Vanity fair

Reading the short stories of Guy de Maupassant is an interesting exercise for the mind. Maupassant is one of France’s greatest short story writers and could well be considered among the founders and creators of the short story as we know it. Alternating between wit, shock, beauty and philosophy, Maupassant’s stories give you much to ponder on. Particularly interesting are the contrasting presentations of women, love and beauty in his works.

The most famous of Maupassant’s stories is The Necklace, also known sometimes as The Diamond Necklace, which was published in 1884 and later adapted into a British silent film in 1921, a Chinese film in 1926, and a production showcased at the Edinburgh Festival as recently as 2007. Talk about timelessness!

The Necklace features a woman who is beautiful but vain and dissatisfied, who dreams of belonging to high society and being decked in finery of the highest order. However, she is married to an ordinary clerk and resents her lowly existence. Her husband, though, does his best to make her happy, obtaining an invitation to a high society event to please her. But Mathilde (portrayed pointedly as the quintessential dissatisfied wife) is still dissatisfied and borrows some jewellery from a

rich friend of hers —Madame Forestier — to wear to the party. Mathilde is happy for once as she turns into the toast of the event with the heady combination of her looks and attire. On her return, though, she discovers the necklace has been lost.

From here on begins the true tale of Mathilde’s woes, as the couple has to borrow 36,000 francs to buy an exact replica of the necklace. But the repayment of debts leads Mathilde into a life of unending toil and hardships, robbing the very beauty she prided. However, this isn’t why the story is famous. It’s the shocker at the end, where she chances upon Madame Forestier, and learns that the original necklace was a fake, worth a mere 500 francs…

The story is, of course, a comment on beauty and its transient nature and the futility of vanity. However, the same feminine beauty is highlighted in an entirely different manner in Useless Beauty. The woman here is, again, the pinnacle of beauty, but with a jealous husband, who, in a contorted, twisted version of possessiveness, wishes to destroy her spritely body and face by turning her into a ‘baby factory’. The 30-year-old lady has been married for 11 years and already has seven children by the time we are introduced to her. But — much to the husband’s chagrin — her beauty remains unblemished. The plot revolves round the woman exacting revenge from her husband by confessing to him that one of those children isn’t his — but doesn’t tell him which one. After he has been sufficiently tormented — for six years — she lets him know the truth: which, ironically, is that she had been lying earlier. The children were indeed his.

Amid all this is the interesting discussion of two men on our heroine, with her “brilliant life sacrificed to that abominable law of reproduction”, a discussion that takes us further towards the ‘intentions’ of god. God, expounds the younger man, merely created human beings for the ugly and coarse purpose of procreation. It is we who have created art and beauty in our lives, elevating our mundane, animal existence to a higher platform of consciousness. zz

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