The Duchess and the Jeweller

by Virginia Woolf

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The Duchess and the Jeweller Themes

The main themes in “The Duchess and the Jeweller” are social class and power; greed and ambition; and lies, secrets, and facades.

  • Social class and power: Oliver’s insecurities concerning his origins fuel his longing to feel he belongs in the upper classes, but his desperation makes this an impossibility.
  • Greed and ambition: Oliver has achieved all the success he could hope for, yet the constant reminder of his humble beginnings leaves him unsatisfied.
  • Lies, secrets, and facades: Both Oliver and the duchess attempt to hide aspects of themselves to maintain the favor of their peers.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Social Class and Power

As the story depicts Oliver Bacon’s rise to wealth and success from a childhood of poverty, class distinctions, and socioeconomic mobility are a key theme. The narrator repeatedly presents, through Oliver’s perspective, memories of his boyhood, which was characterized by “a filthy little alley,” “selling stolen dogs,” and incurring his mother’s disapproval and reminders to “have sense.” By contrast, Oliver’s current status as the best jeweller in the world is mirrored by his improved living conditions. His flat overlooks a neighborhood in central London and is decorated in “tapestry” and “satin.” He adheres to norms of upper-class life, such as keeping “the right brandies” in a “mahogany sideboard [that] bulged discreetly.” The modifier “right” suggests Oliver’s willingness to take cues from the aristocracy and to imitate their behavior and mannerisms. The paradoxical description that the liquor cabinet “bulged discreetly” suggests that the cabinet is filled to the brim but also that Oliver is not showing off his wealth, which would be seen as vulgar or crass.

Even though he has steadily made his way to this upper-class position—“he dressed better and better; and had, first a hansom cab, and then a car”—Oliver harbors some insecurity about his place, indicated by his memories of his childhood and the fact that he “dismantle[s] himself often.” This phrase implies that Oliver is not a true member of the upper class and that he wears a sort of disguise that is easily removed to reveal the embarrassing truth of his origins. Oliver’s insecurity is also seen in his interactions with the duchess. He feels the need to assert superiority over her, as when he makes her wait ten minutes to see him, but he is also easily manipulated and outsmarted by her. Oliver’s weakness is his desire to be legitimately part of the upper echelons of society, which he can accomplish through his marriage to the aristocratic Diana; her mother, the duchess, uses this knowledge to convince him to pay her for what are likely false pearls. Significantly, she also refers to him only by his first name when inviting him to the countryside for the weekend. It seems that the duchess’s being “daughter of a hundred Earls” keeps Oliver at a disadvantage no matter how much he would like to pretend he is on equal footing with the duchess due to his accumulated wealth. Ultimately, the representative of England’s long-established aristocracy wins the power struggle in this story.

Greed and Ambition

Despite his place at the top of his profession and his relatively respectable social position, Oliver is not satisfied. Instead, he experiences a nagging feeling that he must do more and have more. The narrator describes Oliver’s ambition in a particularly unflattering manner, comparing him to “a giant hog” hunting for truffles; when the hog finds a valuable truffle, he does not stop or enjoy his achievement but feels the urge to continue hunting for a bigger and better truffle. The metaphorical hog aligns Oliver with greed and gluttony, as well as suggesting an instinctual, animalistic inclination that is perhaps not fully in Oliver’s control. After Oliver writes the duchess a check for her false pearls, he again thinks of this symbolic truffle, equating it with the pearls he has just bought. When he examines the pearls closely, he thinks, “This, then, was the truffle he had routed out of the earth! Rotten at the centre—rotten at the core!” In this moment of utter dismay, Oliver recognizes that he has allowed his ambition—to secure a legitimate place in the upper class by marrying the duchess’s daughter—to poison his...

(This entire section contains 1058 words.)

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way of doing business, which has helped him achieve all the wealth he has gained. While he may still enter the duke and duchess’s family as Diana’s husband, Oliver can never undo the knowledge that the duchess outsmarted him and that his pride in his business is permanently damaged by his act of paying for illegitimate jewels. Oliver’s ambition to be successful results in socioeconomic gains, but his inability to curb that ambition and remain grateful and content with what he has leads to his psychological ruin.

Lies, Secrets, and Facades 

Oliver’s rise from a dirty youth in a dark alley to the most prominent jeweler in the world seems to require him to play a part with which he is not completely comfortable. Some part of Oliver still doubts his belonging to the upper class whose style, possessions, and social interaction he attempts to match, as seen when he repeatedly “dismantle[s] himself” and feels as though he is a boy once again. His current reputation belies his past as a schemer who began his career by selling stolen dogs. His early success was built on dishonesty and unethical practices.

Oliver’s foil, the duchess, has her own secrets, some of which Oliver tries to guess at during their meeting. She makes only vague comments and exclamations, but his previous interactions with her seem to give Oliver hints as to what may have landed the duchess in a position to have to sell the last of her inherited jewels. His guesses include the possibility that she lost money gambling, that she may be lying, and that she may have tried to sell part of this inheritance before. The duchess laments at one point, in an effort to win Oliver’s sympathy, that he “ha[s] all [her] secrets.” The earlier description of their dynamic as one in which “each feared the other” also suggests that the two characters have information on each other that they do not want the greater society to learn.

In order to protect herself, the duchess must pretend to be weak and may even lie to Oliver to obtain what she needs from him. She emphasizes her daughters’ reputations and futures as her motivation, opens “her private heart” to him, and even cries during the meeting. She presumably uses the facade of someone who is weak and helpless, dependent on his help, to influence Oliver’s decision to pay her for the pearls. Her deception pays off: though Oliver is suspicious all along, in the end he succumbs to the duchess’s desires—and to his own desire for Diana.