Commentary by Karen Bernardo
During the course of Guy de Maupassant’s short story “The Necklace,” the main character, Matilda Loisel, makes a number of ironic discoveries. In addition, there are other discoveries that the reader makes but Matilda does not. The discovery that forms the story’s climax concerns the true nature of the necklace she has borrowed from her friend Mrs. Forestier. But this is perhaps not the most important lesson of this story.
As the story opens, Matilda, a young middle-class wife who aspires to join the upper ranks of society, is finally invited to a high-society affair given by her husband’s employer. Hoping to impress her guests and thus “fit in”, she borrows a beautiful diamond necklace from her friend Madame Forestier. Unfortunately, during the course of the evening, the necklace is lost. Rather than confront her friend directly with the story of her carelessness, she and her husband scrape together every bit of money they can.
As de Maupassant explains, “[Mr.] Loisel possessed eighteen thousand franks which his father had left him. He borrowed the rest. He borrowed it, asking for a thousand francs of one, five hundred of another, five louis of this one, and three louis of that one. He gave notes, made ruinous promises, took money of usurers and the whole race of lenders. He compromised his whole existence, in fact, risked his signature without even knowing whether he could make it good or not, and, harassed by anxiety for the future, by the black misery which surrounded him, and by the prospect of all physical privations and moral torture, he went to get the new necklace, depositing on the merchant’s counter thirty-six thousand francs.” Matilda then places the new necklace in the same case in which she had borrowed the old one, and returns it to her friend without explanation, hoping that the deception will not be discovered—which it is not.
Now comes the task of paying back all the money that the Loisels have borrowed. In order to do so, “they sent away the maid; they changed their lodgings; they rented some rooms under a mansard roof.” A mansard roof is very steeply pitched, so that it is possible to have living quarters beneath it; by implication, living “under a mansard roof” means they live in the attic. No longer is Matilda able to send her laundry out to be cleaned, or employ someone to wash the dishes and care for the house. Because houses in those days had no running water, she has to haul the water up the stairs to the attic herself. Her husband is forced to take on a second and even a third job. They are conscientious and hard-working, however, and by the end of ten years they have repaid every creditor.
But at what a cost! Matilda is no longer lovely and refined; she now looks old, haggard, and common. When she meets Mrs. Forestier in the street, her friend does not even recognize her. The story ends with Mrs. Forestier’s revelation that the stones in the original necklace weren’t even really diamonds—they were “paste,” or rhinestones. We have no way of knowing if Mrs. Forestier was able to refund Matilda’s money. But would it matter? Ten years of Matilda’s life have been robbed—and for what? For an evening of vanity and pride.
The central discovery of the story—that the jewels were fake—is, therefore, not really the point of the story at all. The point of the story is that pride goeth before a fall—and in fact, that a fall is precisely what pride will bring about. Matilda felt dissatisfied with her husband and his lifestyle because she was vain; she felt she was entitled to something better than the petty, bourgeois existence his income offered her. She felt she could not attend the Minister’s party without a stylish dress and jewels because she was vain; she should never have sought to borrow a necklace so opulent she could not afford to replace it. She felt she could not tell Mrs. Forestier about the loss of the necklace—even after it had been replaced—because she was too proud, and also, by that time, too frightened. Over the ten years that it took Matilda to earn thirty-six thousand francs, she undoubtedly learns much about the hardships of life, but does she learn what has caused these hardships?
There is no real evidence that she does. As she sits, prematurely aged, before her window, she is not thinking of how vain and silly she had been as a young woman; she is daydreaming about how lovely and glamorous the Minister’s party had been—“of that ball where she was so beautiful and so flattered.” She is not angry with herself for having been so stupid; she is simply puzzled at the way life works itself out: “How would it have been if she had not lost that necklace? Who knows? Who knows? How singular is life, and how full of changes! How small a thing will ruin one!” Matilda does not see her ruination as in any way being her own fault, but considers it a particularly cruel trick of fate.
Here is the point that what the reader’s understanding of the story departs from Matilda’s. We see only too clearly the reason for Matilda’s downfall; she does not. We see that her vanity led her to seek to borrow the necklace to begin with; we see that her pride led her to try to conceal the fact from her friend. We see that the loss of Matilda’s comfortable existence is due entirely to factors that could have been easily avoided. She does not. All Matilda understands at the end of this story was that life has played a cruel trick on her, and she has suffered ten long years for nothing. We, on the contrary, come to know the depths to which vanity and pride can drive one, and the terrible price one can pay.
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