51 pages • 1 hour readGuy de Maupassant
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Considered a master of the short story, French author Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) wrote over 300 stories, one of the most famous being “The Necklace.” De Maupassant focused his writing on daily life and the observation of human nature, a topic he approached with a strong sense of pessimism. “The Necklace,” published in 1884, illustrates his pessimistic outlook through its focus on irony, conflict, and the destructive power of materialism and greed. The story has been adapted into several movies and has been the inspiration for numerous stories, novels, and plays by later writers. This guide is based on Andrew MacAndrew’s translation.
The story begins with a description of Mathilde Loisel, a Frenchwoman born into the lower class but gripped by dreams of being part of the wealthy elite. She constantly longs for fine furnishings and décor, luxurious clothes, and expensive jewelry. While sitting down with her husband to a dinner of ordinary stew—a meal that brings contentment and satisfaction to Monsieur Loisel—Mathilde is swept away by the image of elegant and extravagant dinner parties: She pictures beautiful tapestries depicting knights and their ladies and exotic birds as well as fine china and delicious food like trout and grouse.
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Day after day, Mathilde pines for an existence she cannot afford but feels destined to. One evening, Loisel returns home from work at the Ministry of Education with an invitation to an exclusive reception hosted by the minister and his wife. As Loisel shows her the invitation, Mathilde becomes sad, claiming that she has no clothes appropriate for the event. She tells Loisel to give the invitation to someone whose wife can dress for it. Loisel asks how much money it would cost for Mathilde to buy a suitable dress, and she says that 400 francs would do. Although startled at the sum, Loisel agrees to give her the money he has set aside for a new hunting rifle.
As the ball approaches, Mathilde is once again weighed down with sadness, this time because of her lack of jewelry. Loisel suggests she buy some fresh flowers instead, but she refuses, claiming that she would feel humiliated. Loisel then suggests she go to her long-time friend Madame Forestier to borrow jewelry. Delighted with this idea, Mathilde visits her the next day, and Madame Forestier happily agrees to lend her what she needs. Mathilde digs through the items Madame Forestier proffers, but she does not find anything that grabs her attention. As she continues to look, she sees a box with black satin that contains a stunning diamond necklace. She puts it on and immediately desires it. Mathilde cautiously asks to borrow it, and Madame Forestier agrees without hesitation. Mathilde hugs her friend and returns home.
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The night of the ball arrives, and Mathilde is a success in society. She is beautiful and charming and gains the attention of many men, including the minister. By four o’clock in the morning, she is finally ready to leave. She finds Loisel sleeping in a sitting room alongside several other men whose wives were swept away in the glorious event. The couple prepares to leave, but as Loisel places Mathilde’s wrap on her shoulders, she is reminded of her poverty and shame, breaking the spell the evening had cast over her. She flees from the building so none of the fur-clad wives can see her as she really is. They try to call a cab but are unable to find one. As they walk down the dark streets, they eventually spot a brougham—a horse-drawn carriage—in the shadows, hiring it to return them to their home.
Once home, Mathilde goes to the mirror to look at herself one final time before returning to her usual shabbiness. She sees that the diamond necklace is gone. In a panic, she searches her dress and wrap but finds nothing. She asks Loisel if he remembers the cab number to help them find and search it, but neither of them took notice. Loisel leaves their apartment to retrace their steps in search of the necklace, leaving Mathilde alone to collapse into a chair, despairing at the loss. Loisel returns several hours later, having searched everywhere they went while also asking the police, newspapers, and the offices of the cab companies for assistance. He finds nothing.
The couple is forced to confront the question of how they will explain the loss to Madame Forestier. Mathilde writes her a letter saying that a clasp on the necklace broke and she is getting it fixed. In the meantime, Loisel and Mathilde search for a replacement. They find one at a shop near the Palace Royale, and, deciding the necklace is identical to the one they lost, they settle on a price of 36,000 francs. The shop owner agrees to allow them to return the necklace for 34,000 francs should they happen to find the original. They begin gathering the required amount, taking 18,000 francs from Loisel’s inheritance from his father. But they are forced to borrow the rest from a variety of sources, often at high interest. Loisel returns to the shop and buys the necklace, and Mathilde returns the necklace to Madame Forestier, who is annoyed at having waited so long. She does not open the box to inspect the necklace.
Because of their debts, Loisel and Mathilde are thrown into a life of poverty. They dismiss their maid and move into an attic. Mathilde is forced to do the household chores including washing dishes and laundry and taking out the garbage. She also begins to dress more plainly and finds pride in her frugality. Likewise, Loisel takes additional work in the evenings by balancing business ledgers and copying pages by hand for 25 centimes per page. They continue like this for ten years and eventually pay back all their debts including significant interest. This decade of manual labor changes Mathilde and wipes away the refinement she once possessed. Her hands are red; her clothes are dirty and tattered; and she talks loudly and boorishly.
One day, as Mathilde is walking down the Champs-Elysees, she sees Madame Forestier and decides to talk with her for the first time since returning the necklace. Madame Forestier does not recognize Mathilde, but once she explains who she is, Madame Forestier is shocked at her transformation. Mathilde explains that she has been through some very hard times since they last met. Mathilde explains the loss of the necklace and how hard she and Loisel worked to repay their debts, feeling a sense of pride. The story ends with Madame Forestier stunning Mathilde with one short statement: The necklace was fake.
By Guy de Maupassant