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Surprise and Mystery in "The Necklace"

(Short Stories for Students)

Discussions of "The Necklace'' almost invariably begin with its famous (or, by some accounts, infamous) ending. Much, if not most, of Maupassant's modern reputation in English-speaking countries rests on Madame Forestier's revelation that the original necklace that Madame Loisel borrowed was in fact a fake. Because "The Necklace'' has been so often anthologized and so few of the author's other works have been translated into English, the surprise ending is often what the modern reader associates with Maupassant. It is important to understand, however, that the trick ending was not commonly associated with Maupassant during his lifetime, nor was Maupassant its originator. In fact, the surprise ending had existed for some time, although not necessarily in the form used by Maupassant.

In the mid-to late-nineteenth century during which Maupassant was writing, the mystery story was gaining in popularity as a genre unto itself. Earlier, police "procedurals" and true crime stories—the latter reputedly but not always reliably based on actual events—had been popular, but suspense rarely played any part in these tales. Through the innovations of such notable authors as Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, the mystery genre began to emerge. At its heart was the surprise ending; the solution, the key that unlocked the story's puzzle, was reserved for the ending. Without it, the mystery story would have been just another procedural, following the actions of the characters to their inevitable and foreseeable conclusion. To give their stories suspense, writers delayed revealing all the pertinent "facts of the case," saving certain significant pieces of information for the end. Even today, mystery stories are very rarely true "whodunits" that the reader can solve; instead, the narrative is woven around certain gaps that are only filled in when the true culprit is revealed. The writer teases the audience by mixing tidbits of useful information with enough "red herrings" to make solving the mystery almost impossible. After all, it is the detective's role to solve the mystery; were the reader to solve the mystery, the story's attempt at building tension would be a failure.

With this in mind, it is possible to read "The Necklace" as a sort of mystery story without the traditional trappings of detectives, criminals, and crimes. The mystery here regards what will happen to Madame Loisel. From the outset it is her wants—a want of prestige, of station, of wealth, of material objects—that gives the narrative its tension and suspense. Madame Loisel is defined by what she lacks and what she is not, rather than by what she has and is. She is not a well-rounded character, but Maupassant did not intend for her to be one. Instead, she is a type—a figure whose motivation is to fill in the gaps in her own character, in the same way that the detective fills in the gaps in the mystery narrative.

In ‘‘The Necklace,’’ the mystery comes into play when the main character's gaps are temporarily filled by the ball, the gown, and, most importantly, Madame Forestier's jewels. Although the event and the dress are prerequisites for Madame Loisel's happiness, she is ‘‘utterly miserable’’ and seriously contemplates not going to the Ministry because she lacks jewelry and the appearance of elegance and wealth. It is thus not the accumulated finery that appeases Madame Loisel's feelings of inadequacy but rather the necklace in particular. Whereas before she was filled with "grief, regret, despair, and misery," with Madame Forestier' s jewels about her neck Madame Loisel is ‘‘elegant, graceful, smiling, and quite above herself with happiness.’’ It is the necklace that transforms Madame Loisel into such a success. Her possession of the necklace, however, is temporary—unlike her dress or her memories of the ball, she cannot hold onto it—and from this arises the story's mystery. What, the reader asks, will happen when Madame Loisel must...

(The entire section is 5,321 words.)