The Inevitable Passage of Time
Neddy’s journey home through the pools of his neighborhood turns into a journey through many years of his life, showing that the passage of time is inevitable, no matter how much one might ignore it. Neddy has mastered the art of denial. At the beginning of the story, the narrator tells us that Neddy is “far from young,” but he does his best to act young by sliding down a banister and diving headlong into a pool. The long afternoon at the Westerhazys’ pool seems timeless, no different, we can assume, from many other afternoons spent exactly the same way. Neddy’s idea to swim home seems like just one more idea in a series of ideas that have popped up on many similar occasions. As Neddy’s journey progresses, we see that time is actually passing much more quickly than Neddy realizes.
Leaves and hedges turn yellow and red, the constellations in the sky change, and the air gets colder. Friends are not at home when he expects them to be, he faces scorn from the people he’d once scorned, his mistress wants nothing to do with him, and he learns that a friend has been very ill. All of these changes have happened without Neddy’s knowledge. Neddy questions his memory, but he also wonders whether he has simply denied reality to a dangerous degree. His peers have acted their age and faced adult problems, whereas he has resisted. His former mistress even asks him, “Will you ever grow up?” Only at the end of the story when Neddy faces his dark, empty house does he realize that time has passed. He has tried to ignore it, but its passage has proven to be inevitable.
The Emptiness of Suburbia
As Neddy makes his journey across the county, we see that emptiness and despair lie beneath the sunny façade of suburbia. Although Neddy seems to have a full, happy life, he nevertheless remains isolated from others. He makes a habit of rejecting invitations and has been out of touch with many people whom he considers friends. Neddy can’t even seem to remember personal details about many of them, such as when Mrs. Levy bought her Japanese lanterns. He knows the rules of the social world he occupies, but this is a world built primarily on appearances. Along his path, he encounters the comfortable trappings of high society, but no genuine friends.
And everywhere he goes, people are drinking heavily, which suggests that there is something from which they are trying to escape or hide. The emptiness of suburbia also applies to Neddy’s love life. Even though Neddy names his pool path after his wife, Lucinda, he is cut off from her as well by virtue of his affair with Shirley Adams. The affair, however, also lacks genuine love. When Neddy thinks about Shirley, he defines “love” as “sexual roughhouse,” which is what he looks to for comfort and warmth. At the end of the story, when Neddy is actually alone and facing his empty house, the true state of his life is, for the first time, clear.
The foundations were flimsy and his relationships weak.
Appearance and Reality
In his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats pronounced that “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” While subsequent generations have appreciated this Romantic assertion, Maupassant’s story aptly demonstrates that it is not always correct. Madame Loisel is beautiful, but she is not content. She has the appearance of beauty but not the reality (or truth) of beauty. She is pretty and charming, but she is also unhappy with her lot in life and believes that she deserves more.
Living modestly with her husband before the ball, Madame Loisel believes she is suffering a terrible injustice by having few luxuries. In fact, she does not experience the reality of poverty until she and her husband go into debt to pay off the necklace. The necklace itself represents the theme of appearances versus reality. While sufficiently beautiful to make Madame Loisel feel comfortable during the ministerial ball, the necklace is actually nothing more than paste and gilt. Thus, it is not the reality of wealth or high social class that is important for Madame Loisel, just the appearance of it.
The theme of class conflict is closely tied to that of appearance and reality. The Loisels are members of the lower bourgeoisie, a class that stands above tradesmen and laborers (and above Madame Loisel’s artisan family) but significantly below the class that has a hand in running things. Madame Loisel’s dreams of “delicacy and luxury” are beyond her social reach. She has only one opportunity to attend a ball, but for the dignitaries and under-secretaries of state she meets there, such occasions are commonplace. She desperately wants to be part of this world, and remembers the affair fondly for many years.
Her childhood friend, the upper-class Madame Forestier, is the target of Madame Loisel’s envy before the ball, and the target of her blame afterwards as she descends into poverty to repay the necklace. Madame Loisel’s focus on social climbing is unbecoming and in opposition to her outward beauty. Her belief that beautiful things and luxury are essential to her happiness is the fallacy that mars her physical beauty. Monsieur Loisel does not suffer the same obsession with class conflict as his wife does. He realizes that his wife would like to go to a ball, and he thinks that presenting the invitation to her will make her happy. He is surprised to learn that she will only be happy if she can give the illusion at the ball that she belongs to the upper class.
Generosity and Greed
Although she does not have a lot of money, Madame Loisel may be justly characterized as greedy. Her life is comfortable enough to afford one servant, but she wishes for several. She has plenty of food, but she dreams of “delicate meals.” Her husband can barely afford to buy her a ball gown, but she insists on having jewelry to go with it. When she first sees her friend’s diamond necklace, “her heart [beats] covetously.” Her greed stands in marked contrast to the generosity of her husband and Madame Forestier. Monsieur Loisel forgoes both the purchase of a gun and plans for a shooting holiday with friends so that his wife can have an appropriate dress.
Later, when his wife discovers that she has lost the necklace, he voluntarily spends several late hours scouring the streets for it even though he must go to work that morning. Similarly, Madame Forestier does not hesitate to offer her old friend the use of any of her jewelry, answering Madame Loisel’s entreaty to let her wear the necklace with a simple “Yes, of course.” Although the necklace is made of imitation diamonds, it is still worth five hundred francs — more than Madame Loisel’s gown.