Review Of Guy De
Maupassant’s The Necklace And Other Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/20/06
I recently purchased a number of the Dover Thrift Editions of classic works by well-known writers whose work has now lapsed into public domain. One of the most noteworthy is a collection of nine tales by the acclaimed French short story master Guy de Mauppasant, whose tales are lifted from many apparent translators, none of whom are credited- which is a slight disappointment for it would have been nice to see if one or another translator was responsible for the better or worse stories, so to reckon the effect or not translation had on the original tales in French. Many critics have rightly hailed him as a skilled writer, and there is certainly much to admire in these tales. That said, there is also alot that simply is very dated, in terms of character development and plotting. Maupassant is definitely a pre-modern writer, who has far more truck with American O. Henry than the Russian Anton Chekhov, or even other Russian short story writers that predated him. Like O. Henry, Maupassant’s tales are fairly predictable and his characters exist merely to tell the story, not as beings upon whom a tale intrudes. Now, both premises can work for a story, but a fully mature and modern story tends not to be merely plot-driven, and only incorporate the O. Henry approach, which often places its whole bevy of eggs in the socko payoff at end, but take the best elements from both approaches, while leaning more toward character exploration- either internally or not.
The first tale in the book, Ball-Of-Fat, about the honor of a French prostitute of that nickname, captured by Prussian officers whilst traveling by coach with upper crusters, almost achieves this breakthrough, but is too long a tale, that descends into a mere satire of manners and class. The ending is effective, but the reader never exactly pierces through to the core of the prostitute, nor the situation. That said, it is quite a good satire and excoriation of bourgeois manners, especially in playing off the very notion of the honor and volition of a prostitute, who refuses her captors’ sexual advances: ‘Kindly tell that scoundrel, that cur, that carrion of a Prussian, that I will never consent- you understand?- never, never, never!’ Yet, I was left feeling manipulated, for I could sense the end coming. Yes, it was well-written, but reading pre-Modern prosists is sort of like riding in one of those early twentieth Century airplanes. There was no mystery nor illusion to the process of flight, as one gets in a modern luxury airliner. The next two tales, The Necklace and A Piece Of String, are classic plot-driven tales that top themselves off with a twist are also classic O. Henry formula tales. Unlike the first tale, both are brief and impeccably wrought, but the former is merely orchestrated just for the twist, while the latter achieves a depth that someone like Chekhov seems to have used as a starting point for his artistic maturation. It has an existential pang that The Necklace lacks. In it a haberdasher picks up a piece of string, yet feels shame over his attraction to such a pittance, and hides this fact from his enemy, who uses it to accuse the haberdasher of a later theft, due to his shame being mistaken for guilt. He is excoriated as a thief, even as he shows the piece of string to the accusatory Mayor of his town. Even after it is proved that someone else committed the theft, the haberdasher is stil believed guilty, for his reputation of shrewdness. He is believed to have committed the theft, and pawned the blame off on another, yet protested his innocence to his last breath, his vanity and others’ shallowness having been his undoing. Mme. Tellier’s Establishment is, like Ball-Of-Fat, a good slice of life look at a portion of French life- this time at a brothel, but despite its length there is no real depth achieved. Its descriptions are all surface. Mademoiselle Fifi, about the murder of a Prussian noble by a captured French prostitute allows a deeper probe into the same world as the prior story by allowing us to see both the Prussian and French sides of things, and then not being so reliant on the twist, which is less of a twist and more of a Hollywood ending. Miss Harriet and A Way To Wealth deal with much the same social commentary as in the earlier stories, yet not as successfully.
My Uncle Jules is a brief tale that is a wonderful portrait of both the title character, the speaker, who is a relation, and a puncturing of the American dream mythos, as for every Andrew Carnegie immigrant success story there were thousands of Uncle Juleses. The final story, The Horla, is a solid monster tale, written diaristically, in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe’s horror tales, albeit not as successful. The nameless protagonist is perhaps syphilitic, as was Maupassant. In the beginning he sees a Brazilian boat flow by his house. He salutes it and the gesture summons the invisible Horla, a vampiric being. In the end, the protagonist attempts to destroy the monster, yet only destroys himself and others.
There is a nice tension, in these tales, between sunny optimism and deep pessimism over the human condition, yet the tales are often a Punch And Judy show, as the manner in which such themes are dealt with is all overt. While the lack of complex didacticism hints at the future modern tendencies it sired, none of the tales, at least in this book, fully realizes a complete and human character, and it is not as if Maupassant could not be didactic. The Necklace, in fact, viciously punishes its lead characters for their needless guilt and dishonesty, signs of vanity, in a very heavy-handed way. Here is how it ends, with the protagonist encountering, after a decade of slaving to repay her debt for the diamond necklace she lost, the woman who owned the necklace:
One Sunday, as she had gone for a walk along the Champs-Elysees to freshen herself after the labors of the week, she caught sight suddenly of a woman who was taking a child out for a walk. It was Madame Forestier, still young, still beautiful, still attractive.
Madame Loisel was conscious of some emotion. Should she speak to her? Yes, certainly. And now that she had paid, she would tell her all. Why not?
She went up to her.
‘Good morning, Jeanne.’
The other did not recognize her, and was surprised at being thus familiarly addressed by a poor woman.
‘But...Madame...’ she stammered. ‘I don’t know...you must be making a mistake.’
‘No...I am Mathilde Loisel.’
Her friend uttered a cry.
‘Oh!...my poor Mathilde, how you have changed!...’
‘Yes, I’ve had some hard times since I saw you last; and many sorrows...and all on your account.’
‘On my account!...How was that?’
‘You remember the diamond necklace you lent me for the ball at the Ministry?’
‘Well, I lost it.’
‘How could you? Why, you brought it back.’
‘I brought you another one just like it. And for the last ten years we have been paying for it. You realize it wasn’t easy for us; we had no money....Well, it’s paid for at last, and I’m glad indeed.’
Madame Forestier had halted.
‘You say you bought a diamond necklace to replace mine?’
‘Yes. You hadn’t noticed it? They were very much alike.’
And she smiled in proud and innocent happiness. Madame Forestier, deeply moved, took her two hands.
‘Oh, my poor Mathilde! But mine was imitation. It was worth at the very most five hundred francs!’
Such coincidences do occur in life, and taken as an isolated tale it does not matter, but Maupassant’s tales, like those of O. Henry, are best read in small bunches, as this collection has, where the stock manipulations do not get repetitive as a hammer. Read Maupassant, and check out the Dover Books website, but realize the former works best as a curio of a lost time, and not a thing of the now.
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