Do you see brand-name clothing, jewelry, and expensive cars as status symbols? Does something name-brand mean that it is better quality? In “The Necklace” (1884) by Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), the protagonist strives for finer material goods and ends up learning a valuable lesson through an unfortunate accident. As a French naturalist writer, Guy de Maupassant's writing typically captures the life of the lower- to middle-class society in a realistic light. His short story "The Necklace" presents the harsher truths of a struggling lower class in Mathilde who dreams of, but never achieves, a better life despite hard work and determination. She is a product of her social status and environment. “The Necklace,” one of his best-known and most anthologized pieces, is a prime example of his style and mastery of the short story form.
Naturalism, a literary movement from 1865 to 1900, is characterized by its use of realistic details to reveal social conditions, heredity, and an individual's environment are strong and inescapable forces in shaping a person's character and life path. Many naturalist writers were influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Naturalism presents a more pessimistic and harsher perspective of life than realism and is grounded in determinism. Determinism is essentially the opposite of free will, It presents the idea that although humans can react to their environment, but are helpless against outward factors like fate and destiny.
The Necklace Setting
“The Necklace” takes place in Paris, France, at the end of the 19th century. During the late 19th century, about the time Guy de Maupassant wrote “The Necklace,” Paris experienced a period of social, economic, and technological change. Paris morphed from a medieval city into a modern one with the improvement of France's transportation infrastructure, the rise of new industries, a boom in population, and an increase in tourism. Sometimes referred to as the “Belle Époque,” meaning the “Lovely Age.” This peaceful time of technological innovation birthed a period of immense wealth, posh fashion, and a focus on material goods and consumerism.
This culture framed the setting of “The Necklace”, in which Mathilde feels immense jealousy of the wealthy and yearns for a life filled with extravagance, jewels, dresses, and material and financial excess. She is a young and beautiful woman at the onset of the story, but her youth and charm quickly escape her as she focuses on material possessions.
Fashion in 19th century Paris, France, was very ornate and over-the-top. Wikimedia Commons.
To what extent do you think a person's environment affects their behavior?
The Necklace Summary
A young and beautiful girl, Mathilde Loisel, is the wife of a clerical worker. She is charming but feels as though she “married beneath her.” She is poor and dreams of luxury. Her husband, Monsieur Loisel, does all he can to please her, even giving up his desire for a rifle to make her happy. Mathilde is envious of the wealthy and feels “there is nothing more humiliating than looking poor in the middle of a lot of rich women.” She feels “tormented and insulted” by the “poorness of her house” and the worn-out, simple appearance of the items within it. Mathilde is extremely jealous of Madame Forestier, her wealthy friend from school, and even avoids visiting her because she feels overcome with sadness and misery after a visit.
Did you know? In France during the late 1800s, marriage etiquette involved many rules. However, there were no special wedding outfits required. The bride could wear ordinary walking clothes, as the traditional wedding dress of today was not yet established. Moreover, although the lower class could not afford jewelry, women of the middle and upper classes usually chose not to wear a wedding ring.1
Mathilde and her husband, a clerk in the Ministry of Education, receive an invitation to the Ministry ball, hosted by George Rampanneau, the Minister of Education, and his wife. The event is reserved for a select few, and Mathilde's husband worked hard to secure an invitation, hoping to make his wife happy. However, she is upset, worrying about not having anything to wear to a formal event. Although her husband reassures her that a dress she already owns is suitable, she convinces him to give her the money he has been saving to purchase a rifle so she can buy a new dress.
In an effort to feel as though she is as well-off as she dreams, Mathilde borrows a necklace from one of her wealthy friends from school to accent her outfit for the ball. The kind and generous woman, Madame Forestier, happily obliges and lets Mathilde pick the jewelry of her liking. Mathilde selects a diamond necklace.
Mathilde and her husband attend the Ministry ball. At the affair, she is the most attractive woman present. Other women stare at her with envy, and the men in attendance are eager to dance with her as she waltzes the night away while her husband dozes off in a small, deserted room with a few other husbands.
Mathilde considers the night a success, having garnered the attention and admiration “so dear to her feminine heart.” As her husband fetches a warm and humble coat for her to leave the ball in, she flees in shame, hoping others don't recognize her as they don their costly furs.
Clothing and fancy jewels were a symbol of status and wealth in 19th century Paris, France. Wikimedia Commons
In her rush, she hurries down a staircase and frantically looks for a carriage to ride home in. Back at their door in the Rue des Martyrs, Mathilde feels hopeless as her night ends and as her husband turns his attention to the day and his work. As Mathilde undresses, she notices the necklace is no longer around her neck. Her husband searches the folds of her dress, the streets, the police station, and the cab companies while she sits in shock, huddled and worried. Returning without finding the necklace, her husband suggestions she writes to her friend, Madame Forestier, and tell her they are fixing the clasp on the necklace.
A week passes. The couple loses hope, while the signs of worry and stress visually age Mathilde. After visiting several jewelers, they find a string of diamonds that resemble the lost necklace. Negotiating for thirty-six thousand francs, they spend her husband's inheritance and borrow the rest of the money to replace the necklace. Mathilde's husband “mortgaged the whole remaining years of his existence” to replace the necklace.
As Mathilde returns the necklace, Madame Forestier doesn't even open the box to see its contents. Madame Loisel, along with her husband, spends the rest of her days working, experiencing the harsh reality of poverty. Both she and her husband work every day to pay off everything, including interest. After ten years and a hard life, they are successful. But during this time, Mathilde ages. Her youth and femininity gone, she looks strong, hard, and weathered by poverty and labor.
While wondering what her life would have been had she not lost that necklace, Mathilde runs into her old friend, Madame Forestier, who is still young, beautiful, and fresh. Hardly recognizing her, Madame Forestier is shocked to see how Mathilde aged. Mathilde explains how she lost the borrowed necklace and has spent the past years paying off the replacement. Her friend clasps Mathilde's hands and tells Mathilde the borrowed necklace was an imitation, a fake, worth only a few hundred francs.
The Necklace Characters
Here are the key characters in “The Necklace” along with a brief description of each.
|Mathilde Loisel||Mathilde is the protagonist of the short story. She is a beautiful young woman when the story begins but yearns for wealth. She is envious of the financially affluent and places a lot of emphasis on material belongings.|
|Monsieur Loisel||Monsieur Loisel is Mathilde's husband and is happy with his station in life. He is madly in love with her and does his best to please her, despite being unable to understand her. He gives her what he can and sacrifices his wants for her happiness.|
|Madame Forestier||Madame Forestier is Mathilde's kind and wealthy friend. She lends Mathilde a necklace to wear to a party and accent her new dress.|
|George Ramponneau and Madame George Ramponneau||A married couple and hosts of the party, Mathilde attends. They are examples of the wealthy class.|
The Necklace Symbolism
The primary symbol in “The Necklace” is the piece of jewelry itself. For Mathilde, the necklace she borrows from her school friend, Madame Forestier, is significant because it represents a promise of a better life, a life she feels she deserves. But like many modern and material goods, the necklace is merely an imitation of something else.
Had Mathilde been able to overcome her pride and jealousy, she could have avoided a life of hard labor for herself and her husband. The necklace ironically becomes the catalyst to a life of labor that she actually deserves and becomes emblematic of her greed and selfishness. While making her husband abandon his wants and desire for a rifle to go hunting, she shows a selfish character. The main message, then, is how selfish acts are destructive and can lead to a hard, dissatisfying life.
A symbol in literature is often an object, person, or situation that represents or suggests other more abstract meanings.
The Necklace Themes
Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace" surfaces many important themes people during his time would have related to. As the public became more and more literate, fiction was geared more toward the middle class. The stories featured issues of social status and struggle the lower and middle classes could connect with.
Greed and Vanity
The primary theme in “The Necklace” is how greed and vanity are corrosive. Mathilde and her husband live a comfortable life. They have a modest home, but she “felt herself born for every delicacy and luxury.” Mathilde is beautiful but detests her social status and wants more than her station can provide. She is overly concerned with her outward appearance, fearful of what others will think of her simple clothing. Although she has youth, beauty, and a loving husband, Mathilde's obsession with material things robs her of a life she could have had.
Guy de Maupassant saw these as fundamental issues within French society and used his short story as a means to criticize these social constructs.
Appearance vs. Reality
Guy de Maupassant uses “The Necklace” to explore the theme of appearance versus reality. At the beginning of the story, we are introduced to Mathilde. She appears beautiful, youthful, and charming. But, being from a family of “artisans,” she has limited marriage prospects and is married to a clerk who is devoted to her. Under the beauty, Mathilde is unhappy, critical of her own social and financial status, and always yearns for more. She is blind to the wealth of love, youth, and beauty she has, constantly searching for material wealth. Mathilde is jealous of her school friend, not realizing what others have may be simple imitations. The borrowed necklace itself is a fake, although it appears real. As Mathilde dons her fancy clothing and borrowed necklace for a night, she too becomes fake, an imitation of what she thinks others want and admire.
Madame and Monsieur Loisel exemplify how pride can be destructive to the individual and society. Not satisfied with living within her means, Mathilde strove to appear wealthier than her social and economic status allowed. Despite deep suffering, the two characters accept their fate and the responsibility to replace the necklace. The sacrifice Monsieur Loisel makes in the name of love and to stand by his wife, whether it be depriving himself of a rifle or his own inheritance, is heroic. Mathilde accepts her fate as a worthwhile price to pay for a valuable piece of jewelry.
However, their life of rationing and privation is all for naught. Had Madame Loisel simply admitted her mistake and spoken with her friend, their quality of life could have been different. This inability to communicate, even amongst friends, reveals the disconnect between the social classes in 19th century France.
Diamond necklaces and other jewelry and accessories accent an outfit but can also be a sign of wealth. Wikimedia commons.
The Necklace - Key takeaways
- “The Necklace” is an example of French naturalism, published in 1884.
- The short story “The Necklace” is written by Guy de Maupassant.
- The necklace in the short story represents a better life for Mathilde and is a symbol of greed and false status.
- The main message of “The Necklace” is how selfish acts and materialism are destructive and can lead to a hard and dissatisfying life.
- Two central themes in “The Necklace” are greed and vanity and appearance versus reality.
1. Phillips, Roderick. "Women and family breakdown in 18th century Paris." Social History. Vol. 1. May 1976.