Sunday, November 06, 2005

Aesthetic Realism and Why People Don't ONLY Want to Be Happy--3rd installment

What Aesthetic Realism can teach people about happiness is something I hope everyone can learn about. Who, after all, doesn't want to be happy? So--here's the next part of the paper that I began posting last week. In it, I discuss the protagonist of one of the best known short stories in world literature: Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace," which I've studied with many of my high school classes. Through Aesthetic Realism, this lady, Mathilde Loisel, can teach us something important about ourselves.

What Did She Think Would Make Her Happy?

I’ll speak now about the main character in one of the most famous short stories ever written, read by millions of people—including high school students like those I teach: “The Necklace,” by Guy De Maupassant. As I do, I’ll be quoting from an Aesthetic Realism class in which Ellen Reiss discussed this story, showing it has centrally to do with the matter of what we think will make us happy—and how we also arrange not to be. The story begins:

She was one of those pretty and charming girls who are sometimes, as if by a mistake of destiny, born into a family of clerks. She had no dowry, no expectations, no means of being known, understood, loved, wedded by any rich and distinguished man; and she let herself be married to a little clerk at the Ministry of Public Instruction.

What this woman, Mathilde Loisel, feels is related to what I once felt: doomed to be unhappy because she was born, as she saw it, into the wrong family, and that “she had really fallen from her proper station.” Yet right away, we also have the thing that will make us happy: the aesthetic way of dealing with the world, which is in the style of Guy De Maupassant. There is in the sound of these opening sentences, Ms. Reiss explained, “a sweet ripplingness,” and then “a let-down.” His description of the ordinariness, even dullness, of French middle-class life has drama. For example:

She suffered ceaselessly, feeling herself born for all the delicacies and all the luxuries. She suffered from the poverty of her dwelling, from the wretched look of the walls, from the worn-out chairs, from the ugliness of the curtains. All those things, of which another woman of her rank would never even have been conscious, tortured her and made her angry....She thought of...silent antechambers hung with Oriental tapestry, lit by tall bronze candelabra,...of...delicate furniture carrying priceless curiosities....She had no dresses, no jewels, nothing. And she loved nothing but that; she felt made for that.

Said Ms. Reiss,”Everyone is something like this lady. We have a notion: If I had this [or that], I would be pleased....There’s a desire to be happy through owning the world.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a nice home, or wanting to improve one’s situation in life—yet we should ask: Why do we want these? Is it to feel we’re getting along well with things, with reality, or to feel we should be in a position to look down on the lesser, more common¬place beings of this world? Mme. Loisel feels the latter, and we see in this passage that she feels humiliated in not having what she thinks she needs to be happy:

When she sat down to dinner, before the round table covered with a tablecloth three days old, opposite her husband, who uncovered the soup tureen and declared with an enchanted air, “Ah, the good pot-au-feu! I don't know anything better than that,” she thought...of delicious dishes served on marvelous plates, and of the whispered gallantries which you listen to with a sphinx-like smile, while you are eating the pink flesh of a trout or the wings of a quail.

In her picture of what will make her happy, Mme. Loisel is arranging to be unhappy. Here, she’s like many people: she cannot take pleasure in ordinary things, like good home-cooked food, and sees her husband as a fool for doing so; she cannot see everyday reality as having wonder. Asked Ms. Reiss,

Are we interested in seeing what the world is? Is that going to make us happy? Or is having it present us with certain things, give us the goodies...going to make us happy? What is it that will hold up?

And she explained how the art of Maupassant is a criticism of how Mme. Loisel sees: “The style here is a relation of richness and a certain bluntness. There’s terrific economy.” Yet, she explained, in this rather short story, “you feel there’s abundance.”

One evening, Mme. Loisel’s husband comes home with something he thinks will make her happy: an invitation to a ball at the palace of the Ministry of Public Instruction. Yet,

Instead of being delighted,...she threw the invitation on the table with disdain, murmuring:
“What do you want me to do with that?”
“But, my dear, I thought you would be glad. You never go out, and this is such a fine opportunity. I had awful trouble to get it. Everyone wants to go; it is very select, and they are not giving many invitations to clerks. The whole official world will be there.”
She looked at him with an irritated eye, and she said, impatiently:
“And what do you want me to put on my back?”

Flustered at seeing her burst into tears, he asks: “What’s the matter?”

By a violent effort, she had conquered her grief, and she replied, with a calm voice, while she wiped her wet cheeks:
“Nothing. Only I have no dress, and therefore I can't go to this ball. Give your card to some colleague whose wife is better equipped than I.”

Mme. Loisel is quite mean as she makes the mistake of many wives—blaming a husband for her unhappiness and punishing him. Cowed by her, he agrees that she should have a new dress, though it will cost all that he has saved for another purpose. But she’s still miserable: she has no jewels. Her husband suggests she wear flowers: “It's very stylish at this time of the year. For ten francs you can get two or three magnificent roses.” “She was not convinced. ‘No; there's nothing more humiliating than to look poor among other women who are rich.’”