Friday, November 4, 2011


Henry James (1843–1916)
From Henry James: Complete Stories 1898–1910

Guy de Maupassant’s famous story “The Necklace” (“La Parure”), published in 1884, describes a young woman from a higher social station who has married a clerk of limited means. When the couple is invited to a fashionable gathering, she borrows an extravagantly lavish diamond necklace from a friend—and loses it after the party. Afraid of embarrassing herself, she borrows money to purchase another necklace that resembles the lost one. Years later, after she and her husband have worked themselves to exhaustion to pay off their debts, she confesses to her friend that the original necklace was lost—only to discover that the “original” was a fake.

Henry James met Maupassant on several occasions (Gustave Flaubert introduced them in 1875) and read his work avidly, but with mixed feelings. In 1885 he protested to a friend, “I languish for a new volume of Maupassant; there has [been] none since Yvette—a full three months ago!” Later, after reading Bel-Ami, he wrote, “It is as clever—as brilliant—as it is beastly, and though it has very weak points, it shows that the gifted and lascivious Guy can write a novel. . . . [It] strikes me as a history of a Cad, by a Cad—of genius!” As Maupassant scholar Richard Fusco notes, “Already, fascination was intermingling with moral misgiving in James’s effort to rate Maupassant’s achievement on a rigid aesthetic scale.” Their personal interactions were plagued with the same ambivalence; James was particularly alarmed and embarrassed by the French author’s overt attempts to flirt with women during a London visit.

By the time James wrote “Paste,” then, he had been reading Maupassant’s writings for nearly two decades and he readily acknowledged “The Necklace” as its source: “It seemed harmless sport simply to turn that situation round.” In James’s version, the diamonds become pearls and the plot is reversed, but he realized these superficial changes weren’t quite enough: “a new little ‘drama,’ a new setting for MY pearls—and as different as possible from the other—had of course withal to be found.” The story also includes his back-handed tribute to Maupassant, in the character of Mrs. Guy, the vivacious and somewhat vulgar woman around whose neck the “dull” and “opaque” pearls become “alive” and “might have passed for frank originals.” Incidentally, James may have meant the story title itself as a pun. On a previous occasion, he had misremembered the French title as “Le Collier” (which also means “The Necklace”); the French verb coller means to paste.

Modern critics have noted several themes running through the story, including an examination of “the social dynamic, both in terms of class structures and conflicts within families” (Patrick A. Smith) and “an exploration of the dramatic impact of a woman’s secrets being uncovered by death” (Deborah Wynne). Another scholar (Amy Tucker) remarks on how the story appeared in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, “with its whopping 121 pages of ads touting corsets and depilatories and quack cures for drug addictions. . . . carnivalesque surroundings [that] surely compromised the author’s well-known objections to Maupassant’s vulgarity.” At its most basic level, however, “Paste” describes what happens to a young woman who, alone among the characters in the story, chooses to do the right thing.

Notes: Mrs. Jarley (p. 138) is the fictional owner of a traveling wax museum in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. Speriamo (p. 144) is Italian for “Let’s hope.”

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I’ve found a lot more things,“ her cousin said to her the day after the second funeral; “they’re up in her room—but they're things I wish you’d look at.” . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Lil' Mike said...

What a story from Henry James! I had not heard of James, and this particular story has, unfortunately, allowed me to choose to be apprehensive of his other works. I loved "The Necklace," which I read as a kid. And this story, as I would say in my street language, James completely bit from. Yet, "Paste" seems dull and trivial compared to its mirror image "The Necklace." Charlotte seems to be honorable but in the wrong circumstances, which leads me to think of the pearls as being the protagonist, along with Mrs. Guy. Charlotte doesn't learn a lesson as much as she serves as a warning and her cousin "is an ass." I just reread the quick excerpts of views purported by modern critics and maybe I need to read it again to achieve a fuller understanding of the main idea. Although, one thing is for sure his writing is verbose and cumbersome.

Anonymous said...

Much unlike its counterpart, "Paste" is not a story with much solidity, or stability. In that I mean that it does not grab the reader's-- or in this case, my attention. Henry James is, without a doubt, a very proficient writer. However, his hackneyed usage of vocabulary unfortunately deters me from doing any further reading of his work. A very well composed story, nevertheless.

Anonymous said...

How can you people NOT have heard of or read Henry James??? He basically revolutionized literature. James' work is very complex and takes a careful reader to fully appreciate. The excerpts from the critics helpfully point out some of the social criticisms subtextually at work (regarding women and class). I recommend reading more by him before you decide to write him off completely.

You say he "bit" from "The Necklace," but writers do this ALL the time--there's nothing wrong with it. As long as the writer isn't plagiarizing and is infusing his work with his own ideas, writing stories borne from his own artistic vision. Good writers constantly borrow from literature's rich history. The more you read the more evident this becomes.

I'm not sure what "hackneyed vocabulary" is supposed to mean, but in response to the claim he's "verbose": many nineteenth century writers are. It's a preference in terms of style which perhaps doesn't jive with your sensibilities, but then again, I think it's healthy to challenge oneself every once in awhile and read something a little more difficult.

publicus said...

I'd not read anything of Jamee before this story (that I remember anyway) I had heard of him and I do have another of his works on my "To Be Read" shelf. The priority of that book gets bumped up after reading this story. The story was a quick read and I'll be considering the themes and the questions of the story for the rest of the day. A good investment of time the story was.

Anonymous said...

Compared to many of Henry James' stories, "Paste" is very direct and easy to read, a clever little turnaround of "The Necklace." He's primarily known for writing longer, complicated stories that often have a heavy psychological or introspective type approach, including the classic "Turn of the Screw." As another commentator noted, his writing style is very much of the 1800's and it helps to have first read some others in that style, such as Dickens or Thomas Hardy perhaps. Personally I prefer James' more direct stories such as "Paste." Another that is very clever and intricate is "In The Cage" about a telegraph girl and her sharp mind and imagination. With emailing and texting and all we have today, it is amazing how people used to communicate by telegraph in a similar fashion....