The Necklace | Study Guide

Guy de Maupassant

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The Necklace | Context


Realism and Naturalism

In the mid-19th century, two artistic movements emerged that opposed the prevailing Romantic style: realism and naturalism. Where Romantic writers such as Victor Hugo often portrayed doomed or noble characters, realism focused on the contemporary world and characters familiar to the reader, such as farmers, laborers, and bureaucrats. Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary is not only a classic example of realist fiction but also was written to show the tragic failure of Romanticism as a worldview for its main character, Emma Bovary.

Naturalism sharpened the clear-eyed view of realist writers by taking a scientific and journalistic approach to the collection of materials and presentation of characters. French writer Émile Zola was a naturalist who tried to describe the world objectively and presented characters whose behavior and identity are shaped by their environments.

Many writers, including Guy de Maupassant, have been classified as both realists and naturalists. Maupassant himself worked as a journalist, which gave his writing a steady flood of contemporary material, and he was proud of having only written about things he had himself seen. In "The Necklace" readers can see Maupassant's naturalism in his description of the cab after the ball, the social interaction at the ball itself, and small details such as Monsieur Loisel's plans to buy a gun for recreation. It is most visible, though, in the descriptions of the 10 years of hard labor the couple put in to pay off their debt and how the struggle affects Madame Loisel.

Gustave Flaubert and His Circle

Maupassant's maternal uncle, Alfred Le Poittevin, was a friend of French novelist Gustave Flaubert, and his mother consequently arranged for Flaubert to tutor her son. From 1874 until his death in 1880, Flaubert mentored Maupassant, reviewed his work, and according to Flaubert himself loved him like a son.

Flaubert also helped shape Maupassant's career by introducing him to major international literary figures including Émile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, and Henry James. In addition to acquainting Maupassant with some of the greatest writers of his time, these introductions provided voices who championed his work and increased its reach. Zola assembled the collection of short stories on the Franco-German War in which Maupassant's first major story appeared.

Though he also criticized Maupassant, Henry James called him a "lion in the path" of other writers because his talent loomed so large.

Maupassant and the Short Story

As a literary genre the short story is quite modern, emerging on its own in the 19th century. One driving force for the popularity of the genre was the explosion of magazine culture. As literacy increased, magazines became common and popular throughout Europe and the United States, creating a thriving literary culture—and a far greater market for fiction than ever before. As a result more writers could make a living by writing, and successful writers like Maupassant could become rich from their stories and novels.

An active magazine culture created a new context for writers. Audiences could now follow favorite writers. Writers and editors became more actively attuned to the work produced by others in their field; such activity created a blend of inspiration and competition. Maupassant was in the midst of this phenomenon: people paid attention to what he published and where. "The Necklace" specifically attracted considerable attention. Indeed Henry James not only commented on Maupassant's tale but also wrote his own story, "Paste," in response to it. Maupassant also influenced American short story writers O. Henry and Ambrose Bierce, who borrowed the technique of the "surprise-inversion" ending used in "The Necklace."

The critic Francis Steegmuller dedicated an entire chapter of his 1949 critical biography Maupassant: A Lion in the Path to "The Necklace," arguing that because of the story's popularity and subsequent imitations, readers became tired of such dramatic reversals as endings. Steegmuller also claimed that because "The Necklace" is so well known, its final twist characterizes Maupassant as a gimmicky writer and causes readers to underestimate his mastery.

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