The Necklace Brief Summary
Maupassant’s short story “The necklace” is the tale of a lower-middle-class clerk’s wife who dreams of the wealth and luxury of the Parisian upper classes. Born to a family of clerks, she is disappointed by the poverty of her dwelling and, with no dowry, she is married to a humble clerk and continues to dream of a different life. This dream leads her husband to get tickets to a ball, for which the female protagonist feels she must dress richly. To this end, she borrows a diamond necklace from her wealthy friend which she loses. Rather than admit the loss to her friend, she and her husband drown themselves in debt in order to buy a replacement and pass ten years living in poverty. Once the debts are paid, she admits the loss to her friend, who simply replies that the necklace was a fake, worth very little. The years of poverty have been for nothing. Maupassant’s story, beautifully formed in its simplicity, is a warning against the temptations of class aspiration. This essay will therefore argue that the main theme of the story is that attempting to move beyond one’s station in life is a flawed ambition that will more often than not bring unhappiness. Maupassant aims to underline in his short story that dreams of wealth will never result in the happiness envisaged in the dream. Being ashamed or unhappy with one’s class is an error that should not be made, and aspiring to the bourgeoisie is a false and empty dream.
The main character of the story is Mathilde, who aspires to wealth. She ongoing struggles to accept her actual social position is made very clear in the opening part of the story. Maupassant comments that ‘she was one of those pretty and charming girls who are sometimes as if by a mistake of destiny, born in a family of clerks’. (p.266) This is the opening line of the short story and it is striking because it initially appears that the author is of the same opinion as Mathilde, sympathizing with her for being born to the wrong family. However, as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Maupassant is actually communicating Mathilde’s own personal opinion in this line, which he then sets out to criticize. Mathilde suffers deeply as a result of her social position. She is described as being ‘unhappy as though she had really fallen from her proper station’(p.266) and that she ‘suffered ceaselessly, feeling born of for all the delicacies and all the luxuries’. (p.266) Finally, ‘the sight of the little Breton peasant who did her humble housework aroused in her regrets which were despairing’. (p.2666) Maupassant, therefore, initially seems to understand Mathilde’s position.
However, even at this early point in the short story, Maupassant begins to undermine Mathilde. Rather than immediately calling her by her actual name, he merely refers to her as ‘she’. (p.266) Indeed ‘she’ is the opening word of the story, making what at first seems to be a person suffering in actual fact much more general discussion of class. Mathilde’s name is only revealed later in the story in dialogue with her husband and so Maupassant never actually refers to her in continuous prose by her own name. This suffering is, therefore, a common complaint of the Parisian lower middle classes. There are many young ladies like Mathilde who believe themselves to be somehow better than their peers, dreaming of the glittering world of the upper classes. The fact that Maupassant does not distinguish Mathilde means that rather than sharing her opinion, he rather distances himself from it. The opening line is, therefore, an ironic opening statement which the author then sets about picking apart.
Indeed, this irony can be seen in other parts of the story. When Mathilde, now referred to as Mme. Loisel in an ironic twist of sophistication goes to the ball she ‘made a great success. She was prettier than them all, elegant gracious, smiling, and crazy with joy’. (p. 267)Mathilde is a success, in her own eyes, because she thinks of herself as more attractive than the other ladies there. This is an excellent use of dramatic irony on the part of the author since it will be this very ball that results in her downfall. The wealth she seeks to show by buying an expensive dress and borrowing what she believes is costly jewelry is all a sham. In the end, this pretense will reduce her social status even more. There is a second moment of poignant irony when once reduced to poverty, Mathilde looks backs on the day of the ball. Thinking back to the loss of the necklace she reflects ‘what would have happened if she had not lost that necklace? Who knows? Who knows? How life is strange and changeful! How little a thing is needed for us to be lost or saved!’ (p.270) In spite of being ruined by the necklace, Mathilde still fails to see the deeper problem and fails to fully embrace her origins. She cannot help but blame the necklace, rather than her own misplaced desire for social advancement. The final statement, ‘how little a thing is needed for us to be lost or saved’ is thick with irony. Mathilde feels she has lost, while Maupassant is arguing that she has been saved. It is of course the final twist when the necklace which has caused all this heartache is an imitation diamond.
When Mathilde finally confesses the loss of the original to her friend, she replies ‘Oh, my poor Mathilde! Why my necklace was paste. It was worth at most five hundred francs!’ (p.270) In the greatest irony of all, Mathilde has gone through a decade of needless poverty simply because she was unable to admit her mistake. Too embarrassed of being poorer than her friend, she refused to tell her at the time of the loss, and she had been so seduced by the idea of wealth and diamonds that she didn’t consider for a minute that the necklace might be a fake. This is where Maupassant’s message comes through most clearly. Mathilde has been seduced by a false dream, represented best of all by the necklace. However, the author’s message is much wider, extending to the upper classes in general. Desiring to be like them is nothing more than fooling yourself. It is much better to embrace your own roots, background, and culture.
Indeed, the message of accepting ones’ status is clearest when Mathilde is compared with her husband. The simple bank clerk has none of his wife’s aspirations for money and luxury. He is, rather, content with his modest income and his simple life. It is for this reason that he cannot understand his wife’s dismay, rather than joy, at being invited to the party. When Mathilde explains that she has nothing to wear, her husband immediately gives up the four hundred francs which he has been saving up for himself, to make her happy. The author explains that ‘he was laying aside… [four hundred francs]…to buy a gun and treat himself to a little shooting next summer…but he said “All right. I will give you four hundred francs”. (p.266) At this moment, the selfless simplicity of the husband is starkly contrasted with the coveting nature of the wife in such a way as to show the husband in a better light than Mathilde. This giving side of the clerk comes out again when the money needs to be raised to buy a replacement necklace. In order to raise funds which he doesn’t have, the husband ‘gave notes, took up ruinous obligations, dealt with usurers, and all the race of lenders. He compromised all the rest of his life, risked his signature without even knowing if he could meet it’. It is the husband, therefore, who pays the price for his wife’s misguided aspirations.
However, when the couple falls into debt, Mathilde does come though and decides to help pay off the loans they have taken. Maupassant embraces Mathilde’s fall into poverty, stating that ‘she took to her part, moreover, all of a sudden, with heroism’. (p.269) The fact that Maupassant refers to the working-class life as ‘her part’ is a strong indication of the author’s belief in the validity of the working classes. He celebrates Mathilde’s change of direction, regarding her as a heroine for not only embracing her roots but being willing to tolerate even greater poverty than she has suffered before. This is, therefore, the defining moment in the short story, when Maupassant welcomes his misguided character back to her rightful place in society.