Guy de Maupassant's short story The Necklace relates Mathilde Loisel’s dissatisfaction with her economic status in life. The story is set in Paris, France toward the end of the nineteenth century. Paris is a tourist destination where the residents range from poor to wealthy. Protagonist Mathilde and her husband Monsieur Loisel, “a minor official at the Ministry of Education,” live a modest life with “no expectations.” The setting of the story influences its plot, the life of the Loisel family, and the actions of the characters.
Mathilde was not born into the Parisian upper social class, but she is miserable because she believes she is entitled to the status and wealth of a rich member of her society:
She dressed plainly because she had never been able to afford anything better, but she was as unhappy as if she had once been wealthy. Women don't belong to a caste or class; their beauty, grace, and natural charm take the place of birth and family ...
She suffered endlessly, feeling she was entitled to all the delicacies and luxuries of life.
The setting of the story is extremely significant because she deludes herself into believing she is part of the social class of those wealthy people around her:
She was one of those pretty and charming girls born, as if by an error of fate, into a family of clerks.
However, author de Maupassant skillfully shows his readers that the world the protagonist creates in her mind is nothing but an illusion. Torn between her feelings of entitlement and the reality of her circumstances in life, Mathilde is miserable and envious:
She had a rich friend, a former schoolmate at the convent, whom she no longer wanted to visit because she suffered so much when she came home. For whole days afterwards she would weep with sorrow, regret, despair and misery.
When Mathilde receives an unexpected invitation to a fancy ball, she recognizes her chance to jump into her world of fantasy for one night. Yet, she remains upset and unhappy, saying,
I'm upset that I have no jewels, not a single stone to wear. I will look cheap. I would almost rather not go to the party.
Monsieur Loisel suggests that she visit her wealthy friend Madame Forestier. She borrows “a superb diamond necklace” and in her mind, her life has now changed. Unfortunately, at the festivity, she loses the necklace and searches hysterically for it. After one week, she “lost all hope.” The Loisels are thrust into reality. The author uses the unreal setting Mathilde creates to demonstrate the falsity of her visions of wealth and prestige. The Loisels gather all their life savings and borrow sufficiently to purchase a substitute diamond necklace and return it to Madame Forestier, hoping she will not notice the switch.
Mathilde and her husband are now truly poor and spend the next ten years working hard to pay for the replacement necklace:
She came to know the drudgery of housework, the odious labors of the kitchen. She washed the dishes, staining her rosy nails on greasy pots and the bottoms of pans. She washed the dirty linen, the shirts and the dishcloths, which she hung to dry on a line; she carried the garbage down to the street every morning, and carried up the water, stopping at each landing to catch her breath. And, dressed like a commoner, she went to the fruiterer's, the grocer's, the butcher's, her basket on her arm, bargaining, insulted, fighting over every miserable sou.
During the ten-year struggle, the protagonist loses her beauty and pride. Because of the setting into which she was born, covetousness became the essential focus of her life. Now, she lives in true poverty. She never realized how deceptive appearances can be while living a life of ungratefulness. The false illusion she created in her mind had been fed by the setting around her. Like her life, Mathilde has also changed. One day, by chance, she meets Madame Forestier on the streets of Paris. Madame Forestier does not recognize her. The protagonist relates the true story of the events caused by her delusion and covetousness, only to learn that the necklace she had borrowed was as fake as her illusory life.