“The Necklace” is, at its heart, a story about Mathilde’s social ambition, which takes the form of a desire to acquire luxurious objects that she cannot afford. Through her ruin, Maupassant warns against the dangers of greed and criticizes those who ascribe too much value to wealth and material possessions.
Mathilde invests objects like the diamond necklace she borrows from Mme. Forestier with enormous significance, and her happiness is heavily dependent on her possession of the objects she desires. Mathilde’s distress at the beginning of the story is largely a result of her unfulfilled desire for material objects: “She had no wardrobe, no jewels, nothing.” This materialism is inextricable from her social ambition, as she fears that she will be rejected by the higher classes because she does not appear to be wealthy enough. Once Mathilde obtains the diamond necklace she wants and is able to wear it at the party, she quickly becomes “wild with joy.” However, as soon as the party is over Mathilde loses the necklace and is once again unhappy, suggesting that material possessions cannot guarantee long-lasting happiness, and that greed, in fact, can lead to ruin.
Mathilde’s desire for material possessions is doubly misguided because she has no concept of value beyond how much an object is worth. Throughout the story Maupassant assigns many objects a specific cash value, suggesting that an object’s value is synonymous with its price. However, Maupassant undermines the adequacy of the conflation of price with value when the Loisels have to choose whether to spend 400 francs on Mathilde’s evening dress or on the rifle for which her husband had long been saving. Despite the fact that these two objects have an equal cash value, the choice of how to spend the money reflects the spender’s moral and social values. The dress is a somewhat frivolous purchase that corresponds to Mathilde’s vanity and social ambition. Her “frugal” husband, on the other hand, asks that she buy a “suitable gown” that could be worn to other affairs. Meanwhile, the rifle (which would enable him to have a hobby that he shares with friends) seems like a much more reasonable, thought out, and class-appropriate purchase than Mathilde’s dress—one that will have a lasting value rather than a temporary, superficial value.
Moreover, Maupassant demonstrates that monetary value is somewhat arbitrary since even fashionable things can be had cheaply. Mathilde’s husband suggests that she wear roses costing 10 francs to the ball since “they’re very chic this season,” but Mathilde won’t hear of having ornaments that aren’t visibly expensive. Furthermore, Mathilde seems only to love Mme. Forestier’s necklace because she believes it is expensive, though the necklace is actually made of paste and not worth much at all. Mathilde’s inability to separate price from value, then, is what leads her to her ruin.
Taken together, Mathilde’s obsession with money and material possessions demonstrates the dangers of greed. Instead of enjoying the small comforts of life like her husband does—a servant to do the housework, the pleasure of warm soup—Mathilde is fixated on what she doesn’t have. She always wants more, and the objects she desires are far beyond her financial means. Mathilde’s greed drives her to pick the most expensive-looking necklace out of Mme. Forestier’s jewel box, and the huge debt she and her husband take on to replace the lost necklace can be seen as a natural consequence of her greediness.
While Maupassant certainly judges Mathilde for her greed and social ambition, he also mitigates the blame by showing that she is playing into the cultural norms of her time: in late-nineteenth century France, wealth was synonymous with social status, and both depended on the ownership of material goods. Maupassant is critical not simply of Mathilde, but also of the value system in which she lives. “The Necklace” therefore demonstrates how harmful materialistic social hierarchies can be to those who cannot afford to access the upper classes.
Ambition, Greed, and Material Possessions ThemeTracker
Ambition, Greed, and Material Possessions Quotes in The Necklace
Unable to adorn herself, she remained simple, but as miserable as if she’d come down in the world. For women have no caste or breed; their beauty, their grace, and their charm serve them in lieu of birth and family background. Their native finesse, their instinct for elegance, their versatile minds are their sole hierarchy, making shopgirls the equals of the grandest ladies.
She suffered endlessly, feeling that she was meant for all delicacies and all luxuries. She suffered from the poverty of her apartment, the dinginess of the walls, the shabbiness of the chairs, the ugliness of the fabrics. All these things, which wouldn’t have even been noticed by any other woman of her station, tortured her and infuriated her. The sight of the Breton girl who did her humble housework aroused woeful regrets in her and desperate dreams.
Whenever she sat down for supper at the circular table covered with the same tablecloth for three days, she faced her husband, who, removing the lid from the tureen, ecstatically declared: “Ah! A good stew! I don’t know of anything better!”
But she fantasized about elegant dinners, about shiny silverware, about tapestries filling the walls with ancient figures and exotic birds in the midst of a magic forest; she fantasized about exquisite courses served in wondrous vessels, about gallantries whispered and listened to with sphinxlike smiles, while the diners consumed the rosy flesh of a trout or the wings of a grouse.
The night of the ball was approaching, and Madame Loisel appeared sad, worried, anxious. Still, her gown was ready.
One evening, her husband said to her: “Listen, what’s wrong? You’ve been acting funny for three days now.”
And she replied: “I’m annoyed that I don’t have any jewelry—not a single gem, nothing to put on. I’ll look downright poverty-stricken. I’d almost rather not go to the ball.”
Madame Loisel looked first at some bracelets, then at a pearl necklace, then at a marvelously crafted Venetian cross made up of gold and precious stones. She tried the pieces on before the mirror, wavering, unsure whether to keep them or leave them. She kept asking: “Don’t you have anything else?”
“Of course. Keep searching. I can’t tell what you’ll like.”
All at once, in a black satin box, Madame Loisel unearthed a superb diamond necklace, and her heart began pounding with unrestrained desire. Her hands trembled when she picked up the necklace. She placed it on her throat, against her high-necked dress, and remained ecstatic in front of her reflection.
Monsieur Loisel, bringing the wraps for their exit, tossed them over her shoulders: they were the modest garments of ordinary life, their poverty clashing with the elegance of the ball gown. She sensed the discord and wanted to flee, to avoid being noticed by the other women, who were bundling up in expensive furs.
Madame Loisel now knew the horrible life of necessity….She performed the gross household tasks, the odious kitchen chores. She washed the dishes, wearing down her rosy nails on greasy pots and on the bottoms of pans. She washed the dirty linen, the shirts and the dishcloths, and let them dry on a line. She lugged the garbage down to the street every morning and hauled up the water, stopping at every landing to catch her breath. And dressed like a pauper, she went to the produce store, the grocer, the butcher, her basket on her arm, haggling, insulted, defending her miserable cash sou by sou.
“You say you bought a diamond necklace to replace mine?”
“Yes. You didn’t catch on, did you? They were fairly alike.”
And she smiled with proud and naïve joy.
Madame Forestier, deeply moved, took hold of Madame Loisel’s hands. “Oh, my poor Mathilde! My necklace was paste. It was worth at most five hundred francs!”