Thursday, July 27, 2017

"The Necklace" (1884)

Read story by Guy de Maupassant online.

There's a kind of inevitability now about the future of the short story in reading Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace" (also translated as "The Diamond Necklace"). I'm speaking of the twist ending, of course. Maupassant is probably best known for the device, in his own time and later, a master or at least frequent retailer of it. O. Henry caught the drift later in the US, and for much of the 20th century surprise endings were a regular feature in short stories everywhere, even the sole reason for many to exist. It's presently seen most in short-short stories, or flash fiction, or sudden fiction. or whatever these microscopic forms are traveling by now ("twitterature" for 140-character stories)—a novelty, which is probably as it should be. Maupassant was also considered a naturalist and you can see that here in the attention to the long-term effects of class constraints, the other reason this story may be so widely anthologized. The twist here, after all this time, is not actually hard to see coming, and it's more on the order of heavy-handed moral irony. The main character, Mathilde Loisel, is hard to make out and deceptively complex. You think she is one thing but she is another, and while she eventually becomes sympathetic she's never exactly likable (compare Madame de in Madame de...). The story may not surprise us much, but it's only incidentally shallow. Henry James, W. Somerset Maugham, and Vladimir Nabokov all paid literary tributes to it. There are interesting currents at play in it: pride, humility, integrity, and a kind of secularized faith are all issues raised in a story short enough that it works almost more like a parable. But the moral is not simple. It has many deceptive layers. "Be true to yourself," you might reduce it to. But that is both in the sense of acting truly on who you are, and of taking responsibility for your actions. If you're so inclined, you can read elements of punishment into it even as you read elements of transgression. But none of those judgments have to be there at all either. It can simply be, down at the base level of literary naturalism, the human beast and human psychology running their endless cycles.

The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant

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