“How life is strange and changeful! How little a thing is needed for us to be lost or to be saved!”[i]
Twist endings to stories, apart from their entertainment value, are interesting because they always have a specific moral attached to them. One could say this of the ending to many stories, but twists seem to send home particularly strong messages. Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” for example, shows what happens when we don’t follow directions, what happens we mess with nature, and why we should never step on butterflies. Ever. Even if butterflies are creepy.
On the less creepy side of things, Guy de Maupassant’s 1884 short story “The Necklace” has an absolutely classic twist ending to its cautionary tale. You can kind of see it coming during final conversation between Mathilde and her friend, but honestly the first time I read it I cringed so hard, and was left shaking my head. But, I learned some valuable lessons from the story, some that are a little more specific to the late 19th century, but others that I think could still be relevant today. If you haven’t read the story, you may download the PDF here: The necklace-2
If you’re too busy and important to read the whole story, here is the Reader’s Digest version: Mathilde is a beautiful woman who believes she was destined for greater things than being married to a clerk in the Ministry of Education. When they are invited to a party, she borrows a fabulous diamond necklace from her much wealthier friend Madame Forestier. The night of the party, she loses the necklace, and rather than tell her friend, she and her husband take out a huge loan to get a replacement, worth 36000 francs. They slave away for ten years to pay off the debt, and in the process, Mathilde prematurely ages and loses all her best qualities. When she is finally free of the debt she runs into her friend Madame Forestier, who tells her that the necklace she lent Mathilde was costume jewellery and was worth 500 francs at most, thus rendering all the effort of ten years completely pointless. Cheerful stuff. Here are some of the things I learned from Mathilde’s mishaps:
Don’t be a self-absorbed, materialistic person.
The narrator establishes Mathilde very quickly as a person entirely obsessed with material possessions, probably because she has very few. She is also vain and feels the need to be sought after and desired. That is her primary goal in going to the party, not only does she want to attend a social event, but she wants men to find her attractive, and this requires a dress and fine jewels. The narrator is disapproving of Mathilde’s vanity, as when she seems the eponymous necklace at her friend’s house, her heart begins “to beat with an immoderate desire,”[ii] suggesting that her feeling so strongly about a material possession is vulgar in a way.
Mathilde is not an entirely terrible person, what woman doesn’t want to be the belle of the ball? At the party, Mathilde is intoxicated by the attention she receives, “made drunk with pleasure”[iii] because all the men want to waltz with her and comment on her beauty. A glimpse into a life of glamour hypnotizes her, and in her hasty attempt to leave the party afterwards so the other women won’t see that she’s putting on a wrap rather than expensive furs, she loses the necklace. It doesn’t explicitly say this is the moment she loses the necklace, but it is arguable, as she starts moving erratically to avoid her husband’s attempts to put the wrap on her “rapidly descend[ing] the stairs”[iv] She’s so caught up in the feeling of the night she doesn’t notice the weight of the necklace is missing. Her insistence on being glamourous, sought after, and surrounded with fine things are what ultimately throws her into the awful situation later in the story.
Know your place.
This lesson does not really apply to the modern day, because there is much more opportunity for social mobility, but in the 19th century there was a strictly regimented code of conduct, and who your parents were determined much of your future life. During this time, there was a growing middle class, and often some merchants, lawyers, and stock brokers were becoming as wealthy as some of the aristocracy, but were still not regarded on the same level.
Mathilde’s unfortunate social situation is the first thing Maupassant directs the reader to. She has “no dowry, no expectations”[v] leading her to be married to a clerk of little means at the Ministry of Public Instruction. She feels a sense of entitlement because she is so pretty, “feeling herself born for all the delicacies and all the luxuries.”[vi] Her husband knows she wants to go to fancy parties and experience some of the finer things in life, so he pulls some strings to get them invited to an extravagant party. It is not enough for her to just go to the party; she pouts to her husband that she doesn’t have any beautiful dresses or jewels to wear to the party. This of course leads her to borrowing her friend’s necklace, which she subsequently loses.
If she had listened to her husband’s practical advice of wearing flowers in her hair instead of having jewels, she would not land herself in a crippling debt. Her husband’s observation that natural flowers are “very stylish at this time of year”[vii] falls on deaf ears, as she wants to appear rich even though she isn’t. Although it is certainly an understandable desire to want to fit in where she’s going, and to look nice for a party or special event, she overreaches her means by attempting to appear rich, and attains disastrous results, showing one should be satisfied with the social position one’s born into.
Be upfront and honest.
There’s not too much to say about this lesson apart from if Mathilde had merely fessed up to Madame Forestier about losing her necklace, she would
not have tried to replace the necklace with the super expensive replacement because Forestier would have told her it was costume jewellery. It would’ve saved herself a lot of time and energy (ten years worth!). Once again, Mathilde’s pride is getting in the way. She is so afraid of looking like a fool in front of her friend, that she cripples herself with debt rather than being honest.
Debt is the worst thing ever.
Going into debt ruins Mathilde and Loisel’s lives. In taking out a loan, they both spend ten years working two or more jobs each, having no opportunity for luxuries for themselves. Although slavery is no longer around (well, that depends who you ask), debt is the modern slavery. In the story, it steals Mathilde and Loisel’s youth and joy. In real life, it holds back people from leaving jobs they hate or aren’t suited for, keeps recent grads from getting established in the world, and causes heartbreak, resentment, and shame. Maupassant certainly illustrates the perils of debt in “The Necklace.”
Mathilde and Loisel live on the Rue des Martyrs, which is a not so subtle way of implying that they are going to sacrifice a great amount. If anything, Loisel is the real martyr of the story. When his wife wants a pretty dress, he gives her the money he had been saving to buy himself a gun to her instead. When she loses the necklace, he uses money from his inheritance and goes into debt, working two jobs all because of his wife’s mistake. Mathilde aspires to martyrdom, but the end of the story denies Mathilde the martyr status she desperately wants. It is absolutely perfect. All her good looks are gone, she has “frowsy hair, skirts askew, and red hands”[viii] to pay off the debts. She approached her misfortune with “heroism”[ix] and she appears to have built character through her experiences. However, the story denies her that ultimate satisfaction as it renders her sacrifice useless with those devastating lines “Oh, my poor Mathilde! Why, my necklace was paste. It was worth at most five hundred francs!”[x]. She could have paid off a debt of five hundred francs in a few months, a year at most, not ten.
As an aside, Guy de Maupassant was a friend of Gustave Flaubert, of Madame Bovary fame. You can see many similarities between the subject matter and style of the two authors work. Flaubert and de Maupassant both write in the realist style and utilize a third person omniscient narrator that is slightly disapproving of the protagonist’s actions. Both stories feature beautiful women who are dissatisfied with their dopey middle-class husbands, and become fixated on material luxuries, going into wild debt as a result. Debt also ruins both women’s lives. Although one could argue with Madame Bovary that she was depressed about cheating on her husband, the primary reason she kills herself is because the prospect of ruination and bankruptcy from her debts seems too much to bear. I would say some of the main morals of the story for both works is that debt is awful and ruins lives. But in “The Necklace,” the much more pressing lesson is to not get so hung up on physical appearances and to not be prideful and vain.
So let this little tale be a warning to all of you, and if you must go to a black tie event but don’t have a lot of accessories, just wear flowers in your hair.
[i] Maupassant, Guy. “The Necklace” 1884, 5
[x] Ibid 6