Historical Context

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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 Education

While most English-language translations of "The Necklace'' declare that Monsieur Loisel is a civil servant under the Minister of Education, technically this is not true. The French term is actually "ministre de l'Instruction publique," or Minister of Public Instruction. During the early 1880s, there was considerable debate over the relationship between religion and education. Predominantly Catholic France had relied upon parochial education, particularly at the primary school level, for generations. As the Republicans gained power, however, laws governing the separation of church and state were more actively enforced. Unauthorized congregations such as the Jesuits were forbidden to offer instruction, creating considerable discord. Free, non-religious elementary schooling was established by law and became obligatory in 1881. It is worth noting that, like Monsieur Loisel, Maupassant was a clerk in the Ministry of Education from 1878 to 1880.

Literary Movements

During the second half of the nineteenth century, French fiction was dominated by two literary movements: realism and naturalism. Prior to 1850, French novels—including those written by such famous authors as Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac, and Alexandre Dumas—had been highly imaginative and romantic, filled with admirable protagonists, dire conflicts, and exciting scenes. Following the uprising of 1848, however, a new generation of French writers led by Gustave Flaubert actively promoted a different approach to fiction that emphasized the realistic depiction of the human condition rather than romanticized tales of heroes and villains. These realists were soon joined by the naturalists, a group of writers, of whom Emile Zola was the most prominent, who portrayed civilization as a thin veneer that barely separated human beings from their natural (and sometimes animal) instincts. In was within this literary environment that Maupassant began his writing career. Many of his stories, including "The Necklace," demonstrate his affinity to both the realist and naturalist movements. Following the realist tenet, his characters are not types but individuals whose motives are understandable if not always agreeable. In the naturalist vein, Maupassant's stories are often attentive to the failings of society, demonstrating that humankind's inherent instincts do not always conform to social values.

Social Sensitivity

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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:

Every month it was necessary to renew some notes, thus obtaining time, and to pay others.

The husband worked evenings, putting the books of some merchants in order, and nights he often did copying at five sous a page.

And this life lasted for ten years.

This statement is particularly significant when one remembers that Maupassant spent ten years living in poverty as a government clerk, and only three of those years working at a better job in the Department of Education. The little Breton he makes seem first an object of humor and then an earnest, desperate worker, is himself. Maupassant may not have known "the horrible life of necessity" that the Loisels learned, but he certainly knew their modest circumstances described at the beginning of the story. And while he did not keep books and do copying by night, Maupassant labored at his literary apprenticeship.

It is especially meaningful that Maupassant does not tell the story from the viewpoint that one would expect, knowing his own life experiences. It would be natural for a writer to tell a story from the viewpoint most like his own. While in his novel A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess told the horrifying incident of a home invasion, assault, and rape, much like that actually endured by Burgess and his wife, from the viewpoint of an attacker, in "The Necklace" Maupassant tells the story from the viewpoint of the wife. That is where Maupassant's talent shines best in this story.

The wife's labors are no less significant than her husband's work, and her viewpoint is no less "valid" or "real." A writer of lesser talent would have told the story from the husband's viewpoint, tolerant of his wife's selfishness. Perhaps a writer with a more prosperous background would have told the tale from the viewpoint of Madame Forestier, forgiving of her friend's envy. But either alternative would have suggested that this was the true perspective that mattered on the events that happened. Writing from the viewpoint of Madame Loisel as she learns pride and joy in her honest labors is an affirmation to the reader: first, that such people exist in any class, women with profound desires and ambitions; and second, that their lives are worth living, and therefore worthy of attention in the arts and literature.

This is a profoundly feminist and humanist story, and it is as supportive of the working classes as it is supportive of women.

Maupassant said of himself and his stories, "We have but one objective: Man and Life, which must be interpreted artistically."

Compare and Contrast

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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 record highs as many consumers buy on credit and pay high interest rates for the privilege. High credit card balances keep millions in debt for years.

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading