Mathilde Loisel is a pretty and charming woman who was born, “as if through some blunder of fate,” into a middle-class family. Without a dowry or a point of entry into high society, she is unable to find a wealthy husband, and so she marries M. Loisel, a clerk who works for the Ministry of Education.
The opening lines of “The Necklace” introduce Mathilde as an exceptionally beautiful woman with an ordinary social situation. From this starting point, the reader can anticipate the link between beauty and social ambition that will be explored throughout the rest of the story.
Though Mathilde has always been middle-class, she grieves as though she is actually a woman who has “come down in the world.” Perhaps this is natural for beautiful and charming women like Mathilde, as for women “their beauty, their grace, and their charm serve them in lieu of birth and family background.” Appearance and poise, then, can make beautiful women without means the “equals of the grandest ladies.”
Mathilde is therefore constantly unhappy because instead of the “delicacies” and “luxuries” for which she believes she was born, her life is shabby. Though another woman of her class wouldn’t even notice, she is dismayed by the sight of her unfashionable apartment and her humble maid, preferring to lose herself in daydreams of “hushed antechambers with Oriental hangings” and “large drawing rooms lined with ancient silk.”
Mathilde’s unhappiness stems from a false set of expectations. Because she is beautiful, Mathilde believes she is entitled to the glamorous life of the rich and is driven to despair by her humble surroundings. To escape this reality, Mathilde loses herself in a world of dreams and illusions where she surrounds herself with the trappings of wealth, but of course none of this is real and therefore Mathilde cannot truly be happy. However, the fact that Mathilde has a maid already suggests that her discontent is out of proportion with her not-uncomfortable life.
Her husband, on the other hand, seems much more content, declaring over dinner, “Ah! A good stew! I don’t know of anything better!” Meanwhile, Mathilde dreams of fashionable dinner parties and “exquisite courses served in wondrous vessels.”
Mathilde’s unhappiness seems to be a matter of choice since her husband, who lives in the same conditions, is perfectly happy with a good stew. Mathilde focuses on the things she doesn’t own rather than the small comforts of life, suggesting that an insatiable appetite for material possessions is a great source of unhappiness.
One day, M. Loisel comes home with an invitation to an elegant party hosted by the Minister of Education. Despite the fact that he “went to endless trouble” getting such a sought-after invitation, Mathilde initially rejects the offer to attend, and is close to tears when she tells him that she doesn’t have anything suitable to wear.
M. Loisel cares a great deal about his wife and goes to great lengths to make her happy. Mathilde is unhappy despite her husband’s best efforts, once again showing that her unhappiness is greatly exaggerated.
Seeing how unhappy Mathilde is, her husband asks what it would cost to buy her an outfit. Mathilde contemplates for a moment, then asks for 400 francs, which is enough to buy a nice dress but not enough to bring about an immediate refusal from the “thrifty clerk.”
By knowingly asking for just the right amount of money, Mathilde seems to be taking advantage of her husband’s generosity, revealing some of the negative personality traits that lurk beneath the surface of her outer beauty.
Turning briefly pale, M. Loisel agrees to give Mathilde the money, even though he had been saving 400 francs to buy a new rifle in order to go hunting with his friends on the plains of Nanterre.
M. Loisel sacrifices his own happiness for the sake of his wife’s, demonstrating his generosity. Unlike Mathilde, M. Loisel does not find happiness in material possessions but rather in the happiness and the company of others.
On the day of the party, Mathilde’s new dress is ready but she is still unhappy. When her husband asks her why, she says that she is embarrassed not to have a jewel to wear over her gown. M. Loisel suggests that she purchase two or three roses for 10 francs, but Mathilde responds that there’s nothing more humiliating than “looking like a pauper in the middle of rich women.”
At her husband’s suggestion, Mathilde decides to pay her wealthy friend Mme. Forestier a visit in order to borrow some jewelry. She looks through every item in Mme. Forestier’s jewel box, eventually settling on an expensive-looking diamond necklace. For the first time Mathilde is happy as she stands in “ecstasy” staring at her reflection in the mirror.
By picking the most expensive-looking item in Mme. Forestier’s jewel box, Mathilde reveals her greed and her superficial understanding of value. By looking at herself in the mirror, Mathilde also reveals her vanity. The flatness of the reflection echoes Mathilde’s superficial and illusory appearance of wealth.
At the party, Mathilde is a huge success. She is “lovelier than any other woman” and is noticed by important officials and even the minister himself. Lost in a “cloud of happiness,” Mathilde dances “intoxicated, swept away, heady with pleasure.”
Mathilde’s success at the party hinges on her beauty, seeming to give truth to the notion that beautiful women without means can become the equals of ladies in high society. However, by writing that Mathilde is lost in a “cloud of happiness” and “intoxicated…with pleasure” Maupassant anticipates that this night of happiness will not last, and that there is something not-quite-real about her success.
As they are leaving the party, M. Loisel covers Mathilde with the wraps that he had brought from home, “modest garments of ordinary life, their poverty clashing with the elegance of the ball gown.” Embarrassed to be seen by the other women who are draped in “expensive furs,” Mathilde runs outside and onto the street.
Once covered by the wraps, Mathilde’s appearance of wealth vanishes and she is once again embarrassed to be seen by wealthier women in their “expensive furs,” bringing her night of happiness to an end. This sudden shift in mood demonstrates the power that Mathilde invests in objects, since for her the wraps represent everything that she finds lacking in her life.
Unable to find a carriage, Mathilde and her husband walk towards the Seine, “desperate and shivering.” They eventually find a carriage but it is “those old, nocturnal broughams that you see in Paris only at night as if they were ashamed of their squalor by day.”
Mathilde and her husband’s downcast mood as they search for a carriage further demonstrates that things are back to normal. Like the wraps, for Mathilde the “squalor” of the carriage represents a return to her unsatisfactory reality.
The carriage drops them off at their apartment on the “rue des Martyrs.” Mathilde realizes that “it is all over,” meaning that her night of happiness and social recognition has come to an end.
By proclaiming that “is it all over,” Mathilde recognizes that her happiness at the party—gained only through her beauty and her illusory appearance of wealth—was only temporary. The Loisels’ address on the “rue des Martyrs” introduces the theme of martyrdom and foreshadows the suffering that follows.
Stopping to admire herself one last time in the mirror, Mathilde suddenly realizes that the necklace is gone. She and her husband search everywhere for the necklace, but without any luck. Eventually, M. Loisel decides that they must replace the jewelry.
The reappearance of the mirror once again demonstrates Mathilde’s vanity and her obsession with appearances. This time, however, the mirror reveals the truth, and as if by magic Mathilde’s false appearance of wealth vanishes.
The next day they visit the jeweler whose name was on the necklace’s box, but he says that the necklace didn’t come from him.
The fact that the box misled the Loisels as to the origin of the necklace is a hint that the necklace might be a fake, and represents the danger of seeking truth in outside appearances.
They then go to another jeweler, where they find a string of diamonds that looks exactly like the necklace they are trying to replace. The necklace costs 40,000 francs.
This price seems right to Mathilde because she primarily liked the necklace for its appearance of being expensive. To her, the value of an object is synonymous with its price.
M. Loisel has 18,000 francs that he inherited from his father but he is forced to borrow the rest of the money to pay for the necklace. He borrows money from his friends and makes ruinous deals with moneylenders and loan sharks. In order to replace the necklace, M. Loisel compromises the rest of his life and is horrified that he has had to risk his signature “without knowing if he’d be able to honor it.”
By giving up his inheritance and making risky deals to pay for the necklace, M. Loisel once again demonstrates his generosity. For M. Loisel, replacing the necklace is a question of honor, and his extreme self-sacrifice makes him something of a martyr.
After buying the replacement, Mathilde returns the necklace to her friend. Mme. Forestier doesn’t even open the box and so she does not notice the substitution.
The fact that Mme. Forestier does not notice the substitution in another hint that the necklace was a fake, since her attitude suggests that the necklace was never particularly important to Mme. Forestier to begin with.
The following years are difficult for both Mathilde and her husband as they are forced to “experience the horrible life of necessity.” After dismissing their maid and renting a garret apartment, M. Loisel takes on a night job balancing accounts and copying documents. Mathilde plays her part “with sudden heroism,” learning to do the heavy housework and chores of a working person.
As hinted earlier in the story, the suffering experienced by the Loisels as they struggle to repay their debt is a kind of martyrdom. The complete reversal of fortunes is especially apparent in Mathilde, and her earlier dissatisfaction is thrown into sharp contrast with the true hardship that she now experiences. Her heroism, however, shows that she attributes value to her suffering: for her, one night of wealth is worth ten years of poverty.
After ten long years, the terrible debt is finally repaid. This period of hardship takes its toll on Mathilde, who loses her once-remarkable beauty. She appears like an old woman now, but consoles herself with the memory of the night of the party when she was still beautiful and admired.
The degradation of Mathilde’s physical appearance is a warning that beauty always fades and should therefore not be counted on to achieve social success or lasting happiness. Mathilde’s daydreams have changed—she no longer dreams of escape into a world of illusory wealth, but rather she reflects on her past life, suggesting that the experience has made Mathilde more grounded in her reality.
One day while taking a walk on the Champs Elysées, Mathilde sees Mme. Forestier, who is still young-looking and beautiful. Mme. Forestier barely recognizes her old friend, remarking how much she has changed.
By contrasting the appearances of Mathilde and Mme. Forestier after ten years, Maupassant reveals that it is in fact beauty that can be bought by wealth and not the other way around, as Mathilde believed. Mme. Forestier’s difficulty in recognizing her friend once again demonstrates the deceptiveness of appearances.
Now that the debt has been settled, Mathilde decides to tell Mme. Forestier the whole story, proud that she had been able to replace and pay for such an expensive necklace. However, Mme. Forestier is dismayed to inform her that all this suffering was for nothing, exclaiming: “You say you bought a diamond necklace to replace mine? […] My necklace was paste. It was worth at most 500 francs!”
Mathilde’s pride shows that she has been able to find meaning in her suffering based on the expensiveness of the necklace. However, by revealing that the necklace was a fake, Mme. Forestier makes those sacrifices meaningless. The twist ending also exposes the deceptiveness of appearances and the dangers of attributing too much power to material possessions, since their value may be illusory.