Desire or Social Disparity: The Power of Capitalism in Maupassant’s The Necklace



Figure 1: Gordon Rayner’s illustration of Sense and Feeling (1960)

Women have often been regarded as the most vulnerable victims of social inequality as they have been set aside and linked to the domestic sphere. They would simply complete chores around the house such as cleaning, cooking and taking care of children. Additionally, their physical appearance was seen as more valuable than any other quality. During the 19th century, the influence of the French bourgeoisie deepened the social gap between the rich and the poor. This stratification is reflected in Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace, especially through the character of Mathilde Loisel whose greed and love for attention leads to her eventual downfall.


Maupassant’s The Necklace was written and published in 1884, a time when society was corrupt and chasing the materialistic pleasures of the upper-class life due to the Industrial Revolution. This mindset is reflected through the story’s protagonist, Mathilde Loisel, whose dream is a luxurious life that her working-class husband cannot provide for her. Mathilde is the product of a capitalist society that only values the tangible fortunes and disregards the immoralities behind them. According to Yadav (2019), “social morality was lost, the splendid life of the upper class and the moral concept of profit-seeking, influenced the various social classes, the vain and the pursuit of pleasure, and became the prevailing social atmosphere at that time” (p. 648). From the very beginning of the story, the reader is introduced to Mathilde’s inner thoughts and desires. The narrator highlights the contrast between her reality and her fantasies: as her mind wanders in expensive mansions furnished with gold and crystals, her reality is that of a working-class clerk’s wife. However, Mathilde was highly aware of those contradictions and was hunted by a constant feeling of regret and disappointment, believing that a woman of her charm and beauty “had been born for all the little niceties and luxuries of living” (Maupassant, 1999, p.1).


Figure 2: Napoleon's Diamond Necklace (2008)

Furthermore, the key element in this short story is the diamond necklace that Mathilde borrowed from her friend, Madame Jeanne Forestier, to wear to the ball. This necklace, and its eventual loss, turns Mathilde’s life upside down. Timalsena (2019) argues that “The jewelry thus encapsulates her pretension and pride, masking reality with her dream of what should have been” (p. 20). Mathilde saw Minister Rampormeau‘s ball as an opportunity, a window to escape her dull reality and a way to blend in with the rich upper-class, in the hopes of changing her current social status. However, her plan backfires after losing the necklace as she and her husband delve deeper into poverty, working restlessly for 10 years, to be able to replace the missing diamond jewel. The loss of the necklace is not simply a financial crisis for Mathilde but also represents a social defeat for her: a drastic fall from the social ladder she so desperately tried to climb. Kuhn (2016) claims that:

“Mathilde always wanted to appear richer and better than she really was, and when she actually thought she had done so and worked a decade for that mistake, she finally realizes that the night at the ball was also a fake social production.” (p. 17)

Maupassant’s use of situational irony stirs the audience’s pity and sympathy towards the greedy, superficial Mathilde, as she sacrificed her youth, beauty, and life for one night only for it to be as fake as the diamonds around her neck.


Additionally, numerous features of the story such as the ball, the dress, and the loss of the jewel are reminders of the renowned tale of Cinderella. Maupassant’s ending contrasts Perrault’s happy ever after, as Mathilde’s loss of the necklace does not lead her to a castle but to poverty and misery. This is due mainly to the protagonists’ characters: as Cinderella is selfless, humble, and content, she is rewarded for her values with a wealthy prince. However, Mathilde is selfish, ungrateful, and greedy, and for that, she is punished and impoverished.


Figure 3: Cecile de France and Thomas Chabrol in La Parure (2007)

Moreover, numerous factors come into play to decide Mathilde’s fate. Contrary to popular beliefs, Mme. Loisel’s tragic doom is not the consequence of her greed alone but that of her inability to accept her social reality. She is constantly mentally elsewhere as she dreams of better clothes, food, and furniture. Yet, she never does anything to actively change her situation. She dreams but never acts, grieves but never rebels, cries but never works. There lays the ironic manipulation of events that only comes to reinforce Maupassant’s genius: after losing everything, she is forced into work without uttering a single complaint, knowing that she has brought this to herself. She sacrifices many unacknowledged luxuries such as her weekly maid and replaced her house with an attic. Kuhn (2016) argues that “Maupassant allows her to have negative events surrounding her to understand how Mathilde will react, yet she does not use the autonomy Maupassant gives her to elevate her mental status” (p. 19). Mathilde is a passive character who is merely the recipient of life’s circumstances and does nothing to improve financially or mentally.



Figure 4: Gordon Rayner’s illustration of Sense and Feeling (1960)

Maupassant was a realist, an observer who believed that no fiction could be called “real” as every piece of writing is an illusion, the result of the author’s imagination. According to Nurmalasari and Samanik (2018), “there is no pretense, idealizing, or artifice to Maupassant’s prose or treatment of his characters” (p. 448). He does not moralize at the end of the story, but leaves the reader shocked, debating on a suitable ending. Mathilde’s thoughts echo the readers’ as she wonders: “What would have happened if she had not lost that necklace? Who knows? Who can say? How strange and unpredictable life is!” (Maupassant, 1999, p .5). Nonetheless, the author sets off the audience’s fancy with his sudden and brief ending for them to create endless possible scenarios, all of which could never console Mathilde.

To sum up, Maupassant’s The Necklace is a social critique of the 19th-century French society that was divided into two categories: the upper-class living and reveling in luxury, and the working-class that could only dwell on unattainable dreams. The story indirectly teaches gratitude, humility, and honesty, all of which could’ve saved Mathilde from her heartrending fate. It reflects the power of capitalism and its influence on people’s lives, but, most importantly, it reveals to the audience the superficial and materialistic side of society that cares only for appearances, extravagance, and leisure.

References

De Maupassant, G., & Sturges, J. (1999). The Necklace. Pushkin.


Kuhn, G. (2016) "Exploring French Short Stories: Guy de Maupassant's Writing Style and Social Justice" Honors Theses. 144. https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/honors/144


Nurmalasari, U., & Samanik, S. (2018, July). A Study of Social Stratification In France In 19th Century as Portrayed inThe Necklace ‘La Parure’Short Story by Guy De Maupassant. In English Language and Literature International Conference (ELLiC) Proceedings (Vol. 2, pp. 445-449).


Timalsena, H. C. (2019). Emotional Crisis and Prognosis in the Selected Stories of Guy de Maupassant (Doctoral dissertation, Central Department of English).


Yadav, S. (2019). Character Analysis of ‘Mathilde Loisel’ in the Maupassant’s “The Necklace”. International Journal of English Literature and Social Sciences (IJELS), 4(3). Retrieved from http://journal-repository.com/index.php/ijels/article/view/699



Picture References

Claude Chabrol (2007), La Parure [Photograph], JM Productions.

Gordon Rayner (1960), Sense and Feeling [Digital Illustration], SFF Audio.

Smithsonian (2008), Napoleon's Diamond Necklace [Photograph], Wikimedia Commons.


Author Photo

Elsa Abdallah

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