A Necklace as a Symbol: An Intersection between Marxist, Feminist, Psychological, and Formalist Readings of Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace”
Analytical lenses allow for readers to gain a deeper insight into a literary work, but since there are many, it can be easy to focus on a single lens and miss critical aspects of a story that only another lens would bring to light. Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” is a short story that has depth and can be analyzed at numerous levels to get different meanings out of it, although it is almost impossible to know what Maupassant himself meant for his message to be. In four lenses used in this paper, the necklace within the story highlights the central message, which differs between societal flaws, sexism, and deception.
This paper serves to dive deeper into Maupassant’s “The Necklace” by analyzing it through four different critical lenses to better comprehend specific characteristics, writing elements, and the reasoning behind the substantial usage of the necklace as a symbol. By doing so, one can see the point at which themes and ideas coincide, thus displaying a consistent, robust message no matter the lens used. All four lenses allow for details of the story to be understood on a profound level and emphasize importance. For example, Marxism stresses the characters’ economic backgrounds; feminism highlights the characters’ personalities; psychology explains the main characters’ longing to belong in the upper-class, and formalism draws on the necklace as symbolism to bring deception and shallowness to light.
Due to the historical context and France’s economic situation in 1884, The Marxist lens is apparent to many scholars, and has therefore been used in numerous analyses; meanwhile, Maupassant’s personal history and repetition of feminine themes within his stories have led many to the usage of a feminist lens. However, due to such obviousness, many scholars do not push further and consequently do not pursue any other lenses. After using the four lenses to analyze the story while drawing on scholars’ previous analyses and thoughts regarding these lenses, this paper aspires to explain what the necklace represents when seen through each lens, and how such symbolism, when united, creates a wholesome message.
Guy de Maupassant’s story “The Necklace” shows the weaknesses of the “Belle Epoque” and the widening gap between classes as the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer if looked at through a Marxist lens. The story was written during the “Belle Epoque” in France, which was from 1871 to 1914, included high standards of living and security for the upper-class, an increase in political stability and peace, growth in the chemical and electrical industries, increased usage of the telegraph and telephone, revolutionary agricultural machinery and fertilizers, and improved quality and quantity of food. Because of such improvements, the upper-class was able to have a better lifestyle, travel further, and only worry about the fashion trends. However, those who benefited from this glorious era were the wealthy who could afford the improved goods. Some members of the middle and low classes were able to earn more or attain certain goods due to the trickling-down of previously sought-after items, but the vast majority of the classes were living in small homes, were poorly paid, and were kept quiet due to the lack of socialist groups (Wilde). Once out of the war, Maupassant returned to law school, began to work for various Ministries, and began spending his free time boating and with prostitutes, which inspired much of his writing (Turnell and Dumesnil). Before his death in 1893, Maupassant had written over 300 short stories and six novels, most of which focus on women and sexuality. His common and consistent use of and focus on women suggests that one might use a feminist, woman-oriented lens when reading his stories. Using such a lens in “The Necklace” does make sense, as the main character is a woman. Although there is no historical or biographical evidence that one should look at the story through psychological or formalist lenses, both are commonly used on all sorts of stories without any evidence or elements hinting at the reader to do so.
In a Marxist reading, Dobie contends that “we are given a clear picture of a society that has unequally distributed its goods or even the means to achieve them. Madame Loisel has no commodity or skills to sell, only her youth and beauty to be used to attract a husband” (Dobie 87). This society that Dobie speaks of is the one that Matilda and Mrs. Forestier are both a part of; Mrs. Forestier belongs to the upper-class and has the goods that others envy, while Matilda is a part of the lower middle-class, and has no means to achieve her goal of becoming a part of the upper class because “she ha[s] no dowry” (De Maupassant 31), showing the importance of money. Although Matilda has good looks and is still able to attract a husband, he is only a lowly clerk and did not advance her social status in any way. As Matilda and her husband finally have a chance to go to a reception reserved for members of a high class, “the haves are separated from the have-nots…by what they own and what they lack and by their ample or limited opportunity to acquire wealth and power” (Dobie 88); this division becomes clear as Matilda has neither a dress nor jewelry to wear, which is when she borrows the necklace that she deems as extremely valuable because it comes from a member of the upper-class. This need to borrow jewelry and to deceive others and to appear wealthy demonstrates classism in Maupassant’s society.
Classism is “the belief that our value as human beings is directly related to a social class to which we belong: the higher our social class, the higher our natural, or inborn superiority” (Tyson 112). Classism is thus obvious in “The Necklace,” as Matilda believes that she has little value as a middle-class woman and aims to attain the status of an upper-class woman. Her worries about the way others will see her at the ball because she does not belong to the upper-class demonstrate that the wealthy only want to associate themselves with the wealthy due to classism. “The division [between the classes] grows more apparent and unbridgeable as the couple works at increasingly demeaning jobs to acquire the money to pay off their loans” (Dobie 88), says Dobie, as Matilda and her husband spend a decade working to buy another diamond necklace after Matilda lost Mrs. Forestier’s. It is not until Matilda has finally paid the necklace off that she finds out that the necklace was fake and was “not worth over five hundred francs” (De Maupassant 37). Maupassant uses her assumption that the necklace was of high value as a criticism of commodification, which is when we “relate to things and people as commodities…when we relate to it regarding how much money it’s worth” (Tyson 114). Dobie’s Marxist reading of the story focuses on the idea that “Both Mme. Loisel and her wealthy friend are victims of their society’s emphasis on sign value. The former is so dazzled by the glitter of jewels and gowns and fashionable people that she can find little happiness in the humble attentions of her husband-clerk” (Dobie 88), showing that a Marxist lens highlights the story’s criticism of society and commodification.
When taking these notions of society to look at the symbolism of the necklace, one can see three distinct possibilities. The first being that it embodies wealth, especially Mrs. Forestier’s, and how it equates to virtually nothing, for the necklace was deemed of high value but was worth nothing. The necklace might also denote commodification and its negatives since it was commodified from the beginning and leads to Matilda’s miserable lifestyle. Lastly, it might represent the entire upper class, for it was known to cause the misery of the lower classes when the story came out to the public, and the necklace caused the downfall of Matilda.
When using a feminist lens on “The Necklace,” one also sees flaws within society, but focuses less on the commodification of goods and instead concentrates on the patriarchy. The story follows Matilda, a female character, yet her husband is the one portrayed as the rational, decisive character within the story. This usage of the “weaker,” female character was certainly not a mistake and therefore hints that one should investigate their roles in the story. Matilda is a woman with “no dowry, no hopes, no means of becoming known, appreciated, loved, and married by a man either rich or distinguished” (De Maupassant 31) and is only worried about her looks and becoming wealthy, fitting into the traditional gender role of a woman who is submissive and has nothing other than looks (Tyson). Mrs. Forestier, although a woman of the upper-class, is only talked about regarding her wealth and her jewelry, and her skills are never mentioned, thus highlighting the idea that women were only meant for beauty. Lastly, Matilda’s husband does not talk much, but when he does, he is the one being rational and making decisions: “I will give you four hundred francs. But try to have a pretty dress” (De Maupassant 33), “go and find your friend Mrs. Forestier and ask her to lend you her jewels” (De Maupassant 33), “write to your friend that you have broken the clasp” (De Maupassant 35), and “we must take measures to replace this jewel” (De Maupassant 35). Maupassant makes it very clear that within his society, men oversee the money and make the executive decisions by showing that the man was making all the decisions and that the woman was not giving her input. However, because his decisions lead to the demise of the couple’s finances and hopes to become wealthier, a feminist reading brings to light the idea that men are not always right and should not be sole decision makers.
Through the feminist lens, one can see symbolism in both the necklace itself and the loss of the necklace. The necklace on its own represents women’s outer beauty, and how, in society, they have no genuine value. As it was the man’s idea to borrow and then replace the necklace, his decisions leading to the loss of the necklace, alongside his actions afterward, are characterized in the loss of the necklace. Such a loss, leading to their downfall, is portraying men pushing women down in society, since his decisions pushed her further down, and as men always making decisions but not always being correct, for she did not have a say regarding what to do with the necklace.
The psychoanalytic lens can be used on most short stories, as authors can show human flaw without intending to do so. By first looking at Freud’s Model of the Psyche, one can see how Matilda’s desires leading to her downfall is uncannily parallel to the idea of the id. The id, according to Freudian theory, is an ordinarily hidden side of a person’s personality, which has strong desires that go against societal norms. Thus, when one follows the id and its desires, one often goes against society and meets an unfortunate fate (Siegel). In this story, Matilda does follow her id, as she follows her greatest desire: becoming a member of the upper class, since “she had no clothes, no jewels, nothing. And these were the only things she loved; she felt she was made for them” (Maupassant 31). Regrettably for her, following her desire leads to a life of misery, highlighting the idea that one should stick to society’s rules and should not follow their id. A second theorist one can analyze “The Necklace” with is Carl Jung, whose work includes ideas regarding person and archetypes. According to Jung, the persona is the identity we wish to project to others and is not the true self (Siegel). In this case, Matilda is a middle-class woman with little to no value, but she wants to seem more affluent and as if she belongs to the upper class, hence her persona being the woman she pretended to be at the reception. By focusing on the persona, while considering how deceptive the necklace was, one can see how Maupassant’s work demonstrates that one should not always believe what they see.
One’s persona is utterly represented by the necklace, thus demonstrating the necklace’s symbolism for Matilda’s persona. Since, as previously explained, Matilda’s persona was her being wealthier than she truly was, the necklace, seeming of higher worth than it was, represents the idea that people, and objects, can show a particular side of themselves that is not necessarily real.
This idea of deception can also be seen when the story is looked at through the formalist lens, with a focus on the necklace as the symbolism for unity. Formalism only uses what is within the story and can focus on different literary elements, but since the necklace is in the title and is the catalyst of the story, focusing on its symbolism and repetition makes sense. Deception only becomes apparent at the end of the story, but it is so in two different ways: the necklace fooled her into thinking it was worth more than it truly was based on its looks and Mrs. Forestier deceived her into borrowing a fake diamond necklace The necklace fooling her into believing it was worth a good bit based on its looks represents her as she tries to fool society into thinking she is wealthier, while the necklaced fooling her due to its origins, since it came from Mrs. Forestier, also represents the upper class and how they fool others into thinking they are worth more due to their origins. Mrs. Forestier giving Matilda a necklace of little worth shows a lack of trust between the two, which can be interpreted as a lack of trust between the two classes, and demonstrates how the upper class does not listen to the lower classes.
When formalism is combined with Marxism, feminism, or psychoanalysis, one can see the symbolism above possibilities of the necklace, making it extremely difficult to get one single meaning out of “The Necklace” and highlighting the necessity for the use of multiple lenses. Nevertheless, it is important to note that in all theories regarding the symbolism of the necklace, deception is the fundamental idea; in Marxism, commodification is shown to have negatives and to fool Matilda; in feminism, women are deceived into not making any of their own decisions; in psychoanalysis, the necklace and Matilda deceive others through outer looks and a persona; with a formalist lens, the necklace is showed to represent deception based on characteristics put on by others in front of a crowd. Combining all four lenses together as a whole allows for the reader to see how Matilda’s actions and the necklace show societal issues, how Matilda’s husband’s roles in their marriage highlights a patriarchal society, how Matilda’s obsession with wealth demonstrates how the id leads to one’s downfall, how Matilda’s actions prior to the reception show what a persona is, and how easy it is to deceive others based on looks and impressions.
While this research only hits the surface of the work to be done on “The Necklace,” it points out the evident usage of a necklace for symbolism, no matter what lens is used for analysis. By drawing on four separate lenses, it becomes evident that the meaning of the text differs tremendously and that one can get a much more wholesome view at the story and Maupassant’s criticism of society by combining different lenses. Such an approach can be used in other literary works for a much more wholesome understanding and should be used to avoid missing essential elements. Future research done on the necklace can draw upon this analysis while adding in the authors’ understandings of the work and other lenses.
De Maupassant, Guy. “The Necklace.” The World’s Greatest Short Stories, edited by James Daley, Dover Publications, Inc., 2006, 31-37. Print.
Dobie, Ann B. Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. 3rd ed., Wadsworth Publishing, 2011. Print.
“Remembering Maupassant.” BBC World Service, 9 Aug. 2000, http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/arts/highlights/000808_maupassant.shtml
Siegel, Kristi. “Introduction to Modern Literary Theory.” Dr. Kristi Siegel. January 2006, http://www.kristisiegel.com/theory.htm
Tyson, Lois. Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write About Literature. Routledge, 2011.
Turnell, M. and Rene Dumesnil. “Guy de Maupassant.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 17 Apr. 2003, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Guy-de-Maupassant
Wilber, Jennifer. “A Feminist and Formalist Analysis of The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant: \Two Approaches to Interpreting a Literary Work.” Owlcation. 6 February 2018, https://owlcation.com/humanities/A-Feminist-and-Formalist-Analysis-of-The-Necklace-by-Guy-de-Maupassant-Two-Approaches-to-Interpreting-a-Literary-Work
Wilde, Robert. “The Belle Époque (‘Beautiful Age’).” ThoughtCo., 19 June 2017, https://www.thoughtco.com/the-belle-epoque-beautiful-age-1221300
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