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...
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