Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In this cruel tale about ridiculous social pretensions, the main characters obviously get the fate they deserve. This is the world of the Parisian lower middle class, but it could well serve as an allegory for French society as a whole, or at least those elements of French society where ambition, materialism, greed, and petty meanness are the main dynamic. Mathilde bears a striking resemblance to Madame Bovary. Both feel trapped in a provincially dull existence, made worse by the solid mediocrity of their husbands. Both long for deliverance, but the deliverance that only money can buy. The party attended by the Loisels at the town house of the minister is not unlike the soiree that the Bovarys attend at the chateau of the count. Even the descriptions of the opulence of both settings seems interchangeable.
Both heroines pay a terrible price for their inability to come to terms with their situation in life. In the case of Emma Bovary, the cost is her own life, ended by suicide; with Mathilde Loisel, the torture is more prolonged. She has thrown away her youth and will have to live with her misery for the rest of her life. The grand party whose pleasant memory has sustained her even while she has been drudging to pay off her enormous debt now becomes a hideous nightmare.
This, in one way or another, is the price to be paid for crass materialism and false pride. Had the characters been less superficial and been willing to admit the loss of the necklace, all of their misery would have been avoided. In accepting a code of conduct that befits their ambitions, not their real situation, they courted disaster. In this the husband is as much to blame as his wife. Although Guy de Maupassant seems to be saying that such people are the victims of the society in which they live, dominated by the status-conscious in the early days of the Third Republic, he never prevents his characters from exercising their free will. It is precisely their ability to make such choices that leads to their own damnation. Maupassant shows how the Loisels are imprisoned in their loneliness and their lack of self-worth. Their pathos is their inability to speak to avoid a whole lifetime of misery.