What is the moral of "The Piece of String"?
The moral of this short story is exemplified with a quote from the author himself: "Everyone is perfidious, a liar, and a phony. Everyone wears a false face."
Certainly, Maître Hauchecorne is deceptive and a liar. When the excessively frugal Hauchecorne sees a piece of string on the ground, the thrifty Norman "thought it worthwhile to pick up anything that could be useful." When he bends down and picks up the string, he notices that his foe, Maître Malandin, observed his action. Feeling somewhat humiliated that his rival saw him bend down for a string, Maître Hauchecorne bends again and pretends to be searching for something he has lost.
It is this "phony" action that proves Hauchecorne's undoing, because soon afterwards there is a public announcement that a black leather pocketbook which contained five hundred francs and some business documents has been lost. Shortly after he has picked up the string, Hauchecorne is called in to the mayor's office, where he is told that he was seen picking up the pocketbook of Maître Houlbrèque of Mannville. The witness is the duplicitous Monsieur Malandin, who has retold the facts in a manner that incriminates Hauchecorne.
Maître Hauchecorne responds, "Hah! He saw me, that old good for nothing! He saw me pick up this bit of string."
Fumbling in his pocket, Hauchecorne finds the piece of string which he has taken. The mayor does not believe him, and says Maître Malandin also observed Hauchecorne continue to search for some coins that must have fallen out of the pocketbook. The mayor sends Hauchecorne away, saying that he will inform the public prosecutor and ask what should be done.
When the story of the lost pocketbook spreads, Maître Hauchecorne repeats his story over and over. People laugh. This causes Hauchecorne to become more annoyed that people do not believe him. He retells his story, but people do not believe him. Malandin laughs when he sees Hauchecorne. Others laugh and tease him. Hauchecorn becomes "heartsick over the injustice of being suspected."
No one believes Hauchecorne. When he is finally acquitted after the pocketbook is found, instead of letting the topic drop, he retells his story, "his whole mind occupied with the yarn." He receives derision, and his "mind begins to weaken." In his deathbed, Hauchecorn coughs out, "Just a bit of string... a little bit of string... see, Mr. Mayor, there it is."
One theme that emerges from this story that could be considered a moral lesson is not to be ashamed of who you are and what your values are. Hauchecome hides the fact that he picked up the piece of string because he is embarrassed to admit that he saves little things like this.
Another theme that emerges from the story that definitely teaches the reader a lesson is to not judge someone too harshly. Hauchecome is judged to be a thief, and a liar by the village because he is wrongly accused of stealing a purse containing 500 francs.
The fact that M. Hauchecome deliberately behaves in an overstated manner when he stops to pick up the piece of string does not help his case for innocence when accused. By behaving in this way, he draws suspicion from others, particularly, Malandain, his arch enemy.
Hauchecome, once accused, cannot shake the perception of the town that he is a thief, even in the face of proof. The purse is returned, people still believe that he was the culprit.
The author illustrates the inherent distrust that people have for each other in this story. The stereotyping of the lower classes as thieves and liars. Hauchecome is so stricken by the wrongful accusation that it makes him sick. He dies uttering "it was only a piece of string."