“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant
Prereading: Make the Connection: All of us, at one time or another, have felt that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence—in other words, that someone else’s life is better than our own. We believe that having what someone else has will make us happy—until we experience the unexpected negative results of envy. In a few lines, jot down your feelings about envy. Have you ever seen or felt its negative effects?
A Third-Person-Limited Point of View: Guy de Maupassant specialized in showing what makes human beings tick. It’s not surprising, then, that he tells this famous story from the third-person-limitedpoint of view, zooming in on the thoughts of a single character, Mathilde Loisel. We learn in the first seven paragraphs about Mathilde’s past, her dreams, what makes her unhappy, what she envies in other people, and what she thinks will make her happy. We follow Mathilde so closely through a crisis in her life that the story’s ending hits us almost as powerfully as it strikes the unsuspecting Mathilde.
Background:“The Necklace” takes place in Paris in the late 1880’S. At that time and in that place, social classes were all-important; people were born into a certain class, and that was usually where they remained. For more information on the kind of world the characters in this story lived, read “Separate Sphere.”
Separate Spheres:During the late nineteenth century, the doctrine of “separate spheres” shaped French society. According to this idea, men were aggressive and intellectual, qualified for work in the public sphere of universities, business, and politics. Women were seen as weak and emotional, suited for the private sphere. They raised children and made sure that their homes were clean and beautiful. The law reinforced these boundaries. Husbands controlled their wives’ property, and women could not vote or enter professions like the law or civil service. For middle- and upper-class women, supported by their husbands or fathers and aided by servants, this lifestyle was restrictive but no impossible. For poor women the situation was different. Millions of them became factory workers, laundresses, cooks, bread carriers, or seamstresses. These women led extremely difficult lives. At work, conditions could be hazardous, even fatal. Seamstresses endured daily shifts of thirteen hours or more; weavers were exposed to toxic substances; silk workers were surrounded by clouds of steam and frequently caught pneumonia. In the end women received little in return for lowering their social status and endangering their health. Many earned only about 400 francs in an entire year; the cost of Mathilde Loisel’s party dress.
The Story: She was one of those pretty and charming girls, born, as if by an accident of fate, into a family of clerks. With no dowry, no prospects, no way of any kind of being met, understood, loved, and married by a man both prosperous and famous, she was finally married to a minor clerk in the Ministry of Education.
She dressed plainly because she could not afford fine clothes, but she was as unhappy as a woman who has come down in the world; for women have no family rank or social class. With them, beauty, grace, and charm take the place of birth and breeding. Their natural poise, their instinctive good taste, and their mental cleverness are the sole guiding principles which make daughters of the common people the equals of ladies in high society.
She grieved incessantly, feeling that she had been born for all the little niceties and luxuries of living. She grieved over the shabbiness of her apartment, the dinginess of the walls, the worn-out appearance of the chairs, the ugliness of the draperies. All these things, which another woman of her class would not even have noticed, gnawed at her and made her furious. The sight of the little Breton girl who did her humble housework roused in her disconsolate regrets and wild daydreams. She would dream of silent chambers, draped with Oriental tapestries and lighted by tall bronze floor lamps, and of two handsome butlers in knee breeches, who, drowsy from the heavy warmth cast by the central stove, dozed in large overstuffed armchairs.
She would dream of great reception halls hung with old silks, of fine furniture filled with priceless curios, and of small, stylish, scented sitting rooms just right for the four o’clock chat with intimate friends, with distinguished and sought-after men whose attention every woman envies and longs to attract.
When dining at the round table, covered for the third day with the same cloth, opposite her husband, who would raise the cover of the soup tureen, declaring delightedly, “Ah! a good stew! There’s nothing I like better . . .,” she would dream of fashionable dinner parties, of gleaming silverware, of tapestries making the walls alive with characters out of history and strange birds in a fairyland forest; she would dream of delicious dishes served on wonderful china, of gallant compliments whispered and listened to with a sphinxlike smile as one eats the rosy flesh of a trout or nibbles at the wings of a grouse.
She had no evening clothes, no jewels, nothing. But those were the things she wanted; she felt that was the kind of life for her. She so much longed to please, be envied, be fascinating and sought after.
She had a well-to-do friend, a classmate of convent-school days whom she would no longer go to see, simply because she would feel so distressed on returning home. And she would weep for days on end from vexation, regret, despair, and anguish.
Then one evening, her husband came home proudly holding out a large envelope.
“Look,” he said, “I’ve got something for you.”
She excitedly tore open the envelope and pulled out a printed card bearing these words:
“The Minister of Education and Mme. Georges Ramponneau beg M. and Mme. Loisel6 to do them the honor of attending an evening reception at the Ministerial Mansion on Friday, January 18.”
Instead of being delighted, as her husband had hoped, she scornfully tossed the invitation on the table, murmuring, “What good is that to me?”
“But, my dear, I thought you’d be thrilled to death. You never get a chance to go out, and this is a real affair, a wonderful one! I had an awful time getting a card. Everybody wants one; it’s much sought after, and not many clerks have a chance at one. You’ll see all the most important people there.”
She gave him an irritated glance and burst out impatiently, “What do you think I have to go in?”
He hadn’t given that a thought. He stammered, “Why, the dress you wear when we go to the theater. That looks quite nice, I think.”
He stopped talking, dazed and distracted to see his wife burst out weeping. Two large tears slowly rolled from the corners of her eyes to the corners of her mouth; he gasped, “Why, what’s the matter? What’s the trouble?”
By sheer willpower she overcame her outburst and answered in a calm voice while wiping the tears from her wet cheeks, “Oh, nothing. Only I don’t have an evening dress and therefore I can’t go to that affair. Give the card to some friend at the office whose wife can dress better than I can.”
He was stunned. He resumed, “Let’s see, Mathilde. How much would a suitable outfit cost—one you could wear for other affairs too—something very simple?”
She thought it over for several seconds, going over her allowance and thinking also of the amount she could ask for without bringing an immediate refusal and an exclamation of dismay from the thrifty clerk.
Finally, she answered hesitatingly, “I’m not sure exactly, but I think with four hundred francs I could manage it.”
He turned a bit pale, for he had set aside just that amount to buy a rifle so that the following summer, he could join some friends who were getting up a group to shoot larks on the plain near Nanterre.
However, he said, “All right. I’ll give you four hundred francs. But try to get a nice dress.” As the day of the party approached, Mme. Loisel seemed sad, moody, ill at ease. Her outfit was ready, however. Her husband said to her one evening, “What’s the matter? You’ve been all out of sorts for three days.”
And she answered, “It’s embarrassing not to have a jewel or a gem—nothing to wear on my dress. I’ll look like a pauper. I’d almost rather not go to the party.”
He answered, “Why not wear some flowers? They’re very fashionable this season. For ten francs you can get two or three gorgeous roses.”
She wasn’t at all convinced. “No. . . . There’s nothing more humiliating than to look poor among a lot of rich women.”
But her husband exclaimed, “My, but you’re silly! Go see your friend Mme. Forestier,8 and ask her to lend you some jewelry. You and she know each other well enough for you to do that.”
She gave a cry of joy. “Why, that’s so! I hadn’t thought of it.”
The next day she paid her friend a visit and told her of her predicament.
Mme. Forestier went toward a large closet with mirrored doors, took out a large jewel box, brought it over, opened it, and said to Mme. Loisel, “Pick something out, my dear.”
At first her eyes noted some bracelets, then a pearl necklace, then a Venetian cross, gold and gems, of marvelous workmanship. She tried on these adornments in front of the mirror, but hesitated, unable to decide which to part with and put back. She kept on asking, “Haven’t you something else?”
“Oh, yes, keep on looking. I don’t know just what you’d like.”
All at once she found, in a black satin box, a superb diamond necklace; and her pulse beat faster with longing. Her hands trembled as she took it up. Clasping it around her throat, outside her high-necked dress, she stood in ecstasy looking at her reflection.
Then she asked, hesitatingly, pleading, “Could I borrow that, just that and nothing else?”
“Why, of course.”
She threw her arms around her friend, kissed her warmly, and fled with her treasure.
The day of the party arrived. Mme. Loisel was a sensation. She was the prettiest one there, fashionable, gracious, smiling, and wild with joy. All the men turned to look at her, asked who she was, begged to be introduced. All the Cabinet officials wanted to waltz with her. The minister took notice of her.
She danced madly, wildly, drunk with pleasure, giving no thought to anything in the triumph of her beauty, the pride of her success, in a kind of happy cloud composed of all the adulation, of all the admiring glances, of all the awakened longings, of a sense of complete victory that is so sweet to a woman’s heart.
She left around four o’clock in the morning. Her husband, since midnight, had been dozing in a small, empty sitting room with three other gentlemen whose wives were having too good a time.
He threw over her shoulders the wraps he had brought for going home, modest garments of everyday life whose shabbiness clashed with the stylishness of her evening clothes. She felt this and longed to escape unseen by the other women, who were draped in expensive furs.
Loisel held her back.
“Hold on! You’ll catch cold outside. I’ll call a cab.”
But she wouldn’t listen to him and went rapidly down the stairs. When they were on the street, they didn’t find a carriage; and they set out to hunt for one, hailing drivers whom they saw going by at a distance.
They walked toward the Seine, disconsolate and shivering. Finally, on the docks, they found one of those carriages that one sees in Paris only after nightfall, as if they were ashamed to show their drabness during daylight hours.
It dropped them at their door in the Rue des Martyrs, and they climbed wearily up to their apartment. For her, it was all over. For him, there was the thought that he would have to be at the Ministry at ten o’clock.
Before the mirror, she let the wraps fall from her shoulders to see herself once again in all her glory. Suddenly she gave a cry. The necklace was gone.
Her husband, already half undressed, said, “What’s the trouble?”
She turned toward him despairingly, “I . . . I . . . I don’t have Mme. Forestier’s necklace.”
“What! You can’t mean it! It’s impossible!”
They hunted everywhere, through the folds of the dress, through the folds of the coat, in the pockets. They found nothing.
He asked, “Are you sure you had it when leaving the dance?”
“Yes, I felt it when I was in the hall of the Ministry.”
“But if you had lost it on the street, we’d have heard it drop. It must be in the cab.”
“Yes, quite likely. Did you get its number?”
“No. Didn’t you notice it either?”
They looked at each other aghast. Finally Loisel got dressed again.
“I’ll retrace our steps on foot,” he said, “to see if I can find it.”
And he went out. She remained in her evening clothes, without the strength to go to bed, slumped in a chair in the unheated room, her mind a blank.
Her husband came in around seven o’clock. He had had no luck.
He went to the police station, to the newspapers to post a reward, to the cab companies, everywhere the slightest hope drove him.
That evening Loisel returned, pale, his face lined; still he had learned nothing.
“We’ll have to write your friend,” he said, “to tell her you have broken the catch and are having it repaired. That will give us a little time to turn around.”
She wrote to his dictation.
At the end of a week, they had given up all hope.
And Loisel, looking five years older, declared, “We must take steps to replace that piece of jewelry.”
The next day they took the case to the jeweler whose name they found inside. He consulted his records. “I didn’t sell that necklace, madame,” he said. “I only supplied the case.”
Then they went from one jeweler to another hunting for a similar necklace, going over their recollections, both sick with despair and anxiety.
They found, in a shop in Palais Royal, a string of diamonds which seemed exactly like the one they were seeking. It was priced at forty thousand francs. They could get it for thirty-six.
They asked the jeweler to hold it for them for three days. And they reached an agreement that he would take it back for thirty-four thousand if the lost one was found before the end of February.
Loisel had eighteen thousand francs he had inherited from his father. He would borrow the rest.
He went about raising the money, asking a thousand francs from one, four hundred from another, a hundred here, sixty there. He signed notes, made ruinous deals, did business with loan sharks, ran the whole gamut of money-lenders. He compromised the rest of his life, risked his signature without knowing if he’d be able to honor it, and then, terrified by the outlook of the future, by the blackness of despair about to close around him, by the prospect of all the privations of the body and tortures of the spirit, he went to claim the new necklace with the thirty-six thousand francs, which he placed on the counter of the shopkeeper.
When Mme. Loisel took the necklace back, Mme. Forestier said to her frostily, “You should have brought it back sooner; I might have needed it.”
She didn’t open the case, an action her friend was afraid of. If she had noticed the substitution, what would she have thought? What would she have said? Would she have thought her a thief?
Mme. Loisel experienced the horrible life the needy live. She played her part, however, with sudden heroism. That frightful debt had to be paid. She would pay it. She dismissed her maid; they rented a garret under the eaves.
She learned to do the heavy housework, to perform the hateful duties of cooking. She washed dishes, wearing down her shell-pink nails scouring the grease from pots and pans; she scrubbed dirty linen, shirts, and cleaning rags, which she hung on a line to dry; she took the garbage down to the street each morning and brought up water, stopping on each landing to get her breath. And, clad like a peasant woman, basket on arm, guarding sou by sou her scanty allowance, she bargained with the fruit dealers, the grocer, the butcher, and was insulted by them.
Each month notes had to be paid, and others renewed to give more time.
Her husband labored evenings to balance a tradesman’s accounts, and at night, often, he copied documents at five sous a page.
And this went on for ten years.
Finally, all was paid back, everything including the exorbitant rates of the loan sharks and accumulated compound interest.
Mme. Loisel appeared an old woman now. She became heavy, rough, harsh, like one of the poor. Her hair untended, her skirts askew, her hands red, her voice shrill, she even slopped water on her floors and scrubbed them herself. But, sometimes, while her husband was at work, she would sit near the window and think of that long-ago evening when, at the dance, she had been so beautiful and admired.
What would have happened if she had not lost that necklace? Who knows? Who can say? How strange and unpredictable life is! How little there is between happiness and misery!
Then, one Sunday, when she had gone for a walk on the Champs Élysées14 to relax a bit from the week’s labors, she suddenly noticed a woman strolling with a child. It was Mme. Forestier, still young looking, still beautiful, still charming.
Mme. Loisel felt a rush of emotion. Should she speak to her? Of course. And now that everything was paid off, she would tell her the whole story. Why not?
She went toward her. “Hello, Jeanne.”
The other, not recognizing her, showed astonishment at being spoken to so familiarly by this common person. She stammered, “But . . . madame . . . I don’t recognize . . . You must be mistaken.”
“No, I’m Mathilde Loisel.”
Her friend gave a cry, “Oh, my poor Mathilde, how you’ve changed!”
“Yes, I’ve had a hard time since last seeing you. And plenty of misfortunes—and all on account of you!”
“Of me . . . How do you mean?”
“Do you remember that diamond necklace you loaned me to wear to the dance at the Ministry?”
“Yes, but what about it?”
“Well, I lost it.”
“You lost it! But you returned it.”
“I brought you another just like it. And we’ve been paying for it for ten years now. You can imagine that wasn’t easy for us who had nothing. Well, it’s over now, and I am glad of it.”
Mme. Forestier stopped short. “You mean to say you bought a diamond necklace to replace mine?”
“Yes. You never noticed, then? They were quite alike.”
And she smiled with proud and simple joy.
Mme. Forestier, quite overcome, clasped her by the hands. “Oh, my poor Mathilde. But mine was only paste. Why, at most it was worth only five hundred francs!”