In both these stories human greed is placed firmly at the center of the story. Both Maupassant and Walker make use of irony, but the effects on the reader of each story is different, because the setting s are very different, but also because the narrative viewpoint in each story creates a very different effect on the reader. This essay will explore greed and irony, but it will also examine the narrative viewpoint because that alters the reader’s attitude to the representation of greed: Maupassant uses a third person omniscient narrator, but Walker chooses to tell the story through the words of Mama – and this makes all the difference.
In ‘The Necklace’ Mathilde Loisel is a working class girl who is very beautiful, but who cannot marry a rich husband because of her social background. This makes her greedy for material wealth and the status and attention that such wealth brings. She is deeply unhappy about being married to “a little clerk from the Department of Education” and here the word “little” is not so much a reference to his physical size, but his lack of wealth and social importance. She feels her relative poverty keenly: “She suffered intensely, feeling herself born for every delicacy and every luxury.” During meals with her husband, she fantasizes about enjoying the comforts of a wealthier life-style. Maupassant establishes her unhappiness and her greed on the opening page of the story. The invitation her husband gets to a party thrown by the Minister of Education throws Mathilde into delight and she makes her husband buy a new dress for her to wear and borrows a diamond necklace from a friend, Mme Forester. Mathilde’s dreams come true briefly. At the party “all the men were looking at her” and this satisfies her greed for attention, but she loses the necklace and the Loisels suffer for ten years to pay off the money they borrow to give Mme Forester a replacement.
At the end of the stor it is revealed that the lost necklace was made of fake diamonds and was worth only 500 francs. But retrospectively it makes the whole story ironic because the ten years of hard work and drudgery required have been completely unnecessary – all because of Mathilde’s greed. Furthermore, it is ironic that Mathilde, in pursuing a life-style denied her by her class and her husband’s income by going to the ball and then losing the necklace, condemns herself to an even worse life as she and her husband struggle to pay off the debt for the replacement necklace. This hard life affects her physically and by the end of the story she has become the exact opposite of what she had hoped to become: “Mme. Loisel seemed aged now. She had become the robust woman, hard and rough, of a poor household.” Maupassant hints that her greed is responsible for losing the necklace. At the end of the ball when her husband covers her shoulders she rushes away to the cab, because she is deeply embarrassed by the “wraps he had brought to go home in, modest garments of everyday life, the poverty of which was out of keeping with the elegance of the ball dress. She felt this, and wanted to fly so as not to be noticed by the other women, who were wrapping themselves up in rich furs.” Does she lose the necklace in her rush to get out? If so, then her own greed is responsible for the ten years of hardship. The necklace symbolizes the better life that Mathilde dreams of and thinks she has achieved on the night of the ball. Even the fact that the stones of the lost necklace are false is symbolic: Maupassant is suggesting that her dreams of material improvement are false and almost worthless.
In ‘Everyday Use’ Dee’s sense of her own superiority is established by Walker early in the story, but we do not see her greed until towards the end of the story. Dee’s greed is entirely different from Mathilde’s because the items Dee covets have little material value. Dee has done very well in life. She has been sent to a school in Atlanta and she uses her education to belittle her mother and her sister, Maggie. The narrator, Mama, writes of Dee: “She used to read to us without pity… [we were] sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice.” Maggie was injured when their last house burnt down “ten or twelve years ago”, but it is clear that Dee has not visited them in all that time. She is sophisticated, rich and successful (all the things Mathilde Loisel wanted to be), but she is condescending and patronizing to her mother and Maggie. Dee is ashamed of the way her mother lives and slightly amused by it too: she takes lots of photographs of Mama and the house – because it is so primitive. Dee has changed – and this is the source of irony and later in the story of her greed. Dee has re-discovered her African roots and has changed her name to Wangero Lee-wanika Kemanjo, because, she says, “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.” Here, and throughout the story, Mama’s narration creates humor and helps the reader take a moral stance towards Wangero (Dee): we are made to feel she is very pretentious. Mama points out that the name Dee has been in the family for four generations at least; but Wangero’s point is that it is a name that would have originally been borrowed from a slave-owner’s family. Mama’s narration forces us to judge Lee and Mama is similarly down-to-earth and critical of Dee’s partner – his changed name (“I wanted to ask him if he was a barber”) and his apparent conversion to Islam. Towards the end of the visit Dee shows her greed: she demands the top of the churn and the dasher both made by hand by former male members of the family: she is going to put them to some sort of artistic use as proof of her humble roots. This is where the title of the story starts to make sense: Dee wants these things for decoration, to declare the poverty of her black background, but they are things that Mama and Maggie still use every day. The same is true of the quilts which Dee demands at the very end of the story: they represent the shared efforts of previous members of the family as Mama makes clear:
In both of them were scraps of dresses that Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny faced blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War.
As with the churn top and the dasher, Dee wants these things for display, not everyday use – she wants to show off the poverty of her roots to friends like her who have become successful. It is a greed for authenticity which is completely selfish on Dee’s part; she does not care about the feelings of Mama and Maggie. For her the quilts are part of family history, but Dee’s attitude to family history is double-edged because she is clearly embarrassed by Mama and Maggie – the living reminders of her family’s poor origins. Maggie says that Dee can have the quilts and this act of generosity in the face of Dee’s greed fills Mama with such happiness and power that she seizes the quilts from Dee and drops them in Maggie’s lap. At last, Mama has stood up to her superior daughter and Dee leaves arrogantly telling Mama and Maggie “You just don’t understand… your heritage.” Because of mama’s narration we are lead inevitably to this conclusion: Dee is clearly mistaken: for Mama and for Maggie it is not ‘heritage’ but the reality of everyday life – a life which Dee has escaped and which she looks down with condescension.
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