I have been wanting to read Guy de Maupassant ever since a friend recommended Bel Ami to me. After this short story, which is twelfth in my 30 day short story reading challenge, I think I may just have to bump Bel Ami up a few notches.
In this post my observations include a running theme I’ve noticed between the twelve short stories I’ve read so far this month. It’s something I’m actually applying to my own latest short story in progress– I’ll later share how it turns out 🙂 For now, to Guy!
“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant
Suddenly she discovered, in a black satin case, a superb diamond necklace; her heart began to beat covetously. Her hands trembled as she lifted it. She fastened it round her neck, upon her high dress, and remained in ecstasy at sight of herself.
Then, with hesitation, she asked in anguish:
“Could you lend me this, just this alone?”
Mathilde Loisel is miserable in her marriage to a clerk in the Ministry of Education. She feels she has married beneath her and daydreams, from her average home, of luxuries and delicacies: antechambers, tapestries of strange birds in faery forests, footman and torch-lit halls; saloons, perfumed rooms and antique silks; delicate meals and silver with which to eat them; for fancy clothes and jewelry. She is so miserable for want that she cannot even visit an old friend come into wealth, because every time she comes home from such a visit she is perfectly wretched.
One day the woman’s husband brings home an invitation to an elite party, which he has worked hard to procure. She flings it away and asks what she’s meant to do with such a thing.
“Why, darling, I thought you’d be pleased,” the husband replies. She rarely goes out, he says, and this would be a chance to see many important people. The woman asks, furious, just what she’s to wear to such an affair.
The man asks what it would cost for a fancy dress she could wear to the party and use again for other events. After some consideration (Madame desires the maximum amount, but is careful not to sound unreasonable) she suggests a 400 franc allowance. Reluctantly, her husband forks it over.
Madame buys a suitable dress, but as the day of the party nears her husband observes her looking more miserable than ever. He asks her what is wrong. She replies she is miserable because she has no jewels to wear with her dress, and she shan’t even be able to look anyone in the face.
Her husband suggests asking her wealthy friend to borrow something. Delighted (she doesn’t know why she didn’t think of it herself!) Mathilde goes to visit her friend, Madame Forestier, and is offered her choice of jewels. She settles on a single, breathtaking diamond necklace and is wildly happy.
At the party Mathilde is a huge success: she is elegant, the most beautiful woman present; men whisper and stare and line up to waltz with her. Even the Minister notices her. Madame Loisel dances all night, in a cloud of bliss and beautiful happiness, until four o’clock in the morning.
When they return home it is like exiting a fairy tale. Madame is low and Monsieur thinks of work in a few hours.
Then things go from bad to worse: Madame realizes the necklace is absent from her neck. Distressed, the couple check all their pockets and the folds of her dress; she retraces her steps and decides she had it when she left, so it must have fallen at some point in the journey home. The husband searches the streets, inquires at the police station, offers in the paper and to cab companies.
“Write to your friend,” Monsieur advises his wife, “and tell her you’ve broken the clasp.” If her friend thinks she’s getting it fixed, he reasons, it will buy them enough time to find it. She writes.
A week goes by. Monsieur Loisel (who “has aged five years” in those seven days) says they must look into replacing the diamonds.
They find a like necklace at the Palais-Royal for forty thousand francs. They manage to bargain it down to thirty-six thousand but even so it takes three days to assemble the funds: Monsieur Loisel inherited eighteen thousand from his father, and must borrow the rest from a hundred different places.
Finally, Madame Loisel takes back the (replacement) necklace. Madame Forestier says, rather haughtily, that she might have returned it sooner. Loisel is relieved that she doesn’t take it from its case on the spot for fear she learns it is a substitution.
For ten years the couple lives in poverty to pay back what they owe. They dismiss their servant and move flats; Madame takes charge of all of the grueling housework herself, learns to haggle at the marketplace; her husband takes up odd jobs and night work.
By the time it is all over Madame Loisel has become a stooped, coarse woman made rough by the hard labor of poor households. She looks back and wonders how things would be different if she had never lost the necklace.
One day, as Madame Loisel is out for a walk, she encounters her rich friend Madame Forestier—still young, still beautiful. She decides to tell her the truth.
She is so changed that Madame Forestier does not recognize her at first. Loisel explains she has fallen on hard times, then admits that it is because she and her husband have spent the last decade paying for the necklace that she lent her for the party. “But you brought it back,” her friend protests. “No,” Loisel replies. They had replaced it.
Madame Forestier, moved, takes her old friend by the hands and (spoiler alert!) reveals that the necklace she loaned her was an imitation—not worth more than five hundred francs.
I am starting to notice consistencies between many of the short stories I’ve read so far this month: this one, like others, spends little or no time and space discussing the characters themselves. No detail of physical appearance is given. Mannerisms, likes and dislikes, hobbies are not discussed; we are given only a few brief elements of introduction for both of our protagonists here: that Monsieur works for the Ministry of Education, and Madame is miserable in her lust for riches.
I’m starting to see that keeping characters as generic as possible can have its functions, too. For one, it pares down the word count, which is good when you’re submitting short stories to magazines—flash fiction seems to be all the rage these days, and (though admittedly, every magazine is different) many will not accept stories above 5,000, or 4,000, or 3,000 words. But more than shortening word count, keeping characters generic can change the mode of storytelling: turn it into a fable, fairy tale, or parable. See Tolstoy’s parable “Three Questions”, for example, where the characters are even stripped of names and referred to as “the king,” “the hermit,” and “the bearded man.”
Back to this story in particular: it’s simple. It’s clean. No convoluted language bogs down the telling and the story progresses quickly.
And who doesn’t love a neat twist at the end?
A whoppin’ one word, folks:
tureen: a deep covered dish from which soup is served
P.S. Yep, that pic is definitely the heart of the ocean from Titanic.