A common theme in Maupassant’s work is the inability of human beings to acquire wisdom, and ‘‘The Jewels’’ makes that point clearly. The protagonist, Monsieur Lantin, is every bit as blank and empty at the end of the story as he is at the beginning. He is portrayed as a dutiful office worker, content to stay home with his wife after work and enjoy the simple animal pleasures she offers him: food, wine, comfortable surroundings, and sex. He has no interest in the two things that vitally move his wife: the theatre and jewels. His lack of interest in what is going on literally under his nose leads directly to his lack of wisdom: If he had paid attention to her strange ability to get box seats at theatre premieres and to come home with new gems almost every night, he might have acquired the wisdom to alter his tragic ending.
Maupassant, however, does offer a motive for Monsieur Lantin’s tragic lack of interest in his wife’s activities: He is just too tired after work. This is the condition from which Maupassant himself suffered during his years as a clerk in a ministry very similar to the one in which Monsieur Lantin works. Maupassant complained bitterly to Flaubert, his writing mentor, that the exhaustion incurred after spending entire days doing meaningless paperwork prevented him from being able to write when he got home. In a sense, Maupassant’s work as a petty government official threatened to prevent him from acquiring the wisdom to hold onto the best thing in his life—his writing—just as Monsieur Lantin loses through the same inability to acquire wisdom what he really values—his wife.
This theme relates to Maupassant’s critique of the entire social structure of capitalism— specifically, that the workers are kept too busy and too exhausted either to rebel or to create. Either act would require wisdom, something that they tragically have no time to acquire.
‘‘The Jewels’’ offers two separate stories of selfpreservation. In Monsieur Lantin’s case, he appears to have met his basic needs by marrying Madame Lantin, who is pretty and economical. She provides him with everything he requires to survive in a manner that feels abundant. He is described as too tired after a day at his job to do much else than survive on this basic level, and he has in her found a means to do it in style. After her sudden death, however, Monsieur Lantin discovers that he has no means of self-preservation: All the joy and loveliness disappears from his home, and he discovers to his horror that his income is not even enough to feed himself. He becomes unable to survive and sets out to sell what he believes are imitation jewels that had belonged to his wife in order to get enough money for food until his next paycheck.
When he discovers that these jewels are real, however, he suddenly acquires an entirely different set of requirements for self-preservation: He decides he needs to be rich in order to be happy. With great wealth at his fingertips, Monsieur Lantin suddenly begins to believe that wealth can bring him happiness. Now he can retire from his job, cavort with prostitutes, and drink wine that costs ‘‘twenty francs a bottle.’’ He has found a new form of self-preservation—through material objects—and the reader is left to wonder if this form will prove any more sustainable that the last.
Madame Lantin is also engaged in a struggle for self-preservation, although the extent of her efforts is only made clear to the reader (and to Monsieur Lantin) after her death. Unlike her simple husband, this woman needs more than simple pleasures: She needs the stimulation of attending the theatre and the glamour of beautiful and expensive jewelry. The things she wants, unlike the things her husband wants, can only be acquired through guile, as her husband’s income cannot provide them. Only rich men can fulfill her needs. A reader does not know what Madame Lantin suffered to get what she needed; only that she felt it was improper for her to attend the theatre without her husband in the company of women friends. One can only imagine how conservative viewpoint changed to the point where she could have affairs with men who showered her with expensive gems. Or perhaps it was a case of deception from the outset, and she only pretended to object to this supposed impropriety so that Monsieur Lantin would harbor no suspicion of her real activities. In either case, Madame Lantin represents a struggle for self-preservation that takes place entirely in secret.
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