Symbolic structures of the fairy tale: A Comparison of ‘The Necklace’ and ‘The Son’s Veto’
Through the consistent allusion to fairy tales throughout both The Necklace and The Son’s Veto, de Maupassant and Hardy are able to present the vulnerability and suffering of the characters in an instantly recognisable template, portraying the brutality (and in Hardy’s view absurdity) of class and status in succinct, powerful stories. The subversion of these fairy tale plotlines also brings home both authors’ realism: the lack of a “happy ending” only serves to make more emphatic the misfortune and victimization of the characters.
The Necklace has constant parallels to the tale of Cinderella throughout, but in many ways is cleverly subverted to make the story into a tragic tale with a comic twist. The most obvious similarity is lost lost necklace, which is an allusion to the glass slipper in Cinderella. Importantly however, whilst the glass slipper is unique and destined only for Cinderella herself, the necklace is fake and therefore representative of the inherently materialistic nature of modern society. The background of the characters is another form of symmetry within the two stories – they are both poor and lead imperfect love or family lives (Madame Loisel is seen only to “go along with a proposal made by a junior clerk”, showing her less than ideal circumstances for marriage), but again this is cleverly subverted by the fact that Madame Loisel is greedy and covetous. There is, on the other hand, one major difference between The Necklace and Cinderella in that the former lacks the presence of a malicious figure. Arguably it is this greed which takes the form of evil in the story, and ultimately results in her downfall. The Son’s Veto can be compared to the relatively modern German fairy tale of Rapunzel. Hardy alludes to the fact that Sophy has been trapped (or to some extent imprisoned by her own son) in her suburban dwelling. Hardy ironically uses the word “villa” (which would normally refer to a country house) to emphasize how her current situation is far from how she would wish it to be. This is furthered by the description of the “fragment of lawn” showing her lack of space and freedom, and well as introducing connotations of the broken or shattered. Most important however is the fact that Sophy is seen to look “through the railings” at her surroundings, giving a sense of her claustrophobia and imprisonment. Hardy is presenting us with the parallel between the the princess stuck in a tall tower and an invalid woman trapped in a life she doesn’t want to be living in. In this way Samuel Hobson can be seen as a ‘knight in shining armour’ figure as he seeks her out and takes her around London on his cart early in the mornings.
Both these women are very obviously victims of class and how prevalent status is in society. Randolph, Sophy’s son, is shown to be almost obsessed by society’s view on him, and to believe that he belongs to a different class to his mother, and is even embarrassed by her. Hardy states this very plainly: he says that in Randolph’s eyes she was “a mother whose mistakes and origin it was his painful lot as a gentleman to blush for.” Thus he is shown to keep his mother out of the way and prevents her from marrying like just as the witch does in the story of Rapunzel. However, whilst the witch imprisons Rapunzel in trying to protect her from the real world, Randolph hides his mother in order to shield his version of the real world (in order words his small circle of aristocratic acquaintances) from his mother. The use of the fairy-tale narrative is particularly effective in this context, as Hardy twists the plot to show that Sophy was not able to marry Hobson as she would have liked to (in opposition to the ‘happily ever after’ style ending of Rapunzel); her son remains stubborn, and her suffering at the hands of society and status continues, eventually resulting in an extremely bleak conclusion: the description of her funeral procession. The Necklace shows a similar kind of victim – she has “no jewellery, nothing” and can hardly even afford clothes to attend the event. In the end it was her financial state of affairs which led her to great suffering. Their lifestyle is described as the “grindingly horrible life of the very poor,” she is “frequently abused” and she “scrubbed floors on her hands and knees.” The fairy-tale inversion is present again, as the parallel can be drawn between the loss of the necklace and the loss of the glass slipper. However, whilst the slipper is returned to Cinderella and she experiences the same sort of happy ending as with Rapunzel, no such thing happens to Madame Loisel and her husband. We are again given a sense of the brutal realism of de Maupassant’s writing and poignantly shown how someone can suffer at the hands of their monetary situation and their position in society.
Hardy and de Maupassant do, however, disagree on whether the suffering experienced by their characters is deserved. That is, whether the fact that they go through great loss because of social expectations and lack of status is acceptable. Hardy makes very clear his disgust for the situation in The Son’s Veto, mostly by portraying Sophy as a helpless but kind character, and striving to create pathos for her. This begins with the description of her as an “invalid,” showing that she has experienced past suffering (whilst also making her powerless to change her situation later on) and our sympathy for her is heightened at the death of her first husband, an event described in a typically Hardy-like manner. “The next time we get a glimpse of her,” he says, “is when he appears in the mournful attire of a widow.” Blunt, plain and pessimistic, Hardy’s style serves to show the unavoidable pain which life entails. However, we hold her in a high regard mainly because of the way her boy treats her, and the fact that she always loves him nevertheless. His unbearable snobbery contrasts starkly with her meekness and kindness. At the prospect of her marriage to Samuel Hobson, he does not even pause to think about the happiness it would bring his mother, but instead “bursts into passionate tears” and exclaims “ ‘It will degrade me in the eyes of all the gentlemen of England’”. Here Hardy directly shows that Sophy is being kept from happiness by a shallow-minded and selfish son on account of the ridiculous classist nature of English society. Indeed, in many ways the son himself represents the British class system in all its absurdity, leading Sophy to her eventual death. This is another context in which the fairy-tale template which Hardy employs is extremely useful – because of the fame of the tale of Rapunzel, it is easy to put in place easily recognizable forces of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the story. Bearing similarities to the evil witch, the son, and therefore the system of society, can be instantly seen as a force of ‘evil’, therefore showing Hardy’s disgust. Right at the end of the story, there is one more ironic twist which again shows the ridiculousness of it – Samuel Hobson is portrayed as a respectable gentleman in a “neat suit of black”, and to own “the largest fruiterer’s shop in Aldbrickham”. This image of success is Hardy’s final display of the shallowness of ‘status’.
On the other hand, Guy de Maupassant presents the reader with a much more polluted view of whether Madame Loisel is to blame for her downfall. We see a fundamental contradiction in the writing about whether a woman can rise through society – firstly, de Maupassant states that she had “no means of meeting some rich, important man”, but “a girl of no birth to speak of may easily be the equal of any society lady” directly disagrees with it. As well as this contradiction, we are unsure of whether de Maupassant thinks Madame Loisel’s downfall was down to her flaws of character. On the one hand, upon losing the necklace, she is devastated and will do anything to get it back to Madame Forestier, showing her honesty of character, and we are truly impressed when the pair manage to pay off all their debt. However, she is seen to be arrogant, and envious. As a character she shows contradictions in her thinking, for example de Maupassant describes her dreams of “two tall footmen asleep in the huge armchairs”, the fact that they are sleeping showing that they are not performing their task and are simply for show; “trinkets beyond price” also shows this muddled thinking, as trinkets by definition are worth very little, and she describes her ideal “closest friends” as being the most “famous and sought-after” men, showing that she would value being seen with important people over having genuinely close companions. There are more obvious references to her unpleasant characteristics peppering the piece – “she felt that God had made her for such things” (referring to fine dresses and jewelry) is one such example. In this way, therefore, I believe it is de Maupassant’s intention to make the reader have little sympathy for Madame Loisel, particularly as the ironic twist ending with the “imitation necklace” gives a comic effect, as if he almost wants the reader to laugh at her suffering.
It is interesting to see how two writers could have used exactly the same template for seemingly similar short stories, and come up with such a different tone. Whilst Hardy’s The Son’s Veto is inherently tragic, The Necklace has much more of a twisted comic feel. Perhaps this is due to Hardy’s background – he was not wealthy, and was home educated. However, whether deserved or not, both stories powerfully present the brutality of class and status in a 19th century society.
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