One of the themes best expressed by Mathilde’s story is that we should enjoy what we have, rather than long for what we don’t, because we could lose it at any time.
Madame Loisel lives a comfortable life, and she has what many wealthy people cannot ever have—great beauty. However, she wants more. She wants wealth.
She dressed plainly because she could not dress well, but she was unhappy as if she had really fallen from a higher station; since with women there is neither caste nor rank, for beauty, grace and charm take the place of family and birth.
Mathilde’s unhappiness guides her life. She cannot see what she does have, because she only wants what she does not have. She longs only for wealth and the beauty of things. She does not see the beauty of youth, or a good body. She would not enjoy a sunset or a good husband. She wants only the trappings of wealth, and that means tangible things.
In fact, when Mathilde’s husband, a clerk, gets her invitation to a party with the upper classes so she can enjoy herself, she is upset. She thinks only that she does not have the right clothes or jewels for the occasion. Instead of thanking him for pulling strings to get her an invitation about their station, she just pouts.
"I have no gown, and, therefore, I can't go to this ball. Give your card to some colleague whose wife is better equipped than I am."
He gives her the only money he has, which he has been saving up for his own enjoyment, and she borrows what she thinks is the most beautiful jewel she can find from her wealthier friend. She does turn heads at the ball, due to her great beauty. Ironically, the necklace turns out to be a fake. When she loses the necklace, she also loses her beauty and her youth, because she and her husband have to work themselves into the ground to make the money to pay it back.
It was all for naught though. It’s true, the necklace was not real and she didn’t need to do it. But the real shame is that she lost the real beauty she had to pay for a jewel, a superficial beauty, real or not. Thus the theme—we should not want what we cannot or do not have. We should appreciate what we do have.
Maupassant was a great admirer of the pessimistic German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and once said of him:
He has upset belief, hope, poetry, fantasy, destroyed aspirations, ravaged confidence, killed love, overthrown the idealistic cult of womanhood, murdered the illusions of the heart, and altogether performed the most gigantic sceptical operation ever carried out. He has riddled everything with his mockery, and drained everything dry.
In the case of Mathilde Loisel, Maupassant is suggesting that exceptional beauty can be a misfortune as well as an asset. This young woman would not have been so dissatisfied with her life if she hadn't been possessed of all the attractive features Maupassant describes in the introduction to his story and also in the ballroom scenes where Mathilde is like Cinderella. Because of her beauty and gracefulness her husband adores her and tries to please her. He manages to get an invitation to the minister's ball, and her triumph there gives her momentary satisfaction. But when she loses the borrowed necklace she eventually loses all her charms with it. Maupassant is suggesting that life is a tragedy for everyone and that happiness is an illusion. Life is a game we can't win. Mathilde loses her beauty in a dramatic way--but all beautiful women lose their beauty with time, regardless of how hard most of them try to retain it. In time every man and every woman loses everything. Mathilde's beauty should have been a source of happiness to her as well as to her poor husband. Instead it became a source of misery. One of Schopenhauer's recurring thoughts is that we make ourselves unhappy by seeking to be happy.
One of the themes articulated in the work is the idea of being happy with what we have, and the repercussions when we are dissatisfied with our lot in life. Madame Mathilde Loisel has a loving and caring husband. It matters not to her, however. Her life is one where she is incessantly unhappy, always attempting to keep up with the Joneses.
The plot is realistic and the characterization is superb. The Loisel’s are a middle class family. Mathilde’s loving husband obtains for his wife a highly coveted invitation to a party with the upper echelons of French society. She does not thank him or appreciate his efforts for his enabling her social-climbing desires. She complains that she does not have the right gown or jewelry for the party. Her husband gives her the moneys he has been saving. Mathilde borrows a stunning necklace from her wealthy friend, who stands in contrast to Mathilde in her ability to comfortably wear fake jewelry. Her friend has nothing to prove. But the reader is only made aware of this at the very end of the tale.
The loss of the necklace at the party proves Mathilde’s undoing. She works hard to replace the necklace. The years of hard work and its debilitating effects upon her looks in scrounging to save the money costs Mathilde her beauty. It is to the point that her friend no longer recognizes her.
The theme is that if we are but happy with our lot, Mathilde could have enjoyed her once good looks and her adoring loving husband.