention of the Champs Elysses.  However, we do have quite a few details about material objects, and these are important in establishing Mathilde Loisel's motivation.  Mathilde longs for the "delicacies and all the luxuries" of the upper class: Oriental tapestries, candelabras, "footmen in knee-breeches," "the warmth of the hot-air stove," "delicate furniture," "perfumed boudoirs."  Her own surroundings seem dull and mundane in contrast.  As she uncovers the soup-tureen for dinner with her husband, she longs for so much more. 

The discrepancy between what she has and what she desires provides the conflict in this story.  It is important to see, however, that Mathilde is not destitute.  In fact, she seems comfortably middle class, with a servant to do housework and a husband who clerks in the Ministry of Public Instruction.   Mathilde has more than necessary to make her comfortable.  But what she has does not satisfy her.  She overlooks the fact that her husband is kind and concerned about her, willing to sacrifice his own desires for a gun to make his wife happy. When they are invited to a ball, her husband gives her money to buy a "pretty dress,"  but even that is not enough.  Mathilde needs a jewel to go with the dress.  In this way, Maupassant mocks the consumerist society of the 19th Century.  The fact that Mathilde cannot distinguish between a real jewel and a fake one shows her superficiality and concern with appearances.  

Yet, we have to look a little more closely at the way Maupassant portrays the French in this time period.  When Mme. Loisel discovers that she lost the necklace that she borrowed from a wealthy friend, she finds out what she thinks is the cost, and she and her husband work ten years to pay off the debt incurred in replacing it.  Even though we don't like Mme. Loisel, we have to admire the fact that she takes responsibility for her negligence and is willing to do menial work to pay the debt. Here Maupassant uses quite a few details to describe the work that Mme. Loisel does--washing clothes, carrying slop, carrying water, bargaining with grocers and merchants.  These details provide us with a clear idea of what a debtor's life was like, and it is far from easy.  In this way, we have to have some respect for Mme. Loisel.  She does not go to her friend and apologize and beg for forgiveness.  Instead she and her husband sacrifice their health, youth, and well-being to fulfill their perceived obligation.  I wonder if people in today's society would be so honorable.  

So in looking at setting, look closely at the way the three distinct lifestyles are portrayed in the story--the middle class, the wealthy, and those in poverty.