In “The Necklace,” Guy de Maupassant demonstrates that appearances—especially the appearance of wealth—are often at odds with reality. Attempting to appear richer than she truly is, Mathilde Loisel borrows a diamond necklace from her friend Jeanne Forestier and then loses it at a ball. She and her husband buy an expensive replacement on credit, return the replacement to the friend as though it’s the original, and then live ten years in poverty to repay their debts. In the end, however, Mathilde learns that the original necklace was only costume jewelry—the appearance of wealth she briefly achieved at the ball was based on false diamonds and she has suffered uselessly to replace those fake diamonds with real ones, since neither she nor the necklace’s owner noticed the difference. This uncontrollable slippage between reality and illusion, and the catastrophe it invites, shows that losing sight of reality in order to cultivate a false appearance can easily lead to ruin.
From the beginning of the story, Mathilde feels that her appearance does not match her reality, as she is a beautiful woman with refined taste born to a class that she feels is beneath her. Since she feels that she naturally belongs to a different class, Mathilde is constantly distressed “the poverty of her apartment, the dinginess of the walls, the shabbiness of the chairs, the ugliness of the fabrics.” Instead of acknowledging and appreciating her reality, she lives in a world of daydreams, imagining “hushed antechambers with Oriental hangings,” “fine furniture carrying priceless knicknacks,” and eating “the rosy flesh of a trout or the wings of a grouse.” Therefore, Mathilde believes that her reality should match her appearance, which leads her to believe that she deserves a different life, one which she can only live in dreams.
When the Loisels receive an invitation to an elegant party hosted by the Minister of Education, Mathilde buys an expensive gown and borrows a diamond necklace from Mme. Forestier so that she does not look “like a pauper in the middle of rich women.” Maupassant suggests, however, that the elegant, wealthy appearance the necklace gives Mathilde is dangerous and illusory. He describes Mathilde in Mme. Forestier’s dressing room as “ecstatic in front of her reflection” in the mirror, which evokes Narcissus getting so lost in his own reflection that he died. Furthermore, at the ball, Mathilde is filled with pleasure that seems dangerous and not quite real. Maupassant writes, “She danced, intoxicated, swept away, heady with pleasure, thinking of nothing, in the triumph of her beauty, in the glory of her conquest, in something like a cloud of happiness made of all that homage.” In other words, Mathilde seems drunk on the admiration of others, forgetting that their admiration is based, in part, on an appearance of wealth that is at odds with her reality.
In keeping with her unwillingness to acknowledge reality, Mathilde does not tell the truth when she realizes that she has lost her friend’s necklace. Instead, she and her husband ruin themselves financially to buy an expensive replacement. In addition, Mathilde seems so invested in the notion that appearances should match reality that she cannot recognize the hints that the necklace isn’t valuable. First, the Loisels visit the jeweler whose name was on the necklace’s box, but he says that the necklace didn’t come from him. The box, therefore, misled them as to the origin of the necklace—a potent metaphor for Mathilde herself, and a hint that the necklace might be fake. Furthermore, when Mathilde brings the expensive new necklace to “return” to her friend, Mme. Forestier doesn’t even open the box and she never notices that the necklace is different. This suggests that the necklace was never particularly important to Mme. Forestier to begin with, which would likely not be true for a necklace worth 40,000 francs.
Through Mathilde and her husband’s suffering in the decade it takes them to pay their debts, Maupassant seems to be making a straightforward moral argument about the price of greed, but the twist ending—when Mathilde admits to Mme. Forestier that her family has been ruined by replacing the diamond necklace, and Mme. Forestier reveals that the original necklace was fake—complicates the story’s morality. The fact that Mme. Forestier’s necklace was made of paste shows that the appearance of wealth relies on illusion, even for the rich. Perhaps, then, the wealth Mathilde believed she was owed is inaccessible not simply to her but also to everyone else, including the truly wealthy. Furthermore, the fact that the necklace was a fake makes the Loisels’ sacrifice worthless—they have bought in to the myth that appearances correspond to reality, and this leads them to lose even the meager ease and status they once had. Maupassant’s treatment of the disjunction between appearance and reality therefore seems to be more than a straightforward attempt to caution people against greed and entitlement—first and foremost, it’s a warning about the catastrophes that can occur when a person attempts to make reality live up to their illusion.
Reality and Illusion ThemeTracker
Reality and Illusion Quotes in The Necklace
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 looked old now. She had become the strong, and hard, and crude woman of poor households. Her hair ill kempt, her skirts awry, and her hands red, she spoke loudly and she washed the floors with big buckets of water. But sometimes, when her husband was at the office, she would sit down at the window and daydream about that long-ago ball, where she had been so beautiful and celebrated.
“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!”