Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Mathilde Loisel is attractive and pretty, but unhappy, very unhappy. She believes that life has played her false. She feels relegated to a lower station than she deserves. She wanted to be appreciated and loved by some rich gentleman from a good family, but instead, having no dowry, she had to settle for a junior clerk in the Ministry of Public Instruction. Her existence is one of constant frustration. She hates her plain apartment, its absence of pictures on the walls, its shoddy furniture. Even the sight of her maid, doing housework, fills her with hopeless regrets and provokes flights of fancy about more opulent surroundings. Though other women of her class may come to terms with their station in life, Mathilde never can.
She is so humiliated by her lower-middle-class existence that she even refuses to see one of her old friends whom she has known from her days at the convent school. Madame Forestier is wealthy, and Mathilde finds visits to her too painful to bear; so, she spends her days hanging around her drab flat, sometimes crying the entire time, overcome with worry, regret, desperation, and distress.
Her husband, on the other hand, seems better adjusted. He does not notice that the tablecloth has been in use for three days. When he is served a simple casserole, he can exclaim with pleasure: “Well, a good hot-pot. I don’t know anything better than that.” One day, he comes home from his office with an invitation to a party that is being given by his superior, the minister of public instruction. Instead of greeting the news with delight, Mathilde throws the invitation down on the table, saying that it is no good to her, because she has nothing suitable to wear for such an occasion. Her husband tries to convince her that it was very difficult for a junior clerk to get asked to such an event. “You will see the whole world of officialdom there,” he says, suggesting that she wear that good-looking dress she once wore to the theater. She refuses and tells him to give the invitation to a colleague whose wife is better turned out than she.
Monsieur Loisel tries another tack. He asks her how much it would cost to get a proper dress. She thinks it over, trying to estimate what an old pinchpenny like him would be willing to spend. She decides on the sum of four hundred francs that, as it happens, is exactly the amount that he has put away to buy himself a gun so he could join some friends who go Sunday lark-shooting on the Nanterre flatlands. He is not happy to forgo his pleasure but agrees.
An appropriate dress is ordered and is ready before the date of the dance. Mathilde, however, is still depressed. Now she complains that she does not have any jewelry to wear with it. Her husband suggests flowers. She is unimpressed. He then suggests that she go to her rich friend Madame Forestier and borrow some jewelry. His wife thinks it a good idea and the next day goes and explains the situation to her. Madame Forestier is more than willing to comply and goes to a wardrobe to get a large jewelry casket. She tells Mathilde to take what she likes.
Such an embarrassment...
(The entire section is 1276 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Mathilde Loisel is miserable as the wife of a middle-class Parisian clerk. She suffers constantly from what she views as a life of poverty. Although her husband’s income from his position as a clerk at the Ministry of Public Instructions sufficiently meets the couple’s needs, Mathilde dreams of attending the local salons, which host intimate gatherings of the upper class. She assumes airs at the dinner table, fantasizing that she is eating a higher quality of food and imagining herself dining with the wealthy. Mathilde focuses on her lack of jewels and fine clothing rather than on enjoying her life. She is jealous of one acquaintance in particular with whom she attended convent school, Madame Forestier, who has made a good marriage to a wealthy man.
Thinking Mathilde will be pleased, Monsieur Loisel brings her an invitation to a ball at the Palace of the Ministry. Mathilde surprises him by throwing down the invitation. Because Mathilde lacks a beautiful gown and jewels, she does not feel she can attend the ball. Monsieur Loisel reluctantly agrees to finance the purchase of a four-hundred-franc gown, understanding that he must sacrifice a planned hunting vacation with friends to do so. Mathilde buys the dress but complains that she has no jewels. Monsieur Loisel suggests that she visit her friend Madame Forestier and ask to borrow some jewelry. For once, Mathilde is pleased by a suggestion made by her husband.
Madame Forestier offers Mathilde the choice of her jewels. Mathilde selects a superb diamond necklace from a black satin box. She feels euphoric when she tries it on. When Madame Forestier immediately agrees to let her borrow the necklace, Mathilde kisses her in gratitude.
At the ball, Mathilde’s beauty attracts much attention. She is ecstatic when many men ask her name. She dances with all of the attachés from the cabinet and is even noticed by the minister. Intoxicated with pleasure and passion, Mathilde exists for a time in a fantasy haze. She believes she has at last succeeded in her quest to excel in high society.
Monsieur Loisel finds a room in which to sleep while Mathilde enjoys dancing and socializing. At 4:00 a.m., she is ready to leave. As Monsieur Loisel places her everyday wrap over his wife’s shoulders, it contrasts so much with her...
(The entire section is 955 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
What makes Maupassant’s famous story “The Necklace” so popular is not merely the ironic shock that the reader feels at the end when Madame Loisel discovers that she has worked long and hard to pay for a worthless bit of paste, but rather the more pervasive irony that underlies the entire story and makes it a classic exploration on the difference between surface flash and hidden value.
The story begins with a pretty young girl who thinks she is really a lady and feels that she needs only the external trappings of her true status. Although she is married to a simple clerk, she acts as though she has fallen from her proper station; she feels that she was born for luxuries but must endure poverty. Determined to make the best of an opportunity when she and her husband are invited to an elegant party, she borrows a necklace from an acquaintance to impress those not easily impressed and, like Cinderella at the ball, has all of her desires fulfilled as she is transported into the fairy-tale world about which she has dreamed. All of this comes crashing down to reality, however, when she reaches home and discovers that the necklace is missing. Her husband exhausts his meager inheritance and then borrows the rest, mortgaging their life away to buy a replacement for the necklace.
Now that Madame Loisel knows true poverty, she shows herself to be made of something more valuable than her petty desires for surface flash have suggested. With heroism and pride, she shoulders her responsibility with her husband and for ten years does brutal manual labor until she has paid for the necklace. When the reader discovers that the necklace was made of paste, it is a momentary shock; on closer reflection, this final knowledge proves to be anticlimactic, for one realizes that the story is about deeper ironies. What was taken to be real is found to be false. What looked rich on the outside is actually very poor. Yet Madame Loisel, who has looked poor on the outside, turns out to be genuine inside. “The Necklace” is a classic example of the tight ironic structure of the short story in which the unified tone dominates every single word.