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.
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.
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...
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