The Diamond Necklace

The Diamond Necklace

Many people hear the word “Marxism” or the name “Karl Marx” and think of communism and Lenin’s atrocities.  Plus, Marxism is decidedly atheistic and amoral.  So, there are plenty of reasons for any decent Christian to stiff-arm Marxism, right?  Not necessarily.  Karl Marx and Jesus Christ have more ideas in common than many people realize.  But this blog is not about Marxism, it is about Guy de Maupassant’s short story, “The Diamond Necklace“, and how this story, from a Marxist perspective, can actually be used as a very demonstrative analogy of the system of organized religion, how one can be fooled into thinking that the expectations found therein come from God Himself, and how one can overcome the “world”.

A Marxist reading of the conclusion of the story isn’t adequate, though, in my opinion, because of Marxism’s rejection of the existence of God.  That’s why I prefer to see the climax of the story through the lens of Louis Althusser‘s production theory.  Althusser isn’t really theist either, but his production theory is a rejection of humanism.  While there are many wonderful concepts in humanism, it can’t be an all encompassing perspective since humanity is fallible, subject to influence through nature or nurture, and can’t be an ultimate standard.  Obviously as one who has just finished a course in literature, these names, terms, and ideas are all familiar to me.  But a year from now, I’ll read this blog and be totally lost!  So I will do my best to keep it interesting, do a lot of explaining, and I’ve added links so that you can explore subject matter if necessary.  In order to understand this analogy I propose, we must first understand the story itself and look at it from a Marxist perspective. Here is a summary of the story of Madame Mathilde Loisel and her husband:

Mathilde always imagined herself in a high social position with wonderful jewels. However she has nothing and marries a low paid clerk who tries his best to make her happy.

Through lots of begging at work, he is able to get two invitations to the Ministry of the Public Instruction party. Mathilde then refuses to go, for she has nothing to wear. Her husband is upset to see her displeasure and, using money that he was saving to buy a rifle, he lets Mathilde buy a dress that suits her. But Mathilde is still not happy, she wants jewels to wear with it. Since they have no money left, her husband suggests that she borrow something from her friend, Madame Jeanne Forestier. Mathilde picks out the fanciest jewel necklace that she can find. After attending the Ministry of Public Instruction party, Mathilde discovers that she has lost the necklace.

Mathilde and her husband look everywhere but the necklace is not to be found. They take out loans from generous friends and loan sharks to buy a diamond necklace that looks just like the one that was lost. It takes them ten years of hard labor to come up with the 36,000 francs necessary to pay them back. Toward the end, Mathilde takes a walk, remembering her past and the night when the necklace was lost. Suddenly she sees Madame Jeanne Forestier and goes to meet her. Mathilde confesses about that night and how she worked so hard to return her necklace. Mme. Forestier, deeply moved, tells Mathilde that the one she had borrowed was not made of real diamonds and that it was worth at most 500 francs.

What is valuable?  Diamonds?  Public opinion?  Honesty?  The answer, according to the Marxist perspective, depends on the material circumstances and the historical situation.  This story is set in the latter half of nineteenth century Paris, France, when the people were getting tired of authoritarianism, the economy was taking a downturn, and radicalism was growing among industrial workers.  Maupassant’s “The Diamond Necklace” illustrates social and economic inequality in general and particularly in a proletariat woman’s life.  This woman and main character, Matilde, has determined that contentment can only be achieved as a bourgeoisie woman.  The story seems to support the Marxist claim that people are mere creations of social or economical circumstance.  However, interpellation is not an unfailing constant; in fact, interpellation falls flat at the conclusion of Maupassant’s story.  For example, if the working class continually experiences loss associated with the conscious acceptance of capitalistic ideology, then that working class is likely to gain knowledge, and, consequently, exhibit the first fruits of forming its own new culture, one which does not subscribe to capitalist ideology.  We see this beginning to happen with Madam Loisel’s marked ideological transformation in the climax of the story.

First, let’s take a look at Madame Loisel.  She submits herself to emotional torment on a regular basis, because she fails to meet the bourgeoisies’ seemingly legitimate standard of worth as an individual.  But notice how the foundational conflicts Maupaussant introduces have the potential to make or break this character:

  • Lack of a dowry
  • Mr. Loisel’s hunting gun disappointment
  • Anxiety over borrowing the diamond necklace
  • Bewilderment over losing the diamond necklace
  • The lie about repairing the necklace clasp
  • The debt incurred
  • Ten years hard labor

Each of these story elements may be seen as potentially powerful forces that will inevitably make life miserable for Madame Loisel or as impotent forces that won’t even make a smudge on the armor of the character’s emotional and ideological well being.  How can this be?  Well, it all depends on Madame Loisel’s acceptance or rejection of the capitalist ideology popular during the late nineteenth century in France (which is arguably also popular in twenty-first century USA).  The institutional church, like the characters in this story, has its status quo people like the husband, its people-pleasers like the wife, its hoity toity status groups like staff and leadership, and its empty promises like the fake diamond necklace.  Just as Madame Loisel’s outlook on life depends heavily upon her acceptance or rejection of capitalist ideology, so the average church-goer’s acceptance or rejection of religious standards will determine his or her worldview.  It can be argued that no one held a gun to Madame Loisel’s head, demanding that she measure up to the standards in appearance, status, etc of the upper class.  She could have been content to live a humble, happy life.

Or are we assuming too much?  It can also be argued that the exclusivity of the upper class creates an inescapable worldview in which the only way a humble, lower class person can live a happy life is if a new standard is created, a standard in which minimalism and humility are attractive to the masses.  Can you imagine such a world?  People carrying signs saying “Will work for food” would be chased by paparazzi while the rich and famous would be ignored or ridiculed.  People would trade in their Jaguars for the ugliest used car they could find.  McDonalds would be considered high dining.  The implications in such a hypothetical world would cause no difficulty whatsoever for the low income people, but the power brokers of this world would take a very hard hit if the allure of “bigger” and “better” no longer held the masses of workers captive.

So how would such a shift take place?  Earlier I mentioned Althusser’s production theory.  You can read it for yourself here.  The point on which I focus is the idea of “Reproduction of the Relations of Production” which I will explain by example.  Everyone knows that Walt Disney was one of the world’s greatest entertainment entrepreneurs.  Part of the reason Disney’s endeavors have continued success is that Disney did not just create a product/service for the consumer, he created an environment in which every aspect of production had unity and cohesion.  Furthermore, he created a system that reproduces the unity and cohesion as growth and change takes place (as it inevitably does).  My Dad currently works part time at Disney World (Space Mountain), and he refers to Disney management as “nice Nazis.”  It is very difficult to feel like an individual on the job there, because of the very long and detailed list of procedures and protocol which accompanies each position.  In organized religion, institutional churches can be compared to the Disney system, because it reproduces its own ideology as it grows and changes.  Not only do religious leaders in Christianity adhere to and teach certain doctrines, but they create an environment in which every aspect of “production” i.e. spiritual thoughts and ideas is held to a standard of unity and cohesion.  What’s wrong with unity and cohesion? one might ask.  Nothing at all!  The wrongness of it comes about in the manner in which it is achieved.  Unity and cohesion are not supposed to be standards that are enforced, but the natural result of the Spirit of God at work in our midst.  Human beings simply cannot create that kind of environment.  When they do, they end up with… well, they end up with organized religion and all its stink.

I will close with the words of Paul, who explains how to be free from the trappings and disappointments of both capitalism and religion:

My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.  But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.  Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.

 

 

Comments
  • Lanny A. Eichert June 17, 2011 at 12:55 am

    When they do, they end up with… well, they end up with organized religion and all its stink. Alice, there you go again. Were the seven churches of the Revelation chapters 2 & 3 organized religion? I just simply have to ask. Do organized churches founded by Christ exist anywhere on earth?

  • Lanny A. Eichert June 17, 2011 at 1:49 am

    With all its stink and “nice Nazis” would have been better wording and doubled the impact, thinks one who was once excommunicated from a Baptist church. It was those “nice Nazis” that would not stand up with me against the errors that allowed that to happen. I would remind you to observe that reformation is not the solution in the Revelation chapters 2 & 3, but judgment (condemnation) is. The best that can be done is to hold fast that which they have 2: 25. That is the typical remedy. Typical, I say, because it is a very rare thing that a church be improved: liberalization is the normal trend, left movement from fundamentalism.

  • Mary Vanderplas June 17, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    From a theological perspective, the main issue, I think, is the problem of evil, specifically, the systemic dimensions of sin (and secondarily, biblical justice). Are we free to reject the prevailing (sinful and dehumanizing) values of the culture in which we live, the (sinful and dehumanizing) norms by which society is structured, and thus fulfill our true humanity? Or, are the corrupting and enslaving influences of our social and cultural worlds so great that the only way to achieve God’s purpose for his human creatures is a new society, a new social order based on an entirely different set of values and norms?

    I like your take on the issue, though I have questions about the implications of what you seem to be saying. I agree that it can be argued that in one sense we are free to reject the values of the culture, that, as self-transcending, responsible subjects, we can say no to forces that create and promote systems of social and economic injustice, with resulting loss of dignity for many. We don’t have to accept the status quo; and to the extent that we do accept it, we are accountable before God. This is not to deny the seductive, blinding effects of the corrupting influences of culture (from which, I believe, only Jesus can free us and heal us). It is simply to acknowledge that, in terms of our creation as free and responsible agents, we are not coerced to accept values and norms that foster oppression and inequality.

    On the other hand, though, as you rightly point out, the powers of evil that pervade our social and cultural worlds may be so great that a “new society” is needed in order for God’s vision of justice to be realized. The picture you paint of current (North American) cultural values being turned on their heads is appealing, in a way, if impossible to imagine. Your vision mirrors Mary’s in Luke 1, in which the revolutionary socioeconomic implications of the Messiah’s coming are spelled out and celebrated. Still, though, the idea of a new more just society here and now raises questions for me about whether changing the social order means that capitalism should be replaced by socialism, about whether private ownership of property and private control of production are inherently evil, and about whether government is any more immune from the seductions of power than private enterprise is, which there is good reason to believe that it isn’t. At any rate, I struggle with knowing just how this vision of economic and social equality should be brought about, even though I believe without a doubt that God’s plan for the cosmos includes a just social order.

    What can be said unequivocally, though, is that it is the church’s task to work for justice in society and in the world, not just by engaging in acts of charity, but also by addressing the systemic sins that create and promote a society in which some people have all the power and wealth and status and others have nothing and are on the outside looking in. It should be clear to any of us who claims to follow Jesus that this one who came preaching good news to the poor and release for the captives demands that we give ourselves to God’s cause of justice (and not simply to caring about people’s spiritual lives).

    I agree that the institution of the church, as much as secular institutions, embodies the powers of sin and death. If Jesus reached out to the poor and oppressed in society, he also showed special caring for godless sinners excluded by an unloving religious establishment. But again, I don’t necessarily think that the institution itself is the culprit – that the institution of necessity “creates an environment in which every aspect of ‘production’ is held to a standard of unity and cohesion,” as you describe. At least in the faith tradition in which I make my home, the focus is not on consensus-seeking but on agreeing to disagree and recognizing, as you wisely emphasize, that our unity is not in ourselves but is solely and completely in Jesus Christ. So, I am more tolerant of organized religion, though I am not blind (I think) to the fact that systemic sins that oppress and exclude can and do grow in the religious institution.
    Thanks for a stimulating blog.

    • admin June 19, 2011 at 9:19 pm

      I just love your comments, which are always well-written, in-depth, and insightful. Any chance you would like to do a guest blog? Let me know…

      • Mary Vanderplas June 20, 2011 at 6:32 am

        Thank you – both for the affirmation and for the gracious invitation. We can talk. This week is vacation, but maybe sometime. I do enjoy reading, pondering, and responding to your always-thought-provoking blogs.

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