"The Necklace" (in French, "La Parure") is perhaps the most famous short story by French author Guy de Maupassant. It's been called Madame Bovary in miniature, and tells the tale of a dissatisfied middle-class woman whose dreams of wealth and glamour end in disaster. Maupassant first published it (in French) on February 17, 1884 in a daily newspaper called Le Gaulois, where he worked as an editor.
So just who, you ask, is this guy, Guy, with the hard-to-pronounce French name? (By the way, it's roughly "Gee du Mow-pass-on" – with the "g" at the beginning sounding like the "g" in "goat," and the "n" at the end having that French nasal sound). As it turns out, he's a big deal. Maupassant is the father of the French short story. Some would even say that he is the father of the modern short story (or at least one of the fathers). Though he didn't invent the short story genre, he perfected it, popularized it, and greatly expanded his audience's understanding of what could be done with it. It helped that he wrote some three hundred short stories, all mostly between 1880 and 1890.
Maupassant was also famous for his use of the twist endings. Guy didn't invent that either, and he certainly didn't use it in every one of his stories. But when he did use it, he was good at it, and it was he, more than anyone else, who made the twist ending big.
We mention that because "The Necklace" has the most famous of all of Maupassant's twist endings – which is also why it's his most famous short work. Though he was already well-known in France by the time he wrote it, in the English-speaking world his initial fame rested largely on this little jewel of a story. It was a particular hit with Americans, who couldn't get over how cool the ending was. In fact, the story led to something of a twist-ending fad in popular literature. It wasn't too long before the U.S. produced its own version of Maupassant, O. Henry, whose story "Gift of the Magi" may have the other most famous twist ending of all time.
Think of Mathilde Loisel as the 19th century Paris version of the "desperate housewife." She's middle class, a maid, and a kind husband. But she's cooped up in the house all day with nothing to do, and her days are marked with boredom beyond belief. Her only way out of dealing with it is to live in a fantasy world of glamour, wealth, and beautiful people.
Does that situation really seem all that far-removed from today? In many ways, the figure of the dissatisfied housewife is just as relevant now as it was then. Just like Maupassant's contemporaries, we're still fascinated by it, perhaps because we're troubled by it. Why else would a show actually called Desperate Housewives be so popular? And can't we all relate in some way to Mathilde's desire to live a more exciting, glamorous life, even if we can only do it in daydreams?
You also won't find a more perfect encapsulation in story form of an experience we can certainly all relate to: the "if I hadn't lost that one thing!..." experience. That's right, if you think losing something once ruined your day, just wait until you see what happens to Mathilde. It's painful to read about, yes, but sometimes it's good to have a reminder of just how badly chance can ruin your life.
Finally, if you like interesting plots and crafty endings with a twist, they don't get much more classic than this one. Plus the story's just five pages. And like we said earlier, it's kind of like Madame Bovary writ small. So if you want to get a sense of the classic situation of a desperate housewife, why not read "Madame Bovary in miniature"?