A Specific Style Of Writing in The Necklace Novel
A tale of class, gender, greed and pride, ‘The Necklace’ packs a punch. The ending achieves a profound impact on the reader,though it is the compounding of tensions throughout the story which allows it to do so.This essay will explore the linguistic and structural devices used by Maupassant to create such effective tension in his writing.
The story begins with a description of Madame Loisel, thoughsuspense is maintained by not revealing her name to the reader until after the initial descriptive passage.It is clear from the outset that she is severely deluded; she feels that she is entitled to far more than she currently has, without any reasonable justification. She is described as ‘unhappy all the time’ due to the lack of luxury in her life of ‘peeling walls’, ‘battered chairs’ and ‘ugly curtains’, though she is by no means poor – she has a servant! What follows is an extremely detailed fantasy of her ideal life, involving ‘oriental tapestries’, ‘bronze candelabras’, ‘two tall footmen…dozing’, and even branching into the surreal with ‘mythical characters and strange birds in enchanted forests’ being depicted in the tapestries.This level of obscurity and specificity is somewhat unsettling to the reader; her delusion appears to be verging on pathological when one considers the time, effort and conviction needed to create fantasy lands of this sort. Contrasted with the depiction of her relatively simple life,there is such disparity between Madame Loisel’s reality and her wild, unrestrained fantasies that the reader is left pitying – at least to some degree – for the troubled protagonist.She is making her life a misery, and many readers must feel an urge to jump in and help her, as well as a level of anxiety about how her life will pan out in the story.
It is likely that these details were chosen with care and intention by Maupassant and help to highlight other elements of Madame Loisel’s character. In fact,these details appear to reveal a world deeply flawed by its superficiality.The antechambers are ‘silent’: nobody is there to appreciate them, and the footmen are ‘dozing’:they are ornamental rather than functional. The ‘oriental tapestries’ described are in direct contrast to the ‘peeling walls’ she experiences in her real life, and it is worth noting that tapestries are literally superficial: they hide the wall behind them, though the walls are the actual substance of the house.She imagines ‘pretty little parlours’ exclusively for talking with her closest friends, the ‘most famous and sought-after men of the day’.The way in which she imagines her ideal company is very telling of her personality flaws.The fact that her friends would all be men ‘desired by all women’demonstrates her desire not only to attract interest from many males but to be a source of envy for other women. At the time when this story was set, women, as previously mentioned by the narrative voice, ‘[had] neither rank nor class’, so it is unavoidable that sexual attraction would have played a large part in these men’s interest in Madame Loisel. It seems as though she would deliberatelyexclude other women so that she does not have to share these men’s attention and other women remain yearning for her position. That does not appear to be something Madame Loisel would benefit from aiming for.
Clearly, the story is told by an omniscient, third-person narrator, though appears to shift between sympathy and criticism of Madame Loisel, even at times taking the guise of her own thoughts. This adds an intriguing depth to the process of reading the story, as the reader is left to make sense of a narrator they cannot quite pin down, and question the implications of its subjectivity or objectivity. For instance, Madame Loisel’s birth to a minor civil servant is described as having happened ‘apparently by some error of Fate’. The use of a disclaimer such as ‘apparently’ contradicts the idea of the narrator being omniscient, as it shows that the judgement was made based on evidence rather than objective knowledge. This fallibility gives a more personal feel to the narration of the story – a sense that there is a specific person behind it. The reader’s awareness of a personality but the absence of an identity results in a degree of unsettlement. Alternatively, this statement could be a lapse into Madame Loisel’s opinion, providing the first example of her tendency to blame her problems on anything and anyone but herself.
The description of Madame Loisel’s dreams of dinners appear to reveal a more sinister superficiality than anything alluded to before. In her dreams, a place previously proven to have very few limitations, people exchange nothing more heartfelt over dinner than ‘pretty compliments whispered into willing ears’. In this world, compliments must lose their meaning. Rather than bringing a welcome surprise and genuine uplift, they are given out of pressure and received expectantlyand are used as evidence against self-doubt. While this is not disastrous and is bound to occur in reality, it is far from the utopian conversations one would expect to come from a mind which jumps from a life of ‘peeling walls’ to fantasies of ‘tapestries…with mythical characters and strange birds in enchanted forests’. The fact that there is no mention of actually being appreciated and valued – just being told so suffices–demonstrates Madame Loisel’s satisfaction with superficiality. However, the reader isimmediately given a somewhat disturbing glimpse of the dangers of this mentality: the people sat around the table return ‘Sphinx-like smiles’. The reference to the Sphinx suggests a masking of the true self and carries connotations of deception, treachery and mercilessness; for the closest reader, the story has already been set up as Madame Loisel’s downfall –is superficiality her hamartia? Perhaps it has becomeclichéd with time, but,‘She would have given anything…’, seems to be a definite nod to readers experienced in stories of the fairy-taleformat. When this phrase is used, the protagonist can be expected to have their wish granted, but at a great cost. By now, the reader feels at least some anxiety for Madame Loisel’s future.
Adding to the sense that Madame Loisel’sinsatiable desire for an impossibly luxurious life will lead to great problems in her future is the lack of harmony – or even any effective communication – between her and her husband. As the reader is being led through the convoluted sentences winding throughMadame Loisel’s fantasies, they are abruptly brought back into the real world as the Loisels sit down for dinner. Monsieur Loisel’s enthusiasm for the joys in his own life, claiming that ‘there’s nothing [he] likes better than a nice stew’, could not be much more painfully opposite to his wife’s total dissatisfaction with what she has (including her husband, whose proposal she ‘went along with’). The use of stilted and slightly repetitive conversation between the two of them after he brings home the invitation conveys the same frustration to the reader as is felt by characters. Monsieur Loisel tries as hard as he can to please his wife with what he has, with desperation viewed impatiently by Madame Loisel – and potentially the reader, at times – as naivety. Although he perhaps does not manage it as well as possible, Madame Loisel’s greed is difficult for any partner to handle when money is limited. She is revealed in this dialogue to be extremely manipulative, intentionally and carefully controlling what she demands from her husband in order to negotiate a solution that most satisfies her selfish desires. First, she dismisses the invitation as being of no ‘earthly use’ to her, though she avoids mentioning the indulgent reason why she feels that way until prompted by a pleading Monsieur Loisel. As an aside, it is worth noting his use of the word ‘dickens’, a euphemism for the devil, to describe his efforts to get hold of an invite; perhaps only noticeable to the returning reader, this seems to be a reference to the way her visit to the party marks the last event before the start of her downfall. However, if the reader does notice this first-time, the subtle use of a word with sinister connotations contributes to the growing sense of a lurking evil force. After her husband has given her the best reasons he can for going to the reception, Madame Loisel explains her distress to him ‘irritably’, as if she is trying to make her husband feel apologetic for not realising her rather obscure concern. Monsieur Loisel ‘blustered’ and ‘stammered’, which she lets him do so that he becomes as desperate to console her as possible. The reader is left wondering if Madame Loisel’s tears are genuine; although she is deeply unhappy and ashamed of her lack of wealth, she ‘control[s] her sorrows’ and ‘calmly’ begins to negotiate more seriously. First, she makes a passive-aggressive comment that his colleagues have wives ‘better off for clothes than [she is]’, before ‘working out her sums’ and seeing how far she can push the budget for her dress. She proposes this amount of four hundred francs to her husband, claiming that it is what she ‘daresay’ she could ‘get by on’ – she is clearly looking for something more luxurious than what she could get by on. Interestingly, despite havingtried his hardest to honour her stroppy complaints, Monsieur Loisel demonstrates self-interest for the first time when it is revealed that he had been saving the money to go on a hunting trip with ‘a few friends’ (not including Madame Loisel) and shoot larks (a symbol of their dying love?).Not only do the Loisels struggle to understand and communicate with each other, but they also have conflicting interests in some areas. Once Madame Loisel has been granted the dress she wanted, she rests for a few days before beginning new pleas. Again, she does not tell her husband upfront about the issue, but acts strangely and waits for him to enquire. This establishes a dynamic of him being the one pleading rather than her. That way, it appears to be less of a tantrum. As before, Monsieur Loisel simply does not know what to suggest. He has not got the money to pay for fine jewellery, so he suggests a ten-franc posy.As Madame Loisel puts it, that would be ‘humiliating’.All in all, the relationship between her and her husband is a rather uncomfortable one for both the Loisels and the reader.In a society where women achieve what they want by marrying, it seems that Madame Loisel is hoping for a better option than her current husband. However, she is quite happy to manipulate him for his money, playing on his desire to please her.
The two times when Madame Loisel actually follows her husband’s advice both end up being turning points in her life.First, he suggests that she seeMadame Forestier and ask to borrow some jewellery.This necklace causes them great problems in their life. Then, after they lose the necklace, Madame Loisel writes ‘to his dictation’. This letter, which allows the Loisels to hide from the truth and hope that the situation sort itself out in the extra time it had bought them, is in a way the worst decision ever made by Madame Loisel. Had she told her friend the truth of what had happened, she would have been told of its low value and could buy another easily. The effect of the letter is not immediately described, resulting in a hanging lack of resolution.
When Madame Loisel visits Madame Forestier, she cannot contain joy when she catches sight of one particular ‘magnificent diamond’ necklace. She feels ‘immoderate desire’ for the necklace and looks at herself in the mirror ‘in rapture’ as she tries it on. These powerful emotions are usually reserved for people (or even Christ, in the case of ‘rapture’), yet she feels them for material possessions. One has to wonder if this sort of desire is healthy.Ironically, the necklace is mere costume jewellery; first she was beguiled by the luxurious ‘black satinwood case’, then by the necklace itself. She longs for expensive possessions, but perhaps she is not ready, or will never be ready, for the life she wishes for. She is unable to tell a piece of costume jewellery from a genuine diamond specimen eighty times its value and her hands shake as she picks up what seems to be a diamond necklace. Additionally, the necklace may represent an objective correlative with Madame Loisel. She is pretty herself, and has a few possessions seemingly above her own level of wealth (the satinwood case), though at heart is not an excessively wealthy individual. Despite what she thinks, she is too materialistically obsessed to deal graciously with a wealthy life. It has previously been alluded to that Sphinxes and devils lie beneath the superficially associated with Madame Loisel, so the fact that Madame Loisel’s strongest feelings of passion are evoked by nothing more than how something looks creates suspense in the reader – even if they do not know how disastrous this beguilement will turn out to be –who suspects that she has been deceived by someone or something.
The party arrives, and Madame Loisel soars – it was a ‘glorious success’. However, as soon as she gets her coat and leaves, there is sharp change in tone. The coat is described as ‘violently at odds with the elegance of her dress’, which appears to be her own opinion bleeding into the narrative voice. She is ‘brought…down to earth’ and is acutely aware of the shortcomings in her life when compared to the bliss and ‘utter triumph’ of the party. She realises that she cannot fully fake being wealthy; the truly wealthy women are ‘arrayed in rich furs’ – they have no inconsistencies. Within two paragraphs and what must be minutes, Madame Loisel goes from waltzing to running quickly down the stairs, hailing cabs and ‘shivering with cold’ in ‘desperation’. This creates an immense sense of foreboding, as it seems as though the whole world around Madame Loisel has changed. Additionally, building on the tension between her pretence and her real life, another objective correlative is used by describing how the cabs are ‘ashamed to parade their poverty in the full light of day’.
Once they realise that the necklace has been lost and they will not be able to find it, a few bad decisions propel the Loisels into ‘grim poverty’. The reader observes Monsieur Loisel sign away his financial freedom, resulting in great frustration and pity. To the returning reader, the irony in the fact that Madame Loisel ‘feared’ that her friend would open the box; if she had, she may have noticed that the necklace was real diamond!
Once the reader reaches the end of the story, the emotions felt concerning Madame Loisel are powerful and complex. Even the most casual of readers will inevitably be torn between pity and scorn for an unconventionally uncharismatic protagonist. Not only is tension maintained throughout the story, but tensions about the story linger in the reader’s mind even once they have finished reading. Is she a good person? Did she deserve her downfall? Did her experience with poverty make her a better person? Should she have been honest about the necklace?
Undoubtedly, Madame Loisel has some undesirable attributes. She has an unfounded sense of superiority, feeling ‘intended for a life of refinement and luxury’, blamingher situation on Fate rather than herselfand feeling frustrated with her husband who does not share the same impossible fantasies. She is extremely self-centred, wishing not only to live the finest life possible, but to have it to herself; she wishes to be ‘envied’. While this may be fair enough – many people wish for fame, and what is fame without other people’s envy? –Madame Loisel’s current experience of envy is far from normal; she weeps ‘tears of sorrow, regret, despair and anguish’ ‘for days on end’ after just speaking to a wealthy friend whose life she most desperately longs for.The implication of her desire to be a source ofenvy is that she does not mind evoking – or even actively wants to evoke –these terrible emotions in others. She is greedy, demanding as much from her husband as possible and having an unreasonable lust for material possessions.But perhaps her worst attribute is her attitude towards superficiality. She does not care about people beyond the compliments they give her, and at times appears more concerned about looking rich than actually being rich.
However, the difficulties of society at the time must be kept in mind. Women had ‘neither rank nor class’ and ‘natural guile, instinctive elegance and adaptability’ determine their place in society. Madame Loisel could only gain wealth through marriage – she would never be able to earn much money by working herself –so she had no choice but to hope for a rich and understanding man. If the only way to achieve what she wants is to hope, she may as well dream big. Perhaps her dissatisfaction with her life stems from the anxiety concerning her inability to alter her future through her own work. Sadly, women were not considered to bring much more value than their social interactions and appearance, so perhaps she could be forgiven for being so fixated on superficial values. Although obnoxious when stated plainly, Madame Loisel’s sense that she is intended for a luxurious life isto some extent within everyone; everyone thinks that they are in some way special ***ELABORATE***. However, Madame Loisel does not go out of her way to impose her views upon other people – the primary person her delusions affect is herself; she is made ‘unhappy all the time’ by her mundane life. There is certainly much to pity her for, though equally her character has some unpleasant sides to it. The verdict on her character is one which is likely to demand some thought and continue to be shaped upon re-reading.
The story has a clear moral concerning honesty: not being upfront about an issue makes it much harder to dig one’s way out of. Perhaps the one of the most common thoughtsupon finishing the story is: why didn’t Madame Loisel just tell the truth?The answer: she was too proud.
Although the debt caused by the incident with the necklace leaves the Loisels in a dire financial situation, there is an argument that it ultimately benefited Madame Loisel, teaching her vital lessons about life and money. Through hardship, Madame Loisel learns to appreciate the meaning of work and the value of money. A work ethic and unprecedented morality emerges in her – ‘she was determined to pay’ and upon meeting Madame Forestier ten years later she feels genuine pride of her work. She experiences for the first time true ownership of her money and smiles a ‘proud, innocent smile’ – in direct contrast to the ‘Sphinx-like smiles’ she dreamed of previously. One could imagine that at this point she realises that, for all these years of believing she was destined to refinement and luxury, she did not really have anything to be proud of. Now that she looks like ‘any working-class woman’externally, she must understand the appreciation of people on a deeper level, for what they truly are. At the beginning of the story, it is described that she used to weep for days on end after speaking to Madame Forestier, though this learnt sense of class conflict has been apparently eradicated from Madame Loisel now; she approaches Forestier thinking ‘why not?’. Additionally, the Loisels seem to become a far more harmonious couple from the moment that she realises she has lost the necklace. ‘They’ are referred to using that collective pronoun, rather than individually as ‘he’ and ‘she’. They communicate effectively to decide on an – albeit mistaken–course of action, and work together to pay back the debt. There are no more passive-aggressive comments, nor fumbling, desperate yet unsuccessful attempts from Monsieur Loisel to please his wife. Perhaps the way in which such harsh living improved Madame Loisel as a person is the most troubling takeaway the reader gets from the book, and one they may ponder protractedly. More generally, is adversity needed to round people as individuals?
Maupassant’s story is deeply moving. It takes the reader on a journey, acquainting them with a tragic character and leaving them pondering her downfall, all the while locking in their focus with brilliantly crafted tension.
***Extra tension: reader left to introspect; they know Loisel is bad but understand that they have their own sense of superiority as well.
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