In the final section of “The Necklace,” Mathilde and her husband suffer for a decade as they struggle to pay back their enormous debt from the loss of the necklace. This suffering, combined with the fact that the Loisels live on “rue des Martyrs,” suggests that Maupassant wants readers to see Mathilde and her husband both as martyrs, albeit martyrs of different sorts.
Mathilde is a martyr for a cause: her desire for symbols of wealth stems from her belief that anything that appears expensive must be truly worthwhile. Therefore, Mathilde thinks of her suffering less as penance (or as a moral punishment for her greed) than as a transaction, in which she was wealthy for a night and now must pay the price. In other words, Mathilde justifies her suffering and bears it remarkably well through her unwavering belief that the necklace was worth ten years of poverty.
Although Mathilde seems to view her suffering as transactional rather than moral, readers can see that the ways in which she suffers seem to be in direct response to her prior vanities and greed. Mathilde felt poor and found her clothes, her apartment, and her life inadequate. Now she is forced to experience “the horrible life of necessity,” showing her what true poverty is like. In the first part of the story, Mathilde is embarrassed by the Breton servant who does her housework. Now she is forced to do the housework herself and live the life of working people. The first part of the story is driven by Mathilde’s ambition to be accepted into high society. She goes to the party dressed in fashionable clothes and is admired by cabinet officials and ministers. Now, however, she is “dressed like a pauper” and goes to the market to bargain with fruit dealers, grocers, and butchers who insult her. In other words, the life she experiences for ten years is the exact opposite of the life she desired at the beginning of the story, suggesting that her suffering is a penance for her earlier ambitions.
However, it does not seem that Mathilde has learned the lesson from her reversal of fortune, undermining the idea that suffering can serve as a meaningful punishment for Mathilde’s moral failings. Mathilde’s exchange with Mme. Forestier shows that she does not accept responsibility for either borrowing or losing the necklace: “I’ve had a hard life since I last saw you. And lots of misery…. And all because of you!” At best, Mathilde views losing the necklace and her ensuing misfortune as a moment of bad luck. At worst, she blames it on the woman who was generous enough to lend her the necklace rather than herself, the one who lost it. In addition, Mathilde’s belief that the value of the necklace justifies her suffering proves hollow when Mme. Forestier reveals that the necklace is a fake. Since Mathilde finds transactional, rather than moral, value in her suffering, the fact that the necklace is cheap makes that suffering meaningless, which is perhaps her true punishment.
By contrast, Mathilde’s husband experiences a different kind of suffering, and his martyrdom revolves arounds the questions of honor, generosity, and self-sacrifice. Mathilde’s husband is characterized by his generosity throughout the story, and at times it seems as if he is being taken advantage of by his more selfish wife. For example, Mathilde knows to ask him for just the right amount of money, enough to afford an expensive dress but not so much as to elicit “immediate refusal and terrified exclamation from the frugal clerk.” The fact that M. Loisel prioritizes his wife’s frivolous desires over his own happiness leads to greater and greater sacrifices, until he must risk everything to borrow the money they need to replace the necklace. For M. Loisel, replacing the necklace is a question of honor and he is terrified by the thought of risking his signature without knowing if he can fulfill his obligations. Mathilde’s husband is a martyr because it is his positive qualities—especially his kindness and his generosity—that lead to his downfall. Maupassant suggests that generosity can be catastrophic if dispensed indiscriminately.
Despite their suffering, Mathilde and her husband accept their fate and heroically live a life of privation to pay back their debt. Both become martyrs, although Mathilde’s martyrdom is undermined because she views her suffering as a worthwhile price to pay for the necklace, when in fact it was all for nothing. Her husband emerges as the true martyr, for his commitments to love and honor have led him to sacrifice his life to pay for a mistake that was not even his own.
Sacrifice, Suffering, and Martyrdom ThemeTracker
Sacrifice, Suffering, and Martyrdom Quotes in The Necklace
[The carriage] brought them to their front door on Rue des Martyrs, and they sadly trudged up to their apartment. It was all over for her. And as for him, he knew he had to be at the Ministry by ten a.m.
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.
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.