The Duchess and the Jeweller

by Virginia Woolf

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The Duchess and the Jeweller Characters

The main characters in “The Duchess and the Jeweller” are Oliver Bacon, the Duchess of Lambourne, and Oliver’s mother.

  • Oliver Bacon is a wealthy and successful jeweler, yet he is plagued by memories of his past and an endless desire for more.
  • The Duchess of Lambourne conducts business with Oliver, and she uses his love for her daughter Diana to sell what are very likely fake pearls.
  • Oliver’s mother exists as a voice of reason for her son, though Oliver chooses to ignore any of her imagined advice.


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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Oliver Bacon

The protagonist of the story, Oliver is a highly successful jeweler, but he struggles to move past his childhood experiences and the perceived judgment of his mother. Oliver was a poor child who felt he had to scam his way into a higher socioeconomic status. Early in the story, Oliver is depicted in the present as refined and wealthy, which is first suggested by his orderly abode and employment of a manservant. The description of his liquor collection containing “the right brandies” hints at Oliver’s adherence to other people’s ideas of upper-class life. The number of invitations he receives from titled citizens implies that he socializes with members of high society, and his meeting with the Duchess of Lambourne reveals that he also does business with them. He enjoys markers of his position, such as his ability to keep a manservant whom he requires to perform tasks like cooking his meals, laying out his clothes, and opening his letters.

Oliver both takes delight in remembering his past and is haunted by his memories. He enjoys thinking about his early career, “chuckl[ing]” over his previous corruption. While he is proud of his position, having become “the richest jeweller in the whole world,” Oliver is still not satisfied; a desire to do more and have more nags at him throughout the story. When the duchess visits his office, the reader sees that Oliver enjoys exerting power over her or imagining himself as her equal. However, he constantly doubts that she is telling the truth, which suggests that he has a suspicious demeanor and that he has been negatively affected by this woman’s dishonesty in the past.

Near the end of the story, Oliver’s vulnerability is highlighted, as his final decision to pay the duchess for the (probably) false pearls is a result of his desire to pursue a relationship with her daughter, Diana. In Oliver’s mind, the reader witnesses a struggle between Oliver’s fear of his mother’s judgment and his desire to spend time with Diana and to help preserve her and her family’s honorable reputation. His feelings for Diana prove a liability when they cause him to overpay for what is likely “rotten at the core!” He has been outsmarted by his rival, which will likely sour his relationship with her daughter Diana.

The Duchess of Lambourne

Because the story is told from the point of view of Oliver Bacon, it is more difficult for the readers to gain a sense of the Duchess of Lambourne’s true personality. All of the reader’s knowledge is filtered through Oliver’s apparently negative experiences with her and his own biases. When the duchess enters the jeweller’s office, it is clear that she thinks highly of herself due to her socioeconomic status. Her family line reaches far back into England’s past, as she is the “daughter of a hundred Earls.” Her aura exudes wealth and extravagance, with “the aroma, the prestige, the arrogance, the prompt, the pride of all Dukes and Duchesses swollen in one wave.” The duchess represents all of the English nobility, though she is “very large, very fat . . . and past her prime.” While she may no longer be beautiful or trim, she carries herself with a strong sense of self-importance.

Once the duchess and Oliver begin speaking, the narrator writes that she “opened her heart, her private heart, gaped wide,” which implies that she is making herself vulnerable and trusting Oliver with her deepest feelings. Ironically, though, she does not reveal much specific detail with Oliver; she only gives him vague hints that he uses to piece together what has led to...

(This entire section contains 910 words.)

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her dramatic fall. Oliver infers that the duchess is desperate to sell the remainder of her inherited jewels because she lost money gambling. When the duchess lashes out at “That villain!” she does not reveal who she believes has wronged her, so Oliver has to assume it is a “man with the chipped cheek bone,” about whom she has likely complained before. It is possible that the duchess is putting on a dramatic performance to win Oliver’s sympathy, revealing her to be savvy and manipulative. She seems to know that he has a weakness for her daughter Diana, so she appeals to that by voicing a worry over her daughters’ future and also inviting him to spend the weekend with her family.

Oliver’s Mother

Oliver’s mother is unnamed and is not physically present in the story, but she serves as an inner voice for Oliver, or a version of his conscience. Oliver keeps a painting of his mother on the wall in his London flat and is eager to please his mother, from which it can be inferred that she had high expectations for her son. He seems reverent toward her portrait as he speaks directly to it, “as if he were doing homage to her.” Late in the story, when Oliver decides to pay the duchess for her pearls, he hears the voice of his mother exhorting him to “‘Have sense! Don’t be a fool!” This implies that Oliver’s mother chastised him in a similar way when he was living with her, and he obviously measures his actions against what he imagines her judgment of him would be. His mother can be seen as a voice of reason, which he ignores in favor of pursuing his desire for Diana.