Sunday, July 22, 2012

Emblems, Signs, and Symbols In Maupassant’s Necklace

Essay 4 — Of Emblems, Signs, and Symbols In Maupassant’s Necklace
Guy de Maupassant short story “The Necklace” is a tale of fulfilled and unfulfilled fantasies, of gratification and privation, of long unhappiness and brief glimmers of happiness. For being only a mini story it contains the elements of a grandiose tale that tells much not only about the cast of characters, but also about the French nation—its stratified society and its human condition.
How then does Maupassant achieve such great density of ideas in such a brief work? The answer lies in his skillful use of emblems, signs, and symbols. American philosopher Ralph W. Emerson wrote in his essay on Nature: “It is not works only that are emblematic. Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture.” In this light, I can see how Maupassant used every natural fact and every appearance in nature as emblems, signs, and symbols to depict the heroine’s —Mme. Loisel— state of mind. Nothing in Maupassant’s selection of detail is wasted; everything has a function within the story; and these vary from the most humble and mundane object to the ostentatious and sophisticated necklace.

Symbols of Materialism and Wealth

The unnamed narrator repeatedly lingers on the material possessions that Mme. Loisel treasures in her fantasies:
… she imagined delicate meals, gleaming silver, tapestries peopling the walls with folk of a past age and strange birds in fairy forests; she imagined delicate food served in marvelous china plates, murmured gallantries, listened to with a sphinxlike smile as one ate the rosy flesh of trout or the wings of a quail.
What the unfortunate Mme. Loisel dreams of is banquets, parties, and fabulous dinners. But besides focusing on “delicate meals,” “delicate food, ” and delicacies such as “the rosy flesh of trout or the wings of a quail,” she fills hers senses with exotic kinesthetic sensations:
She imagined silent antechambers, padded with Oriental tapestries, lit by torches in lofty bronze candelabra, with two tall footmen in knee-breeches sleeping in large arm-chairs, drowsy with the heavy warmth of the stove. She imagined vast salons hung with antique silks, exquisite pieces of furniture displaying priceless ornaments, and small, charming, perfumed rooms, created just for little five-PM parties of intimate friends, men who were celebrities and sought after and who roused every other woman's envious longings.

Every detail —natural fact— that the narrator employs justly corresponds to Mme. Loisel’ “states of minds,” as Emerson aptly described above.

Signs of Low Status

Just as natural facts may be the objective correlatives of states of mind that are wishful thinking of wealth and opulence, they can also be the embodiments of poverty. Mme. Loisel cannot escape the cold reality of her fate; her inescapable fate. The author Guy de Maupassant follows the pattern set by writers of the naturalistic school, in which the ills of society and of the human body determine one’s fate: She suffered from the poverty of her house, from its mean walls, the worn-out chairs, and the ugly curtains. All these things, of which other women of her class would not even have been aware, tormented and irritated her. In a poignant passage, both husband and wife must face reality when the ball ends: He threw over her shoulders the garments he had brought for them to go home in, modest everyday clothes, whose poverty clashed with the beauty of the ball-dress. Conscious of this, she was anxious to hurry away, so that she should not be noticed by the other women putting on their expensive furs.

The Diamond Necklace as a Symbol of Hierarchy and Doom

Mme. Loisel —the heroine— is portrayed as an unhappy woman who isn’t satisfied with her vulgar life as the wife of a low level Government clerk. At the precise instant that she chooses the necklace as the appropriate jewel for the Minister’s ball, she seals her fate.
Such fated diamond necklace will in due course become the noose that will deprive her for ten years of the air of youth and enjoyment of life. Of all the precious stones, diamonds occupy the pinnacle of the hierarchy. Not only are they emblem of elegance, and opulence, abut also of brilliance and intelligence. Given Mme. Loisel’s low status in the social hierarchy, she dreams of belonging in high society; perhaps even leapfrogging to that level despite her lack of fortune, connections, and intelligence. Yet, it is her beauty what nurtures her unreachable longings, what kindles her internal fires to mimic a life of languid opulence, to imitate and pass as real as false diamonds can be taken for real jewels.
But the ultimate symbolic irony lies in the fake diamond necklace itself, for it is this same object what condemns Mme. Loisel to ten years of hard labor.

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