A couple weeks ago, for my short story reading project, I read Guy de Maupassant’s famous tale, “The Necklace.” Last night, another reading/discussion group that I participate in met to discuss Sartre’s “The Wall.” Both of these stories end with an ironic twist, the former likely being one of the more famous in literature. This left me pondering the device of the “twist” and how it has almost become a cliche over the years in short fiction, with some readers even feeling that a good story isn’t complete without one. I suppose we have, in part, O’Henry to thank for that…
The twist is prevalent in other forms of art too, and here I’m thinking of tv and film. It seemed few episodes of “The Twilight Zone” were complete until that little twist at the end – often accompanied the well-placed tinkle of piano keys as Burgess Meredith drops his glasses or sometimes by an in-your-face exclamation (“It’s a cookbook!”)
“The Necklace” is a quick and easy read, and available online if you’d like to spend the ten or fifteen minutes it takes to read before proceeding (since I am going to spoil it for you, otherwise). http://www.bartleby.com/195/20.html
This is the story of Mathilde, a “pretty and charming girl, born by a blunder into a family of employees.” Her charm would suggest that she belonged to a higher station in life than that which it fell to her to inhabit. In one great moment, her husband is invited to a ball, and she at last has a chance to shine, which she does brilliantly, thanks in part to a “diamond” necklace she has borrowed from a rich acquaintance, Madame Forrester.
When the ball is over and they return home, she realizes to her horror that the necklace has been lost. It will take years of toil and labor and aggressive saving to repay the money they must borrow to buy a replacement. Being good citizens, this is what they do, their life a continual hardship under the burden of this debt, and it is only when they are finally out from underneath it that they learn that Madame Forrester’s diamonds were imitation and their value but a hundredth of what Mathilde and her husband have paid to replace it! (queue those tinkling piano keys from the Twilight Zone here)
I recalled also, after reading, that the classic American TV comedy, The Andy Griffith Show, shamelessly ripped off the plot twist in a 1968 episode. Perhaps you’ve seen it. Young Opie gets a job at the town drugstore and, while cleaning, knocks over and breaks an expensive (or so he thinks) bottle of perfume. He scrimps and saves to buy a replacement, only to later learn from the boss that what he broke was just a “display” bottle, containing only water.
(below: proud employee Opie Taylor – before disaster strikes…)
So, here’s my question for you: what are some of your favorite literary twists? Do you think the twist is an over-used plot device, or do you enjoy a good twist as much as “the next guy?”
(Other famous twists: a pretzel, Alexander the Great’s Gordian Knot, and Chubby Checker’s dance…)