Like many great writers and artists throughout history, Guy de Maupassant took an ‘‘outsider’s view’’ of the world around him. That is, he did not subscribe to the prevailing values and beliefs of the culture in which he lived, and he was thus able to observe them from a critical distance. His outsider’s stance is reflected in every aspect of his writing: the themes he explores, the characters he portrays, the situations he creates in which these characters play out their parts, and even in the mood and style of his writing itself. These qualities set him apart both then and today as much as his subject matter. Maupassant’s short masterpiece, ‘‘The Jewels,’’ reveals all these dimensions of his singular, jaundiced, and sometimes cynical vision. He perceives the corruption lurking in human nature and the greed and avarice driving the socioeconomic system. As a writer, he uses language to puncture the surfaces of normality and look deeper.
Maupassant has a manner of using words to turn assumptions upside down and inside out, questioning everything. Indeed, from the opening paragraphs of ‘‘The Jewels,’’ it is clear that the reader is in skeptical hands. The first piece of information about the main character, Monsieur Lantin, is how much money he makes per year. While this is perhaps a solid piece of factual information, it hardly follows the conventional way of identifying someone in polite society. Meanwhile, and equally strange, each piece of information about Monsieur Lantin’s new wife is preceded by the modifier ‘‘seemed,’’ such as: ‘‘The girl seemed the very epitome of the virtuous spouse to whom any sensible young man dreams of entrusting his life’’ and ‘‘the imperceptible smile that always haunted her lips seemed like a reflection of her heart.’’
While the detail about Monsieur Lantin’s annual salary may simply suggest a writer who wants to cut to the bare bones of a matter, it also subtly points to money as a driving motivation for this character, as the story will bear out. The repeated use of the word ‘‘seemed’’ in the phrases describing Madame Lantin gives the reader the impression that Maupassant is equally skeptical about what one can really know about a young woman from the impression of ‘‘angelic purity’’ she presents. From the first lines of the story, therefore, the reader is on shaky ground: The world has been made unfamiliar, its basic social signifiers called into question.
It is inevitable that a writer who places such a strict restraint on the number of words he uses must choose every word with great care. ‘‘The Jewels’’ is a scanty seven pages long. The words ‘‘seem’’ and ‘‘sensible’’ here are important; they will acquire great resonance later in the story. In fact, the seeds of its tragedy are sown in these first few sentences, by these particular words. It is part of Maupassant’s genius that he can turn such innocuous words as ‘‘sensible’’ and ‘‘pure’’ into satiric betrayals of those very concepts. In Maupassant’s world, things are frequently other than what they seem.
Following his marriage, the reader is told, Monsieur Lantin is ‘‘unbelievably happy’’ with his angelic-seeming wife, who is not only seductive but also manages the household so well that ‘‘they appeared to be enjoying a life of luxury.’’ Again the word ‘‘appeared’’ signals the reader that something is amiss, and indeed, after this short paragraph indicating Monsieur Lantin’s happiness, nothing continues in a normal manner.
The first wrong note sounded in Monsieur Lantin’s perfect symphony is his wife’s immoderate love of going to the theatre and her compulsion to acquire ‘‘false gems.’’ Monsieur Lantin lacks the energy to enjoy the theatre after his hard day’s work and admonishes his wife for ‘‘this passion for frippery.’’ Yet Madame Lantin attends the theatre frequently, often getting ‘‘a box at the latest hit and even at a premiere or two,’’ while bringing home gaudy pieces of jewelry almost every evening, which she admires passionately. Once again, things are not as they seem. On a second reading, a reader aware of Madame Lantin’s secret can imagine what is in her mind as she scrutinizes her costume jewelry, right under her husband’s nose, ‘‘as passionately as if savoring some profound and secret delight.’’ She even drapes pearls around his neck, ‘‘laughing with all her heart and exclaiming: ‘How funny you look!’’’ Her laughter is at his expense. Her false gems are not so false; her ideal marriage not so ideal.
Maupassant does not speak directly about Madame Lantin’s duplicity; the details of her secrets follow her to the grave. It is clear that she was motivated to have affairs with rich men by her desire to own real jewels. Maupassant, an invisible narrator, passes no judgment on her, or on any other character—making judgments is not his job, but the reader’s. Clearly, Madame Lantin, like her husband, has completely adapted the morality she grew up with to serve her own needs.
She comes from a family that is ‘‘poor but honorable, quiet and unassuming,’’ but a reader wonders just how deeply these pious values could possibly have been instilled in Madame Lantin if the desire for jewelry can completely annihilate them. This is Maupassant’s point and indicates his attitudes toward human nature.
Monsieur Lantin undergoes a similar transformation, spurred on by material yearnings, after his wife’s sudden death. He discovers that his income is no longer enough to support himself in a basic manner, and it occurs to him to try to sell some of his wife’s ‘‘tinsel,’’ as he calls her trinkets: ‘‘The very sight of them each day marred his memory of his beloved.’’ Indeed, the jewels had driven him and his wife apart much more than he knows. When he discovers all of the pieces are real and worth a fortune, presumably given to his wife by a rich lover or lovers, Monsieur Lantin feels an intense—but very brief—unhappiness at this betrayal. His hunger soon overtakes his shame. Proclaiming that money can buy happiness, he uses the proceeds from his wife’s jewelry collection to embark upon a life of excessive opulence involving expensive food, wine, and prostitutes.
The most striking plot element of ‘‘The Jewels’’ concerns Monsieur Lantin’s complete and immediate adaptation to his changed situation without so much as a moment’s regret. Early in the story he tells his wife that ‘‘her grace and beauty,’’ not her accessories, ‘‘are the rarest gems.’’ But all the qualities he supposedly admired in his young wife—her ‘‘angelic purity’’ and her appearance of virtue— seem to have no value to him anymore. Monsieur Lantin’s change of heart reveals Maupassant’s view of human nature. The story implies that a man will adapt (or simply abandon) the very deepest of his moral beliefs to whatever will allow him to live the life of greatest ease. Gently but incisively, Maupassant pierces through the social codes humans profess to live by. For an extra touch, Maupassant shows the jeweler thoroughly enjoying his role in the sordid affair of the Lantins. Aware of the truth beneath the pretense of their transaction, he matches Monsieur Lantin’s sober countenance ‘‘with malicious bonhomie.’’
Since it is Monsieur Lantin’s work-induced exhaustion that makes him unable to go out with his wife in the evenings, and his meager salary that causes her to take up with richer men, the story highlights Maupassant’s sardonic view of the socioeconomic system in which the story takes place. Maupassant never suggests openly that Monsieur Lantin’s exhaustion might illustrate any larger socioeconomic realities, yet the reader can discern his views of its significance in this character’s life and in the lives of workers worldwide. Maupassant himself worked in a government ministry much like Monsieur Lantin’s for most of his adult life. He complained bitterly and often about this to his mentor, Flaubert, writing: Being too drained after a day at work to attend to what he regarded as his true vocation was clearly infuriating to Maupassant. The depth of his rage at the system that forced him to toil away at meaningless work manifests in the dreadful fate he deals out to Monsieur Lantin as punishment for finding himself in the same situation. Madame Lantin also suffers from the facts of her economic situation; the choice she makes to step outside the bounds of the normal social order are caused by the inability of her husband, working as hard as he does, to provide for her needs.
The closest Maupassant comes to pinpointing the failures of capitalism is when he has Monsieur Lantin say, ‘‘How lucky a man is if he’s rich! With money you can snap out of any grief, you can go wherever you like, you can travel, you can take your mind off your sorrows! Oh, if only I were rich!’’ And this seems to be true for the brief period in which Monsieur Lantin enjoys the spoils of his dead wife’s possessions, as free from any constraints of morality as she perhaps was herself: ‘‘Outside in the street, he gazed at the Vendoˆ me Column, longing to climb it as if it were a greasy pole.’’ This image perfectly captures the ignominious way the protagonist has clawed his way to the top of the social hierarchy.
This animal-like ability to seek one’s own personal comfort at the expense of any ideals seems to be the point Maupassant is making about human nature in ‘‘The Jewels.’’ It is a point he illustrates vividly in many of his stories. The sole hint that social values have any sticking power whatsoever is given only in the last three sentences, in which it is revealed that Monsieur Lantin has now gone and done it again. This time, however, marrying a ‘‘virtuous’’ woman has worse consequences for him, as if he had failed to learn his lesson the first time. This time around, there is no seductiveness and extravagant dining; perhaps this new wife truly is what she seems.
Melanie Bush, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Guy de Maupassant, Published by Gale Group, 2010