The Necklace | Study Guide

Guy de Maupassant

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The Necklace | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

An Invitation

In mid-19th-century Paris a pretty girl is born into a family of clerks. With no dowry and no prospects for marriage to a wealthy man, she marries Monsieur Loisel, a minor clerk in the Ministry of Public Instruction. Even though she has never known anything better, she is unhappy with her life, feeling her beauty and charm alone entitle her to wealth and luxury, of which she continually dreams. Her dissatisfaction plagues the early years of her marriage, as she remains "distressed at the poverty of her dwelling, at the bareness of the walls, at the shabby chairs, the ugliness of the curtains." Her husband, on the other hand, is content and appreciates what he has. Madame Loisel has a rich friend from school whom she has stopped visiting because "she felt so sad when she came home."

One evening Monsieur Loisel brings home an invitation—which he worked hard to obtain, for such events are above his social and professional circles—to a ball given by the Minister of Public Instruction. Monsieur Loisel thinks his wife will be delighted, but she is not: rather she is distraught at the idea of not having the proper clothes: "I have no gown, and, therefore, I can't go to this ball." When he asks what a new dress would cost—one she could wear again, as Monsieur is thrifty—Madame Loisel calculates and tells him 400 francs. Taken aback, Monsieur Loisel hesitates momentarily because he was saving that amount to buy himself a gun so he could go shooting with friends, but after a moment he agrees to give her the money.

As the day of the ball approaches, Madame Loisel becomes anxious, explaining to her husband that even with a new dress, she is unhappy because she has no jewels to wear. When he suggests flowers instead, she scoffs and says, "No; there's nothing more humiliating than to look poor among other women who are rich." Monsieur Loisel then suggests she borrow something from her rich friend Madame Forestier. When Madame Loisel visits her friend the next day, Madame Forestier is happy to help. After going through an assortment of her friend's jewelry, Madame Loisel chooses a diamond necklace.

A Grand Occasion

At the ball Madame Loisel is the prettiest and most charming woman there. The men wonder at her beauty, and high-ranking government officials ask who she is. Incredibly happy, she dances all night "with rapture, with passion, intoxicated by pleasure, forgetting all in the triumph of her beauty, in the glory of her success, in a sort of cloud of happiness" while her husband and other husbands fall asleep in an adjoining room. At four in the morning the Loisels leave. Monsieur Loisel asks his wife to wait inside while he hails a cab, but she rushes out into the street so other guests won't notice she has no fur wrap.

Loss

No cabs stop, and they have to walk until they find a shabby night taxi. When they get home, Madame Loisel, wanting to admire herself in the mirror once more, sees she isn't wearing the necklace. She panics. The Loisels look through her clothing but cannot find it. She remembers touching it as they left the party and reasons they would have heard it land if it had fallen in the street. They conclude it must have fallen in the cab, which they cannot track down as neither noticed its number.

Monsieur Loisel leaves immediately and retraces their path, looking for the lost necklace. Unsuccessful, the next day he visits cab companies, the police, and newspapers, offering a reward and hoping for a response. There is no good news, however. To buy them some time he has Madame Loisel write her friend to say the necklace's clasp broke and they're having it fixed.

After a week passes with no news of the necklace, they decide they must buy a replacement. When they go to the jeweler whose name appears on the box, he tells them he never sold such a necklace but perhaps furnished its case. Eventually they find a jeweler selling the same necklace, who agrees to sell it to them for 36,000 francs. Monsieur Loisel inherited 18,000 francs from his father but must borrow the rest, a little at a time, from different sources. The Loisels buy the necklace, and Madame Loisel "returns" it to Madame Forestier, who shows annoyance at the lateness of its return.

A Change of Circumstance

Now deeply in debt, the Loisels are forced to change their lives to pay off their loans. They must dismiss their servant and give up their apartment, moving into far humbler quarters than they have had until now. Madame Loisel must do all the hard physical work around the house herself. She must bargain at the markets for every advantage she can get. Having complained earlier about the barrenness of her middle-class apartment, now "Madame Loisel knew the horrible existence of the needy. She bore her part, however, with sudden heroism." In addition to his job at the ministry, Monsieur Loisel takes on extra work in the evening.

They do nothing but work hard and live in deep poverty for 10 years to pay off the debt. The price, however, includes the loss of Madame Loisel's youth and beauty; she has become a "woman of impoverished households—strong and hard and rough. With frowsy hair, skirts askew and red hands, she talked loud while washing the floor with great swishes of water." Worn and old beyond her years, shrill and harsh, having lost her only assets—youth and beauty—she nevertheless remembers on occasion that one perfect night at the ball and wonders about its aftermath.

Revelation

One Sunday she takes a walk as a break from her week of hard work and encounters Madame Forestier, who still looks young and beautiful and has a child with her. Madame Loisel is hesitant about approaching her but does. At first Madame Forestier does not recognize her friend, who has changed beyond recognition, and is horrified when Madame Loisel tells her who she is. Madame Loisel, revealing the truth, tells her, "I have had a pretty hard life, since I last saw you, and great poverty—and that because of you!" She blames Madame Forestier for the lost necklace, but in her newfound strength, Madame Loisel feels proud to have honored her debt.

Baffled by this revelation, Madame Forestier asks how that could be since Madame Loisel returned the necklace. Madame Loisel explains they bought a diamond necklace to replace it. Shocked and deeply moved, Madame Forestier says, "Oh, my poor Mathilde! Why, my necklace was paste! It was worth at most only five hundred francs!"

Analysis

A Fairy Tale Gone Wrong

In some ways Guy de Maupassant's story may be considered a fairy tale gone wrong. The story opens by introducing the protagonist without naming her. Opening with "She was one of those pretty, charming girls" is as universal an opening as "once upon a time." These few words create a timelessness and universality, underscored by the mention of fate. However, there is a twist; the girl is born into a family of Parisian civil servants, not to peasants in a hut in the woods. She is not a princess in a foreign land, nor does she have much chance of living above the class into which she is born.

In fact, the girl, Mathilde, is the very opposite of a fairy-tale princess. Although she may be pretty and charming, she is vain and continually dissatisfied—a young woman, perhaps, with Cinderella's good looks and the stepsisters' chronic discontent and vanity. When she marries Monsieur Loisel, a low-level clerk who tries to please her, her dissatisfaction with her life continues, and she daydreams of "silent antechambers hung with Oriental tapestry, illumined by tall bronze candelabra ... of two great footmen in knee breeches ... of long reception halls hung with ancient silk, of ... dainty cabinets containing priceless curiosities and of the little coquettish perfumed reception rooms made for chatting at five o'clock with intimate friends, with men famous and sought after." She believes she deserves fine things, for she loves them. Her love is focused on riches; in a fantasy world she daydreams of nothing else. Whereas fairy-tale princesses are good, kind, accepting, and loving, Mathilde Loisel's single-minded dissatisfaction characterizes her as shallow and disagreeable, despite the charm she may display to nonexistent characters.

When she is invited to a ball, an invitation her husband has tried hard to obtain for her sake, she complains of having nothing to wear. Monsieur Loisel gives her money for a new dress, but she then complains of having no jewels to wear. There is no grateful Cinderella or magic fairy godmother: instead a pretentious, dissatisfied woman already married; a well-meaning but thrifty clerk as her husband; and a rich, obliging friend of whom she is envious. At the ball Madame Loisel has her moment of glory. "She was prettier than any other woman present, elegant, graceful, smiling and wild with joy. All the men looked at her, asked her name, sought to be introduced. All the attaches of the Cabinet wished to waltz with her." She is the most admired woman, the belle of the ball, but the admiration comes from government bureaucrats, not eligible young princes, while her husband dozes in another room.

No magic coach appears after the ball; instead they hail a disreputable cab, which the Loisels must find on their own in the cold. The dress does not disappear or turn into rags. What does disappear is the borrowed necklace. Madame Loisel has lost it and will pay the price, for it will not be returned by magic or by a prince. The loss begins a spiral downward into 10 years of hard labor and the loss of all they have.

Readers might expect a touch of grace from fate—a huge reward, an inheritance, a long-lost relative appearing on the scene—some vindication for the Loisels' sacrifice. However, instead of rewarding duty and honesty, the ending punishes Madame Loisel yet again for her aspirations and actions, even as she seems to have lost those aspirations, and her actions consist of cleaning house and pinching pennies. However, by closing with Madame Forestier's revelation, and not showing how Madam Loisel reacts or what she thinks, Maupassant leaves readers to question how Madame Loisel, now more mature, responsible, and realistic, responds to this news.

Structural Rhythm

Maupassant establishes a rhythm in the story that guides reader expectations. A good thing happens—Monsieur Loisel secures the invitation to the ball—and Madame Loisel is disappointed: "I have no gown, and, therefore, I can't go to this ball." A good thing happens—she buys a dress—and again Madame Loisel is disappointed: "It annoys me not to have a single piece of jewelry, not a single ornament, nothing to put on. I shall look poverty-stricken. I would almost rather not go at all." The third time is the charm and indicates once again the onset of something negative. Thus Maupassant foreshadows unfortunate events following the ball by indicating that when Madame Loisel attends the ball, she will be unhappy because when she gets what she wants, she is continually disappointed. This time, however, the result will be catastrophic, far beyond petulant dissatisfaction.

Realism and Naturalism

Maupassant focuses the first two paragraphs of the story on describing Madame Loisel as a product of her environment, a typical naturalist approach to characterization. He doesn't name her here but describes her as a type of woman defined by where and how she was born. His approach explains her relative passivity early in the story. She cannot reshape her environment but can only adapt to it.

Readers can see Maupassant's use of realism in his choice of characters in "The Necklace." Paris was full of lower middle-class couples struggling to get by. This story could have happened to thousands of couples like the Loisels. The scope and scale of the story are also realistic. This is not a story about characters who go on a quest, or who are seeking greatness or achievement. This is a story about a bureaucrat who wants to make his wife happy for an evening, and his wife who wants to be admired for being pretty. Maupassant includes many moments of small-scale realism, such as when the husbands at the party all sit in a separate room and doze while their wives dance.

Maupassant's highly specific descriptions in the third and fourth paragraphs show a realist's concern with accuracy and detail. Madame Loisel doesn't just long for riches and beauty: she longs for rooms full of "old silk." And the tureen on the Loisels' dinner table isn't just covered with a cloth: it is covered with a "three-day-old cloth."

His most vivid moments of realist writing, though, come after the couple lose the necklace and are working to pay back the loan they took out to buy the replacement. Maupassant describes their poverty and their labor with intense specificity. He shows exactly what poverty does to people and what kind of lives the poor lead. Because there is no single source from which Monsieur Loisel can borrow, he takes up "ruinous obligations, deal[s] with usurers ... compromise[s] all the rest of his life, risk[s] signing a note without even knowing whether he could meet it." Madame Loisel's lot, after moving to an attic, is no easier as "she carrie[s] the slops down to the street every morning and carrie[s] up the water, stopping for breath at every landing." She now dresses "like a woman of the people" as she goes to "the fruiterer, the grocer, the butcher, a basket on her arm, bargaining, meeting with impertinence, defending her miserable money, sou by sou." This painful new environment reshapes Madame Loisel to the point her old friend cannot recognize her.

The Marriage and the Characters

The Loisels' marriage is neither a great love match nor a financially advantageous union. In fact Madame Loisel with her daydreams of wealth and luxury likely benefits more than her husband. A petty clerk like the rest of his wife's family, he has married her without a dowry, the absence of which would further narrow Mathilde's prospects. On the other hand, her good looks and charm may have greater worth to her husband, whose monetary ambitions seem limited, despite his frugality. Indeed, he is quite satisfied with a modest life and with his position. Because he has inherited some money from his father, he feels comfortable. As a husband he may not understand his wife's character or ambitions, and certainly does not share her dreams. Yet despite occasional frustration or impatience, he is dutiful and attentive and tries to please, as evident in his cadging an invitation to the ball, which holds no interest for him.

Madame Loisel, on the other hand, with her sense of entitlement, is as dissatisfied as her husband is satisfied. Although dutiful and responsible, she resents her circumstances, even though their apartment is reasonably comfortable—if not richly adorned. A maid does the heavy work, they go to the theater, she has enough money for necessities, and her husband has some funds put aside. Maupassant depicts Madame Loisel as a woman who "suffered ceaselessly, feeling herself born to enjoy all delicacies and all luxuries," showing little affection for or interest in anything other than luxuries she does not have and feels she deserves. She is vain, shallow, and foolishly proud—before the inevitable fall.

Husband and wife have in common honesty, pride, and an unwavering sense of duty. What both lack is imagination, despite Madame Loisel's daydreams, which are based on fantasy. Imagination as applied to reality would have served them well. Indeed, the Loisels are honest in replacing the necklace, giving up 10 years of their lives and depleting their assets. Pride and lack of imagination keep them from admitting the loss of the necklace, or they surely would have learned of its value. In replacing the necklace their sense of duty prevails over all else.

Readers may speculate on Madame Forestier and the imitation necklace. She may have much less wealth than her friend believes, she may not want to disappoint her friend by telling her the diamonds are not real, or she may not want to embarrass herself by such a revelation. Rich as she may be, she shows no hesitation in wearing fake jewels; she responds to the lateness of the necklace's return, "You should have returned it sooner; I might have needed it." Regardless, the Loisels' perception of her wealth convinces them of the necklace's value, even after Madame Loisel discovers the necklace and the box do not belong together, as the first jeweler reveals.

Situational Irony

"The Necklace" is built on situational irony—the literary term for a discrepancy between what readers expect to happen and what actually happens. The surprise ending forces readers to see the plot as a series of contrasting events. Madame Loisel's one evening of glory living out her fantasies is what knocks the couple down far below what they were before the ball. Having borrowed the necklace to make her appear richer and more beautiful, she ultimately loses all her money and her looks because of it. Yet, she expresses no dissatisfaction and behaves heroically in her reduced circumstances, whereas her dissatisfaction was evident when she had a great deal more.

The ultimate instance of situational irony, of course, is the limited value of the necklace. On one level it shows rich people's possessions are not always what they appear to be. The Loisels never question the necklace's authenticity or value, nor does Madame Forestier volunteer the information. And the greatest irony is that the 10 years spent laboring to repay the debt are all for nothing. The Loisels could easily have replaced it with their savings—and their lives—intact.

The Necklace Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 The Loisels marry and live a frugal, middle-class life.

Rising Action

2 Madame Loisel resents her situation and dreams of luxury.

3 Monsieur Loisel brings home an invitation to a ball.

4 Monsieur Loisel gives Madame Loisel money for a new gown.

5 She borrows a diamond necklace to wear to the ball.

6 Madame Loisel is a great hit at the ball.

Climax

7 Madame Loisel loses the necklace, which she must replace.

Falling Action

8 The Loisels work for 10 years to pay for the lost necklace.

Resolution

9 Madame Loisel learns the borrowed necklace was fake.

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