Why does Madame Forestier fail to recognize Mathilde in "The Necklace"?

Madame Forestier fails to recognize Mathilde in "The Necklace" because Mathilde's appearance has drastically changed after spending a decade doing hard labor. Madame Forestier doesn't see Mathilde during those ten years and isn't used to associating with people who look so common. She overlooks Mathilde because she now looks like a poor and rough woman.

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After Mathilde loses Madame Forestier's necklace, which she presumes is worth a great deal of money, she quietly replaces it with a valuable necklace. In order to pay for the replacement, Mathilde and her husband are forced to take out numerous loans, which they repay over the next ten years.

In order to save money, Mathilde must give up all the comforts of her previous lifestyle. She dismisses her help and moves to a much smaller home. Mathilde herself must undertake the labor of caring for her home, so she learns the meaning of true labor. She scrubs the caked grease from pots and pans using her fingernails. She toils over the laundry and learns how to hang their garments to dry in the sun. Mathilde carries the "slops" of their household and hauls the heavy loads of water needed to run their home. She learns to argue with the grocer and the butcher so that she and her husband can save as much money as possible to pay off their debts.

After a decade of hard labor and without any extra money in their budget to take a break, Mathilde's appearance has drastically changed. She is no longer the stunning beauty that she was on the night of the ball, because she has been hardened and weathered by heavy labor. Madame Forestier, on the other hand, has spent that decade enjoying an easier life. She has not had to endure the elements or roughen her appearance, and she hasn't seen Mathilde in all those years. Madame Forestier is undoubtedly used to entertaining women who look much like herself—and much like Mathilde looked before she lost the necklace.

Therefore, she isn't expecting to recognize a poor-looking woman who appears "hard and rough." She is "astonished" when a "plain good-wife" speaks to her and then cries out when she realizes the transformation that has turned the formerly beautiful Mathilde into a haggard, older looking woman.

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After Mathilde Loisel borrows Madame Forestier's presumably expensive necklace to wear during an aristocratic ball, she ends up losing the necklace, which she believes is authentic and made with genuine diamonds. Mathilde Loisel and her husband end up buying an authentic replica of the necklace, which costs them thirty-six thousand francs. In order to afford the extremely expensive necklace, the couple spends their inheritance and borrows the remainder of the money. Mathilde Loisel and her husband move out of their apartment, get rid of their servant, and Mathilde ends up working strenuous jobs in order to pay off their debt. It takes Mathilde Loisel and her husband ten years to pay off Madame Forestier's authentic necklace. Guy de Maupassant writes,

Madame Loisel looked old now. She had become like all the other strong, hard, coarse women of poor households. Her hair was badly done, her skirts were awry, her hands were red. She spoke in a shrill voice, and the water slopped all over the floor when she scrubbed it.

When Mathilde approaches Madame Forestier walking along the Champs-Elysees, Madame Forestier does not recognize Mathilde because she looks so much older and unhealthy from the years of arduous labor. Ironically, Madame Forestier informs Mathilde that her necklace was an imitation worth only five hundred francs.

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Madame Forestier doesn't recognize Mathilde because she's changed so much since she last saw her; and there's a very good reason for that. After the unfortunate incident with the lost necklace, Mathilde's husband was forced to take out a series of crippling loans to buy a replacement. Inevitably, this meant that the Loisels' standard of living plummeted and they were forced to move out of their apartment into more modest quarters.

In order to make ends meet, Mathilde has had go out to work, and leads a life of mindless drudgery far removed from the opulent, aristocratic lifestyle to which she always believed herself entitled. When Madame Forestier catches up with her on the Champs-Élysées, Mathilde presents a pretty sad sight. Due to years of grinding poverty and hard toil, she's become a shadow of her former self, prematurely aged, and wearing shabby clothes. She couldn't be more different from the glamorous, beautiful woman who was once the undisputed belle of the Education Ministry ball. No wonder Madame Forestier doesn't recognize her.

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After losing Madame Forestier's necklace, the Loisels had to take out tremendous loans in order to purchase another such necklace—as they believe her necklace to have contained real diamonds (when it did not). They spent the next ten years working themselves to the bone in order to pay back all the money they borrowed. The narrator says,

Mme. Loisel looked old now. She had become the woman of impoverished households—strong and hard and rough. With frowsy hair, skirts askew, and red hands, she talked loud while washing the floor with great swishes of water.

Mathilde Loisel has had to do a great deal of manual labor, has had to give up her dreams of mixing with the upper crust, has had to give up the servant she once had, and has essentially had to become like a servant herself.

She came to know what heavy housework meant and the odious cares of the kitchen.

Mathilde has washed dishes, done laundry, taken out the garbage, fetched water, done her shopping, haggled with merchants, and in general tried to save every penny she could. Such a life, in addition to being hard on the body, would be quite hard on the mind; worrying about money all the time is incredibly stressful, and stress takes a major toll on a person, both mentally and physically. Therefore, her old friend does not recognize Mathilde because those ten years of hard labor have aged her a great deal more than those same years have affected her friend, who still appears young and beautiful.

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