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The Irony in Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace”

Guy de Maupassant’s short story “The Necklace” weaves a tale about Madame Mathilde Loisel who dreams of the finer things of life and is not content with her secure, middle class lifestyle. The price she pays for a single evening of elegance turns into years of drudgery and despair. This is a story that has stood the test of time and is as relevant today as when Maupassant wrote it in the late nineteenth century. The moral lesson to be learned from “The Necklace” is that a person will pay dearly for coveting false values, and a person’s preoccupation with appearances and materialism is fruitless and vain.

The plot begins with a description of the protagonist, Mathilde, a young lady born into a family with little means, and who marries a gentleman who is employed as a clerk. The setting of this story is late nineteenth century France. Maupassant employs the limited omniscient narrative perspective and utilizes third-person narration in this short story that allows his readers an intimate look into Mathilde’s life. Utilizing this point of view enables his readers to appreciate the changes that take place in her character. The narrator’s tone in this piece is unsympathetic towards the protagonist.

Mathilde’s life consists of simple clothes and a plain household filled with functional things. She has a single servant and her husband holds a steady job. Their lifestyle is better than those held by much of the population where they reside, but Mathilde is unhappy with her lot in life. She is portrayed as someone who believes she deserves a better life than the one she has; she wants to “please, to be envied, to be charming, to be sought after” (1, 2). Mathilde’s idea of the wealthy lifestyle is very romanticized; she spends her days dreaming of a home filled with expensive luxuries, closets of fine dresses and jewels, servants, and rich banquets. Mathilde simply fails to appreciate the good lifestyle her and her husband share. The “sight of the Breton peasant” who does her housework is enough to stir regret within her (3). The shame that she feels about her own financial and social status is something that many people can understand. The difference is that most people are unwilling to make the sacrifices made by Mathilde and her husband for one night of pleasure.

Maupassant masterfully portrays the depth of emotion of this character throughout this story especially in the scene when her husband comes home with an invitation to the ball. Instead of “being delighted” with the invitation, she throws it on the table “muttering” (2). Maupassant continues to explain her reaction and how she becomes “irritated” and impatient with her husband. When her husband suggests she wear her theater gown to the ball she begins to “weep”. And then “by a violent effort” she is able to muster up the strength to “conquer her grief” and replies to her husband in a “calm voice” (2). In describing Mathilde’s reaction to her husband, Maupassant expertly portrays Mathilde as a woman who is disgusted that she would have to wear an old dress to the ball. In doing so, Maupassant actually raises the level of disgust from his reader towards this character.

Mathilde does not believe her own possessions to be valuable and is even “distressed at the poverty of her dwelling” (1). She believes that people of her social class assume things are only valuable if they are expensive. She mistakenly assumes that the necklace she borrows from her friend is made of real diamonds simply because her friend is wealthy. Owning a piece of costume jewelry simply because her friend likes the piece is a foreign concept to Mathilde. She fails to realize that objects only have value as long as someone prizes them. Mathilde believes that since her friend is financially well off that she only buys the best, and nothing she owns would be costume jewelry. She spends so much time convincing herself that possessions only have value if they are expensive that she loses sight of the real value of things. This turns out to be a serious error on her part.

In her quest for materialism Mathilde ends up losing the good lifestyle her and her husband share before the ball. Mathilde must now live a life of toil and sacrifice to pay off the debt for the necklace, and that is the cost of her preoccupation with vanity. Not only does she make life hard for herself, but she also puts her husband through ten years of unnecessary hardship to pay the debt, a direct result of her foolish pride. Instead of being honest and admitting to her friend that she lost the necklace, her and her husband replace it with one they assume is worthy of the one they lost. Mathilde could have had an easier life if she had told the truth about losing the necklace, but she was too proud to admit to her mistake. By refusing to admit the truth about the necklace, Mathilde creates a situation that brings misfortune to both her and her husband.

The years of hard work, physical, and emotional stress take a toll on Mathilde’s appearance. A positive sign that this unfortunate situation changes her for the better is when she approaches Madame Forestier years later in the park. By allowing the character of Mathilde to approach her friend in this haggard condition, Maupassant is sending the message that Mathilde is much less concerned with appearances, a real sign of maturity. Only when her friend tells her the necklace was “paste” does Mathilde realize her grave error (8). This is the one place that Maupassant employs symbolism in his short story. The necklace that Mathilde associates with wealth turns out to be worthless. If she had been honest up front, her husband could have paid her friend the five hundred francs that the necklace was worth and then they would not have had such a hard life.

Maupassant masterfully uses irony to produce a surprise ending in this short story. In doing so, he attempts to teach his readers several different moral lessons. He shows his readers that Mathilde learns to operate within the restraints of poverty and not once does she complain. Maupassant asserts that the people who survive the misfortunes of life are somehow stronger and therefore actually benefit from their adversities. One lesson for Mathilde to learn is that vanity is worthless and people should be proud of who they are. Mathilde also needs to learn to be happy with what she has; the irony is that she lost what she has because she was not content with it.

Works Cited

Maupassant, Guy de. “The Necklace.” ByGosh.com. 4 April 2002. http://www.bygosh.com/Features/112002/thenecklace.htm

Professor Comments: Excellent!! May I use your essay as a sample paper next semester? 200 points

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