At the beginning of “The Necklace,” Guy de Maupassant writes that for women, “their beauty, their grace, and their charm serve them in lieu of birth and family background” and that “Their native finesse, their instinct for elegance, their versatile minds are their sole hierarchy, making shopgirls the equals of the grandest ladies.” His implication is that a woman’s beauty and poise can offer her upward social mobility. While Maupassant presents this as being the conventional wisdom—and an idea that Mathilde buys into—the remainder of his story demonstrates that beauty does not necessarily have the power to change a woman’s class. Furthermore, the story suggests that believing that beauty has more power than it does can corrupt women and leave them vulnerable once their beauty is gone.
Mathilde is an exceptionally beautiful woman from humble origins, but her beauty makes her feel that she “was meant for all delicacies and all luxuries.” Despite this belief, Maupassant suggests that any entrance into high society that her beauty affords her is temporary. After the party, for example, Mathilde’s husband covers her with “the modest garments of ordinary life, their poverty clashing with the elegance of the ball gown,” ruining her fashionable appearance and bringing the magical night to a sudden end. Although Mathilde’s beauty is the key to her success at the party, her beauty is not enough to make this brief interlude to become her permanent reality. Furthermore, her sense of entitlement to wealth, which is founded on her beauty, makes her greedy and leads her to poor decision making, such as borrowing the necklace from Mme. Forestier, ultimately leading to her ruin. Beauty, in this case, does not guarantee upward mobility, but rather leads the Loisels into poverty.
Not only does beauty lack the power to propel Mathilde into a higher class, but Maupassant shows that beauty also can destroy a person’s character. Mathilde’s behavior throughout the story is vain and selfish, since her beauty gives her such a high opinion of herself. Outer beauty, then, can conceal and even create an unattractive personality. Mathilde’s selfishness is clearest when she spends the money her husband has saved to buy a rife for himself in order to have an expensive dress for a single night of upper-class celebration. Her vanity is apparent throughout the story, but it is especially noticeable when she looks at herself in the mirror, before and after the party, to obsess over her own beauty.
In one sense, since Mathilde’s vanity and selfishness lead her to borrow the necklace that she ultimately loses, her ruin can in part be seen as a morality tale asserting the importance of inner rather than outer beauty. Fittingly, then, by the end of the story Mathilde’s outward appearance comes to match her inner ugliness. Maupassant writes: “Madame Loisel looked old now. She had become the strong, and hard, and crude woman of poor households.” Mathilde’s poverty is experienced as a loss of her physical beauty, suggesting that the advancement of beautiful women will always be short-lived. On the other hand, though, Maupassant points out that Mme. Forrestier (unlike Mathilde) still looks young and beautiful. By contrasting the different fates of these two women Maupassant suggests that beauty is bought by status and not the other way around, revealing the false promise of advancement created by Mathilde’s remarkable appearance.
Although Mathilde was once admired for her physical beauty, briefly giving her access to high society, by the end of the story her beauty is gone. Mathilde’s greatest mistake was to attach too much important to her physical appearance, and her ruin can be read as a correction to her vanity and selfishness, as well as a tragic end to the false sense of expectation that beauty can create.
Women and Beauty ThemeTracker
Women and Beauty 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.
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.
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.