Date: Dec 9, 2019
Love and Resilience vs. Materiality

Two married young girls of low social standing experience financial difficulties. Both are pretty and feminine. The marriage of one is happy despite an obvious slid towards poverty, while the other does not exhibit the mutual love and care between the spouses. Both narratives predominantly pivot around the female characters voiced by an impersonal narrator. The stories of Guy de Maupassant and O. Henry have a few decades between them. While similar in structure, the stories, however, have the endings with different qualities of surprise: “Gift of the Magi” has a happy ending of a fairy tale, while “The Necklace” has a bitter aftertaste of a sharp coming to terms with reality. Placing their characters in similar economic and social circumstances Maupassant and O. Henry evolve their stories in different ways to show how different two types of women live in their marriages and consequently how their marriages can be based on a tender feeling of love or the lack of it.

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Plot Summary and Allusions

Being published in 1884, “The Necklace” alludes to two literary characters at once: Cinderella and Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Protagonist Mathilde Loisel is highly unsatisfied with her social standing, like Madame Bovary, but because she has only good looks and not a kind heart she loses even those modest material possessions that she had, “as a Cinderella tale in reverse”. Madame Loisel is described as a pretty and charming girl who believes that pleasant appearance should define a girl’s status. Therefore, it is the highest injustice of fate that she had to marry “a little clerk,” which is a natural thing to do for a girl from an ordinary family with no dowry. The Loisels are not poverty-stricken. They could afford a servant and they have food and clothes. Monsieur Loisel could even save up for a riffle. However, Mathilde Loisel dreams of more servants, finer food, and a more refined society. She is ambitious and vain and longs for envy, admiration, and attention from the upper classes. Mathilde Loisel never appreciated what she had and, therefore, she lost it not gaining anything instead. Her husband is portrayed as a caring spouse who is eager to pamper his wife with his modest means and even refuses the long-awaited shooting with friends just to let his wife have a pretty dress. The story implies many “if only”. If only Madame Loisel told her affluent friend about their predicament with the necklace, if only she stayed at the building after the ball to wait for her husband to find the carriage, if only she agreed to decorate herself with fresh flowers but not borrowed jewels. However, the bottom line is that Madame Loisel’s discontent with her life brought the ten-year financial hardship and strain on her husband and her while their means could have allowed them their little bourgeois happiness.

In stark contrast to Madame Loisel’s bitterness and irritation with inadequate means, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” portrays the couple who overcomes the burdens of poverty with love and care. “The Gift of the Magi” was written by O. Henry in 1906 in his characteristic manner of lighthearted humor depicting the everyday life of people with modest means. With few details, the writer depicts the poverty of Della and James Young by mentioning that they pay for the flat $8 out of $20 earned. By carefully rendering the shabby settings and mentioning their old clothes the author underlines that the husband and wife sacrifice their only valuable possessions. Not being able to save more than $1.87 Della decides to sell her long gorgeous hair. She receives $20 and buys an elegant platinum watch chain as a Christmas present for her dearly beloved husband. Despite living in very pinched circumstances Della is not as miserable and desperate as Mathilde Loisel. On the contrary, O. Henry (1995) clearly states Mrs. Young’s love for her husband:

… a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling – something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim. (p. 2)

To the reader’s delight, Della’s love for her husband is mutual. After having her hair cut Della is worried that Jim might not like her with short hair but Jim is quick to assure her: “I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less”. His words are followed up with an equally precious present. Jim had sold his heirloom watch to buy a set of bejeweled combs for Della. Describing the couple’s precious possessions O. Henry alludes to the Bible. First, it gives a humorous effect because Henry (1995) places the Queen of Sheba as Della’s neighbor and King Solomon as a janitor:

Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Delia would have let her hair hang out of the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy. (p. 2)

Next, it creates an exaggeration that emphasizes the depths of Della and Jim’s love to each other so that they sacrifice not only their dearest objects but almost the items of their self-identification. Della is ready to part with women’s natural adornment – her gorgeous long hair and Jim agrees to give away his father’s gold watch he has been very proud of. Ultimately, the couple proves that their love is their biggest treasure and they are lucky to have it.

Historical Context

Both stories do not specify the time when they take place but it is obvious that both couples play traditional gender roles. Therefore, that time the roles of husbands and wives were clearly defined. Both men Mister Young and Monsieur Loisel are breadwinners who work outside the home. Their wives take care of the household by themselves or with hired help. The connection of women to their “working place” kitchen is mentioned in both stories. Both Della and Mathilde wait for their husbands to return from work with dinner ready to be served. After the couple got into debts, Maupassant places particular stress on Mathilde’s need to do “heavy housework” and “the odious cares of the kitchen,” which eminently takes a toll on her once good looks. Another conventional expectation of women is their emotionality. O. Henry (1995) ironically remarks, “There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating”. Maupassant’s Mathilde also starts crying after realizing that she has nothing to wear to the ball. Her husband acts as a comforter who, being emotionally more secure, offers his sympathy and solutions. Another sign of traditional gender roles is laying emphasis on outer appearance by females. Della says a remarkable prayer: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty”. Both women believe they should please men with their looks. However, Maupassant also renders his Mathilde with a peculiar idea that she should be entitled to wealth and special honors only because of being pretty, elegant, and charming.

Theme: Generosity versus Greediness

That inability to “count one’s blessings” is the major difference between the two heroines. The two stories can be contrasted with the themes of generosity and greediness. Being beautiful both women are vain about their beauty and are eager to display it to their best advantage. After Della had received the combs as a gift from her husband we learned that she “had worshipped them for long in a Broadway window” to adorn her beautiful tresses. However, Della had never been anxious or impatient to become rich. On the contrary, both Jim and Della demonstrate wholesomeness giving away the shirt off their back to cheer up the partner. Even when they find out the irony of their situation they do not get irritated at being silly but see it as a sign of their deep feelings towards each other. Meanwhile, Madame Loisel’s attitude to life is in sharp contrast to the Youngs. By being greedy and always striving for more Mathilde Loisel involves herself and her husband in real poverty, not imaginary as before when she could afford a servant to help her around the house.

Females as the Central Focus

Both stories are told from the third person but the narrator is concerned mostly with the heroines. In these two stories, both men and women come across financial predicaments but the reader is aware mostly about women’s thoughts and reactions. In “Gifts of the Magi,” O. Henry tells in detail how Della was thinking about the present for Jim, got upset, and how she came up with the idea to have her hair cut and sold. Jim’s decision-making process to sell the watch is hidden. The reader only sees Jim’s reaction when he discovers that Della has become short-haired and understands that the idea to buy the combs has not been prompted by Della. The author’s diction is tongue-in-cheek. The narrator uses both an ironic ending and funny remarks such as “forget the hashed metaphor” or casual expressions such as “took a mighty pride” (Henry, 1995, p. 2).

In “The Necklace,” the author mentions how hard M. Loisel toils but the central focus is on Madame Mathilde. The narrator is omnipresent with access to the characters’ thoughts. The diction is simple; the irony is in the ending but not in the language. Learning about the Loisels’ financial misfortunes the reader is unable to adopt an ironic attitude right up to the very ending. From the jolie femme Mathilde is transformed into “the vulgar ménagère”. At first, the reader is appalled to know that the Loisels refused to tell Madame Forestier about their loss and had to pay a ridiculously enormous sum of money to replace the necklace. The couple had struggled to pay the debt for ten years. However, in the final part of the story, the reader is startled with the ‘new’ Madame Loisel – loud, “strong and hard and rough”. The changed self-image is obvious: the woman felt self-assured enough to come up to the former friend Madame Forestier and identify herself despite going unrecognized. Mary Donaldson-Evans (1985) suggests that the reason for such a change is that “material comfort has been replaced by heroic self-denial, a life of despair and aimless dreaming by a purposeful life of activity… In short, she has found her raison d'être” (p. 169).

Structure

Such a transformation of Madame Loisel was possible due to the timeframe the author chose. Unlike O. Henry, who has chosen to tell the story of Della’s one day, Maupassant manages to recall the events over a stretch of years within a few pages. In general, Maupassant’s “The Necklace” seems more complicated in comparison to O. Henry’s “Gifts of the Magi” due to the timeframe. O. Henry’s story reads simple because it covers only part of the day from Della’s life while Maupassant writes about a longer period of time. In no small part, it is due to a surprise ending. Having been widely anthologized, both stories are most often commented on their “whip-crack” endings. Actually, O. Henry is believed to be a successor to Maupassant’s short story’s structure and an unexpected conclusion in the end. He was even referred to as “a Yankee Maupassant”. However, in America, an unexpected turn of events came to be known as “the O. Henry twist”.

Writing a few decades after Maupassant, O. Henry became known for portraying characters in a concise and ironic form with a twist in the end. His short stories hardly ever exceed 10 pages being 5-6 pages on average. O. Henry moves quickly “from introduction to action and on to the surprise ending. Richard Fusco (1994) notices that in “Gifts of the Magi” O. Henry uses his well-tried plot structure when a couple of scant means acts unselfishly, thus canceling out their sacrificial efforts but at the same time finding the greatest pleasure in such manifestation of their love. O. Henry is able to create a surprise ending as he withholds some information. Till the very conclusion, the reader is unaware of Jim’s present to Della. This final touch usually has an ironic or humoristic effect. Unlike O. Henry, Maupassant uses a surprise ending to invert the reader’s opinion about the protagonist. Fusco (1994) writes that Maupassant “force[s] us to reinterpret a text upon second reading”. Especially in “The Necklace,” the reader is forced to play a highly active role. After the last sentence, the reader has to revise his or her judgment of the story. Donaldson-Evans (1985) writes, “The Necklace” “leaves the reader to ponder the revelation, guess at the character’s reaction, in a word, to recreate the story and its conclusion in the wake of the devastating news”. Both “Gifts of the Magi” and “The Necklace” are stories with quick and unexpected endings. However, Donaldson-Evans (1985) refers to Maupassant’s story as “a slap in the face”. Maupassant writes short stories where the climax happens in the middle followed by a proper denouement, for example, “Les Bijoux.” In “The Necklace,” Maupassant offers the denouement in the last paragraph thus leaving the ending open. In the last passages, Maupassant uses the method of dialogues in order to avoid any distracting details. O. Henry also abruptly ends his story right after the conclusion. According to critics, he does that in order to keep the mystery of love. If O. Henry wanted to continue his story he would have to portray the mundanity of everyday life.

 

An examination of Maupassant’s “The Necklace” and O. Henry’s “Gifts of the Magi” has revealed that both stories demonstrated certain kind of heroism in overcoming financial obstacles but the motivation and outcomes were different. O. Henry’s short stories are considered America’s response to Maupassant’s body of work. While both demonstrating a surprise ending O. Henry and Maupassant use the method differently. The opposition between the two stories lies in different reactions to similar circumstances. While being extremely feminine and pretty the female protagonists demonstrate similar emotional reactions to money troubles. However, their different attitude to their husbands and their financial standing eventually affects their quality of life. Della of “Gifts of the Magi” is happy with her beloved husband as he is. Meanwhile, Mathilde of “The Necklace,” who suffered from her inability to obtain status and wealth, acquires a positive self-image only after years of hardships. A comparison of these two short stories enables us to see the difference in the seemingly similar plot structures and themes. Unlike the Loisels, the Youngs appeared in even more humble circumstances but were quite more agreeable. Mutual self-sacrifice intensifies love and brings happiness while egotism and greed impoverish people both literally and figuratively.