The Duchess and the Jeweller

by Virginia Woolf

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What is the relation between the jeweller and the Duchess in "The Duchess and the Jeweller"?

The relationship between the jeweller and the Duchess in "The Duchess and the Jeweller" is one of mutual need. The jeweller needs an introduction to the upper echelons of society, and the Duchess needs money for her fake pearls.

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The relationship between the jeweller and the duchess is transactional. Each has something the other needs. The Duchess has a gambling addiction that leads her into debt: she needs money. The jeweller, who is from a humble background, is very rich but craves the prestige a Duchess and her set can bring.

The Duchess comes to the wealthy jeweller in search of 20,000 pounds. She has nothing left to sell in the way of valuable jewelry, so she brings ten worthless pearls. They are merely a proxy for what she really plans to sell—a weekend at her country estate, where the jeweller will be able to mix with the Duchess's daughters and the prime minister.

The story is told entirely from the point of view of the jeweller, so we are privy to his thoughts. We learn he has a gap or emptiness in his life stemming from his poor, obscure childhood that no amount of money can fill. He longs for acceptance from people like the Duchess, in the hopes it can wash away what he considers the stain of his humble beginning.

We know almost nothing about the Duchess, but clearly something is awry in her life if she has a gambling addiction and can't turn to her husband for help. Both characters are therefore alike in having a hole they try to fill with money. Just as the jeweller is like a hog or a camel that can never get enough, so is a gambling addict like the Duchess. They are drawn together on the basis of unhealthy desires that can never be entirely fulfilled.

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In a nutshell, the relationship between the Duchess and Oliver Bacon is based on the fact that they both need something from each other. The Duchess has prestige but needs money, while Oliver has money but needs the prestige that comes with the Duchess’s background. Having acquired his wealth by immoral means—selling stolen dogs and flogging cheap watches at exorbitant prices—Oliver needs an “in” with the elite. The duchess, on the other hand, has gambled away her money and meets Oliver when she arrives in his store to sell some pearls.

While Oliver’s sixth sense tells him that the pearls are not real, he is persuaded to hand over a check for twenty thousand pounds in exchange for an invitation from the Duchess to attend an exclusive party which will be attended by royalty and by the Duchess’s daughter, Diana. Our protagonist, Oliver, soon realizes that with his twenty thousand pounds, he purchased so much more than some fake pearls.

Had they been one person, Oliver and the Duchess would have had it fall: social standing and fortune. The reality, however, was that due to an unfortunate start to life and a gambling problem respectively, each only had one. They therefore needed each other's help in order to attain their respective goals.

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The relationship is fundamentally one of mutual need. The Duchess needs some ready cash to pay off the enormous gambling debts she's accrued. For his part, Oliver Bacon needs to gain an entree into the upper echelons of high society. Though fabulously wealthy, Bacon is still looked down on by the upper-classes as an upstart and a parvenu because of his humble origins. Each one has something the other so desperately lacks, money in one case, high social status in the other.

On the face of it, it would appear that the Duchess gets the better deal out of the relationship. She sells what she knows to be worthless gems to Bacon in return for a weekend invitation. Yet Bacon knows full well that the jewels are fake. He also knows that the Duchess's reckless gambling habits are likely to continue. This will make her even more in Bacon's debt, changing the whole nature of their relationship.  Bacon already has his eye on the Duchess's daughter, and who's to say he won't some day win her hand in marriage, with the reluctant blessing of her morally and financially compromised mother?

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The relationship between these two characters is somewhat complex.  Oliver Bacon is in awe of the Duchess.  So in that way, he is subordinate to her.  The Duchess looks down on Oliver and people like him yet, at the same time, she needs him badly.  So each is superior in a way to the other.

Oliver comes from a poor, lower-class background.  Because of this, he wants badly to be accepted by people of the Duchess's class and status.  This is why he allows himself to be fooled by the Duchess's pearls.  Even though he is materially much better off than the Duchess and even though she needs him, he still feels inferior to her.

The Duchess is an aristocrat and so she thinks she is better than everyone else.  But she has no money and so she needs Oliver.  She is trying to ingratiate herself with him, trying to buy him off by giving him access to her social class.  In this way, she is begging from him even though she looks down on him.

So there is something of a complicated relationship between the two with each being both superior to and subordinate to the other.

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