Literary theory is a broad term that contains within itself a variety of literary theories. Each theory features ideas and assumptions about reality, and can be used, like lenses, to make new discoveries about the meaning of literature and art. Where traditional criticism recognized a common canon of literature as worthy of study, and a traditional set of criteria for exploring texts, literary theory came along to blow the doors open. Literary theory questions texts rather than just accepting them at face value. As Brewton writes of the sea change that literary theory would become, “What literature was, and why we read literature, and what we read, were questions that subsequent movements in literary theory were to raise” (Web). Using literary theory, we can take any piece of literature and examine it from different angles, finding different significance with each theory lens. What first appears a superficial text can become an instructional look at classism or patriarchy, simply by employing the use of theories.
My interest in “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant comes from my own experience as a woman who is sometimes envious of people who are in “higher” social classes. Though I am happy most of the time, I am not a complete stranger to the deflated sense of dissatisfaction with my income bracket that the character of Mathilde is steeped in as the story opens (XX The Necklace). I always enjoy a refreshing reality check and examining this story in depth, by applying two different lenses of literary theory, has been gratifying and eye opening to say the least.
In the paragraphs to follow, I will demonstrate that by applying the lenses of, first Marxism, and then feminism, to my reading of “The Necklace,” this text has been transformed from a short story with seemingly simple themes into a deep study of society, oppression and power, past and present.
Issues of “class” are central to Marxist literary theory. “Class,” with its distinctions and conflicts, is a concept that can readily be applied to Guy de Maupassant’s story, “The Necklace.” This is a short story about a man and woman who suffer greatly as a result of the wife’s obsessive envy of those in a higher socio-economic class than hers.
As Bertens writes, Karl Marx argued that human behavior was the result of socio-economic conditions, and not self-determinism (69). A Marxist would observe that people are born into their economic conditions as the result of the social classes of their families. One Marxist assumption about this division of social classes is that the upper class holds the power (and the money and the property) and the lower classes follow along, providing the labor that continues to make the upper classes richer (Ryan). As Michael Ryan points out in the article “Marxism,” we see this economic imbalance of social classes in our current Western society, wherein Bill Gates can make $35 billion as the owner of a business but his employees make a small fraction of that amount. This is an example of the lower class laborers doing the work that fills the pockets of the upper class owners (Ryan). As Bertens writes, Marxist thought says that the class divisions of capitalism create a world “focused on profit – in which ultimately all of us function as objects and become alienated from ourselves” (71). Another assumption about class from Marxism is that class inequality is not sustainable, and therefore any capitalist society will eventually topple due to an uprising of the lower social classes, who will finally say to the upper class (to borrow dialogue from the movie Network), “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” (Ryan).
In “The Necklace”, we see a woman who appears to be oblivious to the good things she has, because she believes so keenly that her life would be better if she was a member of the elite class. In the third sentence, we read that Mathilde “was unhappy as though kept out of her own class…” (XX The Necklace). Through exposition, we learn that Mathilde has food to eat (“the good pot-au-feu” that her husband loves) prepared by servants, a comfortable home, and a husband who loves her. But her husband’s inferior class is denoted in this sentence about him “…she let them make a match for her with a little clerk in the Department of Education.” We are told that Mathilde suffers “intensely, feeling herself born for every delicacy and every luxury” (XX The Necklace). As the story unfolds, Mathilde’s husband secures an invitation to a fancy ball thinking it will make his wife happy, but Mathilde feels her anguish even more acutely as she considers that she does not have the right clothing and jewelry to be accepted as a worthy guest at the upper class function. Through her husband’s sacrifice of his meager savings so she can buy a dress, and the loan of a necklace from her friend who has married into the upper class, Mathilde can finally shine as a jewel among the upper class at the ball. Indeed, the few hours of Mathilde’s glory at the ball, where “all the men were looking at her…” and “all the attaches of the Cabinet wanted to dance with her” takes up two short paragraphs in the story, but lingers in Mathilde’s mind for years to come as her only true satisfaction in life (XX The Necklace). Ultimately, these few intoxicated hours at the ball end up costing Mathilde and her husband ten years of their lives because of the debt they incur in striving to be worthy of attending. Their striving also causes them to fall to an even lower class than the one in which they started. Also worth noting is that though Mr. and Mrs. Loisel are not revolutionaries who desire to topple the class system, Mathilde’s unhappiness with her place in society is evidence that the class inequities of a capitalistic society are not sustainable.
Looking with the lens of Marxist criticism, we can see Mathilde as a victim of the class system. A Marxist critique could assert that Mathilde’s perception of the upper class as superior was out of her control, that she was simply a pawn of ideology, inheriting a belief system that dictates her view of how life works, and what matters. As a victim of the ideology of the ruling class, Mathilde cannot help but admire the lucky upper class. A Marxist reading would see Mathilde as an object in a stacked system, “alienated from her true self.” As such, instead of this story being a tale about a woman who is ungrateful or shallow, a Marxist could utilize it as a cautionary tale about the evils of capitalism and its exploitive class distinctions.
The concept of “patriarchy” is common to all strands of feminist literary theory. Because the setting of Guy de Maupassant’s story, “The Necklace” is 19th century Paris, a patriarchal society in which women were dependent on marriage to establish their social standing, a feminist reading of the story sheds light on gender inequality.
Feminist literary criticism aims to illuminate the imbalance of power between men and women, and in so doing, change the patriarchal nature of society. In a patriarchal society, woman is “other,” and she is “marginalized, defined only by her difference from male norms and values” (Brizee et al). Modern drug testing practices belie this marginalization of women. As Brizee et al write, “drugs prescribed for both sexes often have been tested on male subjects only” (Web). Feminists seek to shine light on the ways that women are oppressed socially, psychologically, politically and economically. Oppression of women is upheld by the propagation of patriarchal ideology. One example of the patriarchal ideology is the story that all of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, have heard: the story of Adam and Eve, with Eve being the “other” who brings sin and death into the world (Brizee et al). Guy de Maupassant’s French couple can be studied as a microcosm of the larger culture of 19th century France.
One way we can point to Mathilde as a victim of patriarchal ideology is by highlighting the way she views herself. She daydreams constantly about the things she wants (“large parlors decked with old silk” and “coquettish little rooms, perfumed, prepared for the five o’clock chat with intimate friends” (XX. The Necklace), but has absolutely no sense of power about getting them. She sees herself as completely dependent upon the institution of marriage. This indicates that she is well versed in the patriarchal ideology of female inferiority. She also feels that she has missed the boat by marrying her particular husband, rather than an upper class gentleman. Mathilde doesn’t seem to have any self-esteem or personal goals. All her energy is spent wishing for and craving a more prestigious life. In paragraph 5, de Maupassant writes that Mathilde “would so much have liked to please, to be envied, to be seductive and sought after.” The only time in the whole story that Mathilde is not unhappy is during those few hours at the ball, when “all the men were looking at her” and “she danced with delight…intoxicated with pleasure, thinking of nothing, in triumph of her beauty” (XX. The Necklace). This illustrates that Mathilde considered her value as a person to be inextricably tied to her attractiveness as a woman. She is the “other” who wants desperately to be accepted by the ones who hold the power, men. The fact that in spite of ten years of hard work as a result of her vanity, Mathilde never has an epiphany or shift in self-awareness is further evidence of the pervasive patriarchal ideology of the culture in which she lives. In the 21st century, one can find female characters in literature and movies that are self-aware and empowered to live life on their own terms. In our present world, patriarchal ideology has been named, questioned and attacked. Today most girls grow up being told that they can do anything. But Mathilde is so steeped in the patriarchal ideology that will go largely unquestioned for many decades to come, that she doesn’t see any other way to be. Like a fish that never thinks to ask “what is water?” Mathilde does not identify the oppressive patriarchy in which she lives; she simply continues to swim in it. As far as we know, she never enjoys life as a free human being.
Upon first reading “The Necklace,” I thought it was a clever little story about a shallow woman. Examining the story using the lenses of Marxist and Feminist literary theory has enabled me to dig deeper to expose universal dynamics of classism, oppression and alienation. Feminism allows us to look at this story and have compassion for the women who lived in darker times, when patriarchy was more dominant. Feminist literary criticism did not emerge until long after de Maupassant’s life was over and it seems doubtful that he intended to expose the oppression of women when writing “The Necklace.” However, this is the beauty of literary theory; long after an author is gone we can look at his or her story with a new lens, in this case a feminist lens, to learn about our world and ourselves. “The Necklace” reflects realistic elements of gender inequality in 19th century Parisian society that still exist, to different degrees, in our Western culture today. Having knowledge of feminist literary theory enables one to dig deeper in this story to expose the disempowerment of women through patriarchy.
Marxism, on the other hand, did exist during Guy de Maupassant’s lifetime, and it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to consider that he may have intended to highlight the ugliness of hierarchical social classes when he wrote “The Necklace.” If I had not learned about Marxist literary criticism and consciously applied it to my reading of the story, I certainly would not have noticed or digested that very ugliness.
Literary theory proves to be a powerful tool in unearthing realities that would likely go unnoticed by the untrained eye. No woman alive today can say for sure that she might not have behaved just like Mathilde had she lived in 19th Century Paris, born into the substandard class, impotent to choose and create her own life. Without power, Mathilde seeks to be admired and valued for her beauty. Perhaps beauty will be her ticket to rise. The story proves that her beauty was not powerful enough to break through the classist and patriarchal limitations of the society in which she lived. Western Society has come a long way since Mathilde’s time, but you can talk to any 10 year old girl and hear echoes of Mathilde’s desperate need to be admired for her beauty. And you can walk down a street in any U.S. city and see a wealthy Tesla owner drive by a homeless person. The need for literary theories that open our eyes to the oppression and alienation that continue to exist in our world is very much alive.
Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory: The Basics. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.
Brizee, Allen, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, and Elizabeth Boyle. “Feminist Criticism (1960s-present).” Purdue Online Writing Lab. Purdue University, 21 Apr. 2010. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.
Brizee, Allen, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, and Elizabeth Boyle. “Marxist Criticism: 1930s to present.” Purdue Online Writing Lab. Purdue University, 21 Apr. 2010. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.
Ryan, Michael. “Marxism.” The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory. Ed. Michael Ryan. Hoboken: Wiley, 2011. Credo Reference. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.
“XX. The Necklace By Guy De Maupassant. Matthews, Brander. 1907. The Short-Story.” Bartleby.com. Bartleby.com, 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.