‘The Necklace’ is an 1884 short story by the French writer Guy de Maupassant (1850-93), first published in Le Gaulois as ‘La parure’ in February of that year. If you’re unfamiliar with Maupassant’s work, ‘The Necklace’ is his most famous tale, and worth taking the time to read. If you’re a fan of stories with twist endings, you’ll probably love it.
You can read ‘The Necklace’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Maupassant’s story below. The story takes around ten minutes to read.
‘The Necklace’: plot summary
Mathilde Loisel is a pretty woman who is married to a clerk who works in the Ministry of Education. They do not have much money, and Mathilde spends her days fantasising that her life is more glamorous and upmarket than it actually is.
When her husband is invited to a ball hosted by the minister for whom he works, he is keen for them both to attend, but Mathilde tells him she has nothing to wear to such a high-class social occasion. He tells her he will buy her a nice dress, even though it will mean sacrificing his own pleasure.
Then, Mathilde becomes worried that she has no jewels to wear with the dress. Loisel, her husband, suggests she ask her friend, Madame Forestier, if she has something she will lend to Mathilde for the night. Madame Forestier is happy for her friend to borrow whatever she wants, and Mathilde chooses a diamond necklace.
Mathilde enjoys the ball, and especially likes all of the attention she attracts from the men in attendance. When they are due to leave, at four in the morning, they go outside and try to find a cab to take them home. When they arrive home, however, Mathilde is horrified to discover she has lost the necklace!
Loisel retraces their steps but cannot find the lost necklace anywhere. They realise that they will have to replace the necklace, whatever the cost. To buy them some time, they compose a letter to Madame Forestier, claiming that they are having the necklace repaired. They then try to find out where the necklace was made, and have to buy the clasp and the diamonds from separate jewellers.
Loisel racks up thousands of francs in debt, borrowing from friends and from professional moneylenders to raise the cash. They finally have the necklace, which is returned to Madame Forestier, but now they have to pay back the money to all of their creditors.
This takes them ten long years. They dismiss their servant girl and Mathilde has to perform all of the housework, which ages her rapidly. Loisel, meanwhile, takes on a second job, working for a merchant in the evenings. Finally, though, their debts are cleared.
One day, Mathilde bumps into Madame Forestier, who doesn’t recognise her at first because her friend looks so poor and haggard. Now the debt is paid off, Mathilde feels she can tell her friend the truth, and confesses that she lost her friend’s necklace and she and her husband had to buy a replacement.
In a twist, Madame Forestier tells her friend that the necklace she lent Mathilde was made of imitation diamonds, and was virtually worthless. Mathilde and her husband had spent ten years toiling away for no reason.
‘The Necklace’: analysis
In ‘The Necklace’, Guy de Maupassant explores the relationship between appearance and reality. The necklace, of course, is the most explicit example of this: it looks like a genuine diamond necklace but is actually an imitation or fake. And this final twist in the tale leads us to think more carefully about the other details of the story.
But ‘The Necklace’ is more specifically about the dangers of not being happy with what one has, and always wanting more. The nineteenth century saw a rise in the prevalance of consumerism, with many middle-class people seeking to improve their lot and keep up with their friends and neighbours in terms of their possessions, clothes, and social status.
Although Maupassant’s story is hardly searing social satire, the fate of the female protagonist does act as a cautionary tale about the dangers of chasing consumerist gratification in order to impress and be admired by others. The Loisels have a perfectly comfortable lower-middle-class life, and Mathilde has one servant to help around the house.
But this isn’t enough. She dreams of having more. Her food is not enough for her and she wants to dine on finer dishes. One would think she was living a life of poverty from how dissatisfied she is.
This constant desire for more is her undoing, of course – and her husband’s. Her insistence that she have some jewels to wear to the ball is what leads her to find out what real poverty is like, when she and her husband have to downsize from a modest flat to a small garret, and Mathilde has to learn how to work as a servant in her own house. She also loses the natural beauty she had as she has to work so hard at scrubbing the floors.
The critic Rachel Mesch, in her book Having It All in the Belle Epoque, has pointed out that ‘The Necklace’, among other stories, is a kind of Cinderella-story gone awry: whereas Cinderella begins by scrubbing floors and ends up going to the ball in all her finery, Mathilde goes to the ball and, as a result of losing her necklace (not her glass slipper), is reduced to a life of scrubbing floors.
Because she longed for more than she had, she ended up with less than she had to begin with. But the delicious ironic twist at the end of the story shows that her reduction to a life of poverty was all for nothing: just like the admiration she was foolishly and vainly chasing, the necklace she was working to replace was, after all, a sham.
Modern consumerism, then, is a con, with anyone able to afford a cheap imitation necklace able to pass themselves off as a member of the upper classes. Maupassant seems to be suggesting that the ‘finer things’ in life which tempt us are often, at their core, hollow and worthless.
At the same time, however, even when she is reduced to a life of grinding poverty, Mathilde still remembers that one night at the ball when she was admired. It is almost as if she thinks it was worth it, despite what happened next. She wonders what would have happened if she’d never lost the necklace.
Of course, at this stage of the narrative she hasn’t learned that the diamonds she was wearing that night were fakes; perhaps that revelation would make her revise her opinion. And yet, knowing they were imitation diamonds raises further ‘what if’ questions. If they cost five hundred francs at the most, as Madame Forestier reveals at the end, Loisel’s husband could have easily bought her a cheap necklace and nobody – except for the Loisels themselves – would have been any the wiser. After all, Mathilde was admired at the ball even though she was, it turns out, wearing fake diamonds.
‘The Necklace’ is narrated in the third person by an omniscient narrator. The style is broadly realist, with Maupassant’s narrative voice relating the main details of the story in crisp, concise prose. We don’t get – as we would in the work of later modernist writers – detailed insight into the characters’ thoughts and feelings, although we are given occasional details about Mathilde’s feelings towards her situation.