The Necklace and Disabled
Explore the ways in which each writer presents the changing fortune of their protagonist in ‘The Necklace’ and ‘Disabled’ In this essay I will compare and contrast the techniques used by Guy De Maupassant and Wilfred Owen in order to evaluate how each writer conveys the changing fate of their protagonist. Both writers show how the difference between appearance and reality can have a tragic effect on a person’s fate, but for the protagonists, the long-term consequences are different. In ‘The Necklace’ De Maupassant’s presentation of his protagonist’s character is significant to our understanding of how her fortunes change. He conveys Madame Loisel as a very passive person. For example, he says that, “she went along with a proposal made by a junior clerk at the Ministry of Education” (my italics). Although we know that Mme Loisel would, apparently, ‘have given anything to be popular envied, attractive, and in demand’ – and we know she is ‘pretty’ and ‘delightful’ – which is advantageous in a society where ‘women have neither rank nor class, and their beauty, grace and charm do service for birthright and connections’, the extensive use of the passive tense in the description of her (she ‘was made’ unhappy by her apartment) suggests that she just resentfully resigns herself to her fate, blaming others, rather than trying to find the better life, which we know she craves so much.
This suggests that De Maupassant wants us to question whether or not it is ‘Fate’ that has given her what he describes as an ‘unhappy’ life. A further note of cynicism creeps in when De Maupassant states that “She was one of those girls pretty, delightful girls who, apparently by some error of Fate get themselves born the daughters of very minor civil servants.” This quote has different effects; firstly, by transforming the word into a proper noun, it shows the reader that ‘Fate’ is very important in Mme Loisel’s life. The statement also implies that she believes that she deserved to be born into a better life because of her beauty, but my italics draw attention to an area of contradiction. We really have no control over ‘fate’, and yet – supported by the word ‘apparently’ – the implication here is that there is an element of control.
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Moreover – and ironically, when she and her husband go into debt, we are told that “she resigned herself to what she could not alter: their appalling debt would have to be repaid” – and rather than staying passive, she takes control of her own fate by working hard to get out of it. The setting of ‘The Necklace’ plays a key role in Madame Loisel’s fortune, because in Nineteenth Century Paris, women of Mme Loisel’s class did not have much of a role in terms of financing the family. Their only job was to manage the household and look beautiful, so it could be argued that Mme Loisel is a victim of social and historical circumstances and this is the reason for her passive personality. The couple are at the lower end of the ‘genteel’ classes, but Mme Loisel spends so much time resenting their relatively lowly status that when we are told that she ‘was made unhappy by the run-down curtains” some of our sympathy leaves us because, arguably, she is so busy feeling self-pity that she neglects her household duties and waits for someone else to come and do them for her. Her inertia prevents us from sympathising with her belief that she deserves a better life. De Maupassant uses long sentences and paragraphs to describe Mme Loisel’s dreams about a better life – showing she had often put more effort into her dreams than into actually fixing her own unsatisfactory life. It could, however, be argued that her dreams are unrealistic – as suggested in the imagery when she dreams about tapestries hanging on the wall, populated by ‘mythical characters and strange birds in enchanted forests.’
This reveals Mme Loisel to be a fantasist emphasising the unlikelyhood of her dreams actually coming true and also is in direct contrast with her husband’s love of the simplicities of life: “Ah! Stew! There’s nothing better than a nice stew…” This contrast shows how incompatible they are, which could be a factor towards their downfall. Because she looks down on him, she has no qualms about manipulating him into giving her money for a dress and remains discontent until he suggests that she borrows her friend’s necklace – the loss of which leads to their changed fortune. M. Loisel tries really hard to reach his wife’s expectations but the expectations she sets are impossible to reach. We have proof of this when he gives her 400 Francs for a dress. He had been saving the money to go on a trip with his friends, but because his wife wants to look pretty for one night he cannot, which is evidence of vanity and selfishness, it does not occur to her that the money might be used elsewhere – giving additional evidence of Madame Loisel’s carelessness. De Maupassant stresses Madame Loisel’s unhappiness by comparing her dreams with her reality. The negative adjectives, such as the ‘battered chairs, and the ‘ugly curtains’ used to describe her own apartment contrast with the extravagant adjectives, such as ‘huge armchairs’ and rooms ‘hung with oriental tapestries, lit by tall, bronze candelabras’ used to describe her dream home. Also her negativity is further implied when we are told that ‘She had no fine dresses, no jewellry, nothing.’ The lack of connectives – or asyndeton – suggests the ongoing nature of her circumstances and the repetition of negatives highlight her lack of contentment.
This vividly contrasts with the description of the night of the reception, when triumphant-sounding lexical choices, such as “victorious” and “glorious” showing how she seems to have reached her goal – only to fall off her ‘cloud of happiness’ and be ‘brought… down to earth’ when she is handed her simple coat at the end of the evening. We know she reached her goal because for ten years afterwards, she would sometimes ‘sit by the window and think of that evening long ago when she had been so beautiful and so admired.’ – but we are left wondering whether that one night was worth all the hardship which followed when she loses the necklace and the Loisels have to give up everything in order to afford a replacement. Another way in which De Maupassant presents Mme Loisel’s changing fortunes is by stressing her vanity at the beginning of the story, where all the paragraphs begin with the word ‘she’. It is interesting to note that after the loss of the necklace, when Mme Loisel and her husband have to find a way of paying for it, De Maupassant starts using the word ‘they’ at the beginning of a lot of paragraphs. It is as though the loss of the necklace has forced them together. Mme Loisel no longer puts herself on a pedestal where she dreams of compliments “received with sphinx like smiles” . Her god-like aspirations have been turned into something far more practical as she and her husband work together to achieve something that she can be proud of.
Irony is also used by De Maupassant in presenting the changing fortunes of Mme Loisel. For example, she lives on “The Street of the Martyrs”. Martyrs die for what they believe in – and she believes that she deserves fine jewellry – and goes through a type of death (the death of her old life, and, we could argue, her inert personality), as a result of the loss of the ‘diamond’ necklace. Further irony is evident at the end of the story when we find out that the necklace which she had replaced for 36’000 francs was only worth 500 francs. This further exemplifies the extent to which ‘Fate’
is responsible for her changing fortune. The end certainly seems to be a cruel twist of fate – but we are left wondering if she hadn’t have been so careless in the first place whether she would have realised that the necklace was an imitation. She was so used to envying her friend’s wealth that it never occurs to her that the appearance might not be the reality. Whereas ‘The Necklace’ begins with a woman who is wishing for a better life, the poem ‘Disabled’ begins with a young man who is wishing for the life he once had. By the end of ‘The Necklace’, Mme Loisel has been physically changed by her ten years of hard work and by comparison, the young soldier in ‘Disabled’ has also been transformed – although, in his case, the change has occurred within the space of a year and we feel far more sympathy for his tragedy. Owen portrays his change in fortune by comparing the soldier’s present life to his past and uses his past handsomeness as an example. He uses light ‘y’ sounds when he tells us that ‘There was an artist silly for his face, / For it was younger than his youth last year.’ This contrasts with the bluntness of the language and dull ‘b’ sounds on ‘Now, he is old; his back will never brace.’ We are made to feel as if the young man’s natural beauty has gone to waste when we are told that his colour (blood) was “poured down shell holes”. Although this suggests carelessness (of which we have accused Mme Loisel), we get a strong sense that this young man was not to blame for his downfall. Like Mme Loisel, he wishes to be admired, but unlike Mme Loisel, he is encouraged in his vanity by those around him. He has been told that he would look a ‘god’ in uniform, but instead, when he returns home, it is in a ‘ghastly suit of grey’ with no arms and legs, with the result that “the woman’s eyes / Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.” This goes against his entire goal in joining the army which was “to please the giddy jilts” which exemplifies a false promise. Owen uses techniques such as sibilance and emotionless language to convey the brutality of war and it’s effects on the lives of veterans. For example, the amputee’s suit is bluntly and emotionlessly described as “Legless, sewn short at elbow.’ The sound is fragmentally broken by missing out the word ‘the’ before ‘elbow’, similar to the way in which his body has been fragmented. The‘s’ sounds make us think of sawing, which paints a horrific image of his limbs being removed. This forces the reader to have a sympathetic view towards the veteran and creates the
picture of a boy whose life has been ruined. His present is in stark contrast to his past and he bitterly reflects that he will never again “feel how slim girls’ waists are” or “how warm their subtle hands”. The references to sensory pleasure makes us feel empathy as well as sympathy because he has been sucked into a war through false promises of ‘smart salutes’ and ‘hints for young recruits’ and the reality has been cruelly different. We also feel sympathy because he is being deprived of a benefit young men often have and you feel as the war has made his life worse going against the glory he was promised when he joined. Owen contrasts the veteran’s sadness in the present with his joy in the past. He recalls how ‘Town used to swing so gay’ (my italics). He was once part of a collective but now lives a lonely, ghostly existence. The alliteration in the ‘ghastly suit of grey‘ as he sits shivering, ‘waiting for dark’ creates the sense that he is living in the shadow of his past. In contrast to Madame Loisel, who lives in constant hope of a better life, for the veteran, his life is effectively over and he has no hope. Te two are different because Madam Loisel believes she can’t change her life shown by her passiveness but she could which is shown when they go into to debt and she helps repay. This contrasts the fact that the veteran in Disabled cannot change his fortune because of his disability which is shown by his passiveness towards the end of the poem as he waits for the nurse to put him to bed. This makes him seem as though he has been reduced to a child’s level shown by his envy towards the children being put to bed by their mothers.
Owen wrote ‘Disabled’ during World War One when he himself was in hospital suffering from shell shock and there is therefore a very personal tone of anger running throughout the poem. Unlike in ‘The Necklace’ where we feel Mme Loisel played a significant role in her own downfall, Owen makes it clear in ‘Disabled’ that he blames the authorities and their propaganda machine for the veteran’s fate. The young man has been promised glory – and even an easy life: “He thought of jewelled hilts… care of arms… leave… pay arrears’ and ‘soon he was drafted out with drums and cheers’. The rhyme scheme here (salutes/recruits, arrears/cheers) creates a cheerful, motivating and uplifting sound – but there is a clearly sinister tone when ‘Smiling, they wrote his lie; aged nineteen years.’ This shows how the army
could not even follow their own boundaries. The boy is clearly no more than a child and we could argue that propaganda and false hope controls his fate. He also includes society in the blame by stating that someone had said “he would look a god in quilts”. This shows how he was persuaded into joining the army not only by the propaganda. Owen also conveys the child-like qualities of the veteran through the final, repeated rhetorical (and therefore unanswered) question, ‘Why don’t they come / And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?’ This shows that now he has to rely on other people – but the use of ‘they’ and references to doing whatever ‘the rules’ consider wise reveal that he is on his own. Unlike Mme Loisel, whose husband stands by her and shares in her life, his ‘carers’ are faceless and impersonal. Far from pleasing ‘his Meg’, there are no individuals who appear to love him. The poem ends where it began, waiting for dark. The cruelty of the situation is increased when he hears young boys playing outside, their voices ‘saddening like a hymn’ until ‘gathering sleep had mothered them from him.’ Their happiness contrasts with his sadness and unlike Mme Loisel, who still has the potential for a better life at the end of the story, the veteran’s life is to all extents and purposes over. The structure of the poem: the frequent switches between present and past and the juxtaposition of remembrance and realization casts a harsh light on everything the soldier has lost. Each stanza starts with describing the soldier’s present conditions and then compares it to his past life, or vice versa. The final stanza however depicts what he thinks his future holds for him: a life lived by rules set by other people, a life of utter dependency and helplessness.
After a careful evaluation of the different techniques to portray the effect of fate on each character I have come to the conclusion the each character in short deserves what they get. This is shown by each writer stressing each of the protagonist’s flaws such as Madame Loisel is selfishness and self-obsession. This makes each reader believe that fate is used as a technique of justice to repay for each protagonist is flaw giving the reader a image of the effect of such actions. Wilfred Owen however makes us feel sorry for his character although he was very similar; this being because he was misled by propaganda to believe that joining the army will bring you glory and therefore we would blame society more than fate.