Category: Review

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 metaph