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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