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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
Revised in 2010.©
Type of Work
.......“The Necklace,” published in 1881, is a short story—among the finest surprise-ending stories in any language. It is a compact, neat little package with just the right amount of character and plot development and nary a wasted word. It is one of many of Maupassant’s short stories that
earned him recognition as a master of the genre.
.......The action takes place in Paris, France, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Specific locales include the residence of the Loisels, the home of Madame Jeanne Forestier, the palace of the Ministry of Education, Paris shops, and the streets of Paris, including the Rue des Martyrs and the Champs
Mathilde: Pretty young woman born into a common, middle-class family. She yearns for the wealth, privileges, and fashions of highborn young ladies.
Monsieur Loisel: Government clerk whom Mathilde marries.
Madame Jeanne Forestier: Friend of Mathilde. She allows Mathilde to borrow a necklace to wear to a gala social event.
Housemaid: Girl from Brittany who does the Loisels' housework.
Her presence reminds Mathilde of her own status as a commoner.
Jeweler: Dealer who provides a replacement necklace.
Monsieur and Madame Georges Rampouneau: Minister of
Education and his wife, who invite the Loisels to a party.
Child With Madame Forestier: See number 5 under "Unanswered Questions" for information about this character.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
.......Even though Mathilde is pretty and quite charming, she has none of the advantages of upper-class girls: a dowry, a distinguished family name, an entree into society, and all the little fineries that women covet. Consequently, she accepts a match made for her with a clerk, Monsieur Loisel, in the Department of
.......Her home is common and plain, with well-worn furniture. The young girl from Brittany who does the housework is a constant reminder to Mathilde of her own status as a commoner. But she dreams of having more: tapestries, bronze lamps, footmen
to serve her, parlors with silk fabrics, perfumed rooms, silver dinnerware, exotic food, jewelry, the latest fashions.
.......One evening, her husband presents her an envelope containing a special surprise. He is sure it will please her. Inside the envelope she
finds a card inviting her and her husband to a social affair as guests of the Minister of Education, Georges Rampouneau, and his wife at the palace of the Ministry of Education.
.......But Mathilde is not at all pleased, for she has nothing to
wear. When her husband asks her what it would cost to buy her suitable attire, she says four hundred francs—the exact amount he has set aside to buy a gun to shoot larks at Nanterre with friends. However, he agrees to provide the money, and she buys a gown. When the day of the fête draws near, Loisel notices that Mathilde is downcast and inquires into the cause of her
low spirits. She tells him she has no jewels to wear. As a result, others at the party will look down on her. But her spirits brighten when Monsieur Loisel suggests that she borrow jewels from her friend, Madame Jeanne Forestier.
.......Wasting no time, Mathilde
visits her friend the following day. Madame Forestier, only too willing to cooperate, opens a box and tells Mathilde to choose. Inside are glittering jewels. Mathilde selects a diamond necklace so beautiful that it quickens her heartbeat.
.......At the party,
Mathilde is the center of attention. Handsome men of high station ask who she is and line up to dance with her. Not until 4 a.m. do the Loisels leave the palace. On their way out, Mathilde’s husband puts a wrap on her shoulders—an article of clothing from her everyday wardrobe. To avoid being seen in it, she hurries out against her husband’s wishes. He wants to wait
for a cab to arrive. Out in the cold, they search for transportation, wandering toward the Seine. In time, they find a cab, and it takes them to their home on Rue des Martyrs. In her bedroom, Mathilde stands before a mirror and removes her wrap to gaze upon the woman who has enchanted so many men. Then she notices to her horror that the necklace is missing. She and her husband search through
their belongings but cannot find it. After they conclude that the necklace must have come off on their way home, Monsieur Loisel goes out to search for the cab they rode in. He returns at 7 a.m. after failing to find it. Visits to the police and the cab company, as well as other measures, also leave them empty-handed.
.......At her husband’s suggestion, Mathilde writes to Madame Forestier, telling her that the necklace clasp has broken and that it is being repaired. This ploy will buy time. Next, they decide that their only recourse is to replace the necklace. Going from jeweler to jeweler, they search for a facsimile. They find one in a shop in
the Palais Royal. The price: 36,000 francs. To raise the money, Loisel uses all of his savings and borrows the rest, writing promissory notes and signing his name on numerous documents. Then the Loisels buy the replacement, and Mathilde takes it in a case to Madame Forestier. The latter expresses annoyance that it was returned late, then takes the case without opening it to check its
.......Thereafter, the Loisels scrimp and save to pay their debt. After they dismiss their housemaid, Mathilde does the work herself, washing dishes and linen, taking out the garbage, and performing other menial labors. She also wears common clothes and
haggles at the market. Monsieur Loisel moonlights as a bookkeeper and copyist.
.......Ten years later, they are out of debt. They have paid back every borrowed franc and sou. By this time, Mathilde is fully a commoner, with rough hands, plain clothes, and
disheveled hair. And she looks older than her years. Occasionally, she thinks back to the day when she wore the necklace and when so many men admired her. What would have happened if she had never lost the necklace?
.......One Sunday on the Champs Elysées,
she encounters Madame Forestier walking with a child. When Mathilde addresses her, her friend does not recognize her—so haggard does Mathilde look. After Mathilde identifies herself, she decides to tell Madame Forestier everything. What could be the harm? After all, she has paid for the necklace, working ten long years at honest, humble labor to fulfill her
obligation. Madame Forestier then holds Mathilde’s hands and says, “Oh, my poor Mathilde. But mine was false. At most, it was worth five hundred francs!”
.......In "The Necklace," Maupassant makes every word count, each one contributing to the overall effectiveness of the story. He provides only minimal details to further the plot and describe the important characters. The result is a simple, easy-to-understand story that moves smoothly and swiftly from beginning to end.
Details that he leaves out allow the reader to interpret the events and the characters in his or her own way. One may compare "The Necklace" to a painting with subtle shades of meaning. Maupassant himself remains aloof from his characters, passing no judgments on them, neither praising nor condemning them. For example, it is up to the reader to decide whether Mathilde is a victim of bad luck (or
fate) or of her own warped perception of the world as a place where success and recognition result from wealth and status.
Fate vs Free Will
.......Is Mathilde a hapless victim of fate or a victim of her own desires and the choices she makes to fulfill them? In the opening sentence of the story, Maupassant introduces the notion of fate as a controlling force:
Original French: C'était une de ces jolies et charmantes filles, nées, comme par une erreur du destin, dans une famille d'employés. He expands on this idea when Mathilde borrows a necklace of imitation diamonds in the mistaken belief that they are real. Finally, comes the coup de grâce: She loses the necklace and replaces it with a lookalike necklace made of genuine diamonds. She and her husband work ten years to pay for it only to discover that the original necklace was fake
in the first place. All of these developments suggest that Mathilde is the plaything of fate. However, Maupassant also points out early on that Mathilde longed to live like the highborn. Fashionable clothes, jewels, a home with spacious rooms and tapestries—all were badges of success, according to Mathilde's distorted view of the world. In further developing this
idea—that it was perhaps Mathilde's own yearnings, not fate, that got her into trouble, the narrator says,
Literal Translation: She was one of those pretty and charming girls,
born, by a mistake of destiny, into a family of employees (common middle-class workers).
Original French: Elle eût tant désiré plaire, être enviée, être séduisante et recherchée. In the end, the reader is left to decide for himself whether Mathilde's downfall was of her own making or fate's—or a combination of both.
Literal Translation: She had so much desire to please, to be envied, to be enticing, to be sought
Translations by M.J. Cummings
.......The climax of a literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of "The Necklace" occurs, according to the
first definition, when Mathilde discovers that she has lost the necklace. According to the second definition, the climax occurs at the end of the story, when Madame Forestier informs Mathilde that the lost necklace was a fake. .
.......People should evaluate themselves and others on who they are intrinsically (that is, on their character and moral fiber), not on what they possess or where they stand in society. Mathilde Loisel learns this lesson the hard way.
.......Honesty, humility, and hard work are what shape character, not the clothes or jewels that a person wears or the high station into which he or she is born.
Appearances Are Deceiving
.......Mathilde Loisel believed the necklace genuine the moment she saw it. Likewise, she believed that all the people at the party were real, genuine human beings because of their social standing and their possessions. The necklace, of course, was a fake. And, Maupassant implies, so were the people at the party who
judge Mathilde on her outward appearance.
- After paying off her debt, Mathilde wonders what her life would have been like if she had not lost the necklace. The narrator does not suggest an answer to this question. What do you think would have happened to her?
- Do you think Madame Forestier will sell the diamond necklace and return the Loisels' money?
- If Madame Forestier does return the money, will Mathilde save her share of it? Or will she spend it to fulfill her old longings?
- What will her husband do with his portion of the money?
- At the end of the story, the narrator tells us that Madame Forestier is walking with a small child? Why does Maupassant introduce a new character, about whom he tells the reader nothing, at this point in the story? Is it possible that the child is supposed is to represent a new generation of Parisians who will go on pursuing
false values? Or does the child's presence at the end suggest something else?
- Write an essay that attempts to answer the first or fourth question under "Unanswered Questions." Support your position with logical reasoning and opinions gleaned from research.
- Write an essay arguing for or against the view that Mathilde's yearning for wealth and social status, not fate, brought about her downfall.
- In an informative essay, discuss to what extent French society in the nineteenth century imposed limitations on Mathilde's opportunities to earn money and attain social standing.
- Explain why "The Necklace" continues to enjoy widespread popularity with modern readers.
- Assume the role of a psychologist. Then write a psychological profile of Mathilde.
- Would the men at the party admire Mathilde if they were aware that the necklace was fake and that she had few material possessions? Provide your answer in an essay supported by relevant passages from the story, as well as other evidence.