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The Necklace | Themes

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Beauty and Entitlement

Much of what happens in "The Necklace" happens because of beauty, or the appearance of it, and because of the way in which individuals value it. Madame Loisel is unhappy with the life into which she is born, and then with her marriage, because she values beauty and wealth—that is, the beautiful things money can buy. Madame Loisel is pretty, but to a family without money her beauty means little. Her lack of status and possessions makes her unhappy early in the story as she dreams of beautiful clothes, expensive jewels, elegant balls, and large homes with many servants.

Madame Loisel believes that life owes her more because of her own beauty. She feels she deserves social recognition, admiration, and special attention. She sees no worth in anything natural or inexpensive, as evidenced in her reaction to her husband's suggestion she wear flowers to the ball. To her beauty is something expensive, a commodity.

Fantasy versus Reality

Fantasy and reality clash throughout this story, and the main character seems to have trouble distinguishing one from the other. Madame Loisel's beauty creates a sense of entitlement that she perceives as a reality, and her fantasies of wealth and admiration are more important to her than her actual surroundings. Her husband is more in touch with reality, so that before the ball the Loisels seem to inhabit parallel lives that barely touch. While he enjoys the meal before him on the table, she is dreaming about grand feasts. Instead of the "good soup" on the table, Madame Loisel is fantasizing about "dainty dinners, of shining silverware," and delicacies like "the pink meat of a trout or the wings of a quail." Madame Loisel's visions of "strange birds" and "fairy forests" give an aspect of fantasy to the story itself, with Mathilde Loisel as the implicit princess. But the reality is soup, served on a tablecloth used three times, much to her distaste.

The necklace is itself a fantasy. Madame Loisel delights in its glitter while believing it is real. But at the end of the story it is revealed to be a fake, unworthy of the brutal 10 years the couple has spent trying to replace it.

Class

The theme of class consciousness and the difficulty of upward mobility contributes to the tensions in the story. Madame Loisel is unhappy with her life in part because she was born, "as if by a slip of fate, into a family of clerks." Thus "with no dowry, no expectations, no way of being known, understood, loved, married by any rich and distinguished man," she must accept her situation.

She is not poor at the start of the story; although she and her thrifty husband live very modestly, they do go to the theater and have a servant, but they are far outside the class to which Madame Loisel thinks she should belong on the basis of her beauty. Her vanity colors her outlook on life and makes her feel she deserves more. She wants what her rich friend has, and visits to Madame Forestier's home arouse Madame Loisel's deep envy.

When Madame Loisel loses the necklace, she and her husband behave like respectable middle-class people. They have lived within their means and avoided debt. Their failure to question the value of the necklace demonstrates how far away they are from the upper classes to which Madame Loisel aspires, as does their seriousness about the debt they must pay. They are not casual in their attitudes toward money, as those who have it might tend to be. Their failure to see a red flag when the jeweler tells the Loisels the necklace and the case do not match underscores their naiveté.

After the necklace is replaced, Guy de Maupassant paints a vivid portrait of a couple struggling, with little success, against poverty, but the rapid descent is unavoidable. Upward mobility may be difficult, if not impossible, but downward mobility is easy.

Duty

The theme of doing one's duty drives the plot both before and after the loss of the necklace. For all that she yearns for something else, Madame Loisel accepts as her duty her marriage to Monsieur Loisel when her family arranges it. When she wants an expensive new dress so she can attend the ball in style, Monsieur Loisel winces at the cost but surrenders his planned pleasures so she can have what she wants. He believes his duty is to please his wife, and he does it without much reluctance.

After Madame Loisel loses the necklace, Monsieur Loisel fully accepts responsibility for the situation. Despite Madame Loisel's vanity and desire for wealth, she never shirks responsibility: "She was determined to pay." Equally dutiful and responsible, Monsieur Loisel surrenders his inheritance to pay half the cost of the replacement necklace, and both Loisels work day and night for 10 years to repay their debt. Duty transforms Madame Loisel from the "paste" of shallow, youthful beauty to maturity. At the beginning of the story, though she longs for wealth, Madame Loisel shows no determination to do anything. Duty transforms her physically and emotionally.

Dissatisfaction

The story shows that dissatisfaction with one's lot can make a situation disagreeable at best, disastrous at worst. As "The Necklace" opens, Madame Loisel wishes her life were different and has no way to improve it. When her husband offers an invitation to a grand ball, the kind of event she dreams of, she rejects his offer—and in fact snaps at him—because she lacks the proper clothes to attend. When he sacrifices the money he was saving for a gun so that she can have a new dress, she becomes dissatisfied again because she lacks jewelry.

However, her situation changes after she loses the necklace, and along with the necklace, she loses her earlier motivation; her dissatisfaction is no longer a driving force. In fact, during her time of deprivation she acts "with sudden heroism" to pay the "dreadful debt."

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