De´ nouement is a French word that means ‘‘the unknotting.’’ In fiction or drama, it denotes the resolution of conflict. The de´ nouement follows a story’s climax and provides an outcome to the primary plot situation as well as an explanation of secondary plot complications. The de´ nouement often involves a character’s recognition of his or her state of mind or moral condition.
What is notable about denouement, or resolution of conflict, in many of Maupassant’s stories is that it does not occur, or at least not in the classic sense. In ‘‘The Jewels,’’ for example, the ending of the story does not resolve the conflict at all. To begin with, the conflict is very vaguely defined. Whether it is Monsieur Lantin’s ignorance about his wife’s character, his inability to survive on his own salary, or his tiredness after work, or something else entirely, none of these conflicts is resolved by the story’s conclusion, at which point Monsieur Lantin has entered into an entirely new set of conflicts (lying about his money, patronizing prostitutes, and marrying another woman, who is described as bad-tempered and who makes him unhappy). This ending constitutes the opposite of a denouement, which often involves a character’s recognition of his or her state of mind or moral condition. A reader may surmise, therefore, that Maupassant does not believe that neat denouements accurately reflect life as he experiences it or the world as he hopes to portray it.
In Maupassant’s stories, every major character has a tragic flaw—that is, a quality that leads to his downfall—and every character suffers from it and forces those around them to suffer for it too. In ‘‘The Jewels,’’ Monsieur Lantin’s tragic flaw is his blindness to his wife’s affairs with other men, affairs that bring her wealth and also make Monsieur Lantin’s own home life far more comfortable, as he discovers to his horror after her death.
But Maupassant’s fiction also uses the tragic flaw to indirectly comment on society. For example, Monsieur Lantin’s flaw is not his own fault in the classic sense—that is, it does not stem from his own character, but from societally induced conditions. Monsieur Lantin is so tired because he is forced to work long hours at a dull job. If he were rich, like the men who shower his wife with jewels as they accompany her to the theatre, presumably he would not have to work and thus would not be so tired.
Madame Lantin’s flaw—the weakness that leads her to betray her husband—is clearly a moral failing of a personal sort. Since the story reveals nothing of her inner life, the reader can scarcely make a judgment about the sources of her undoing. Yet from a certain angle, her actions can be interpreted as triggered by the social circumstances under which she lived. Her professed fondness for jewelry suggests a hunger for material wealth that her husband is unable to satisfy. Such a hunger may well have been stimulated by envy of her peers. If she had not known and socialized with ‘‘the wives of some petty official,’’ who ‘‘always managed to get her a box at the latest hit,’’ perhaps she might not have been so overcome by the craving for riches that precipitated her betrayal. Maupassant, in his attempt to be truthful about the world as he sees it, slightly blurs the boundaries between the classic tragic flaw (stemming squarely from the hero’s inner character) and the human weakness caused by the unjust social norms of ordinary middle-class life.
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