The Jewelry (or The False Gems)

by Guy de Maupassant

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What are the plot, setting, characters, conflicts, symbols, and themes in "The Jewelry"?

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This story's setting is Paris, France, as indicated by the places—namely, the restaurants and streets—that are mentioned, and it appears to take place in the later part of the nineteenth century. The protagonist is a man named M. Lantin, and the conflict occurs between M. Lantin and his wife: it is of the character vs. character variety, then. When they married, she had a "modest beauty" and "angelic shyness," and she seemed to all as the "very ideal of that pure good woman" that any young man would want to marry. Lantin is "unutterably happy" with his wife, and they spend six years of joy together.

She grew to love the theater during this time, and she would often spend money on jewelry that he believed to be worth very little: he assumed it was costume jewelry because they could not have afforded the real deal. The narrator says that these were the "only two points upon which he ever found fault with her," and he begged to be excused from her evenings at the theater—perhaps this is where she met the person who gave her the real jewels, though of course her husband was none the wiser.

The conflict comes to its climax after Mme. Lantin's death, when Lantin finds out that her jewelry is incredibly valuable after all! He realizes that she must have been having a relationship with some other, richer, man, and "it seemed to him that the ground was heaving under his feet," and he faints in the street. He cries all night. Soon, though, he realizes that he is sitting on a fortune in real gold and jewels, and he is thrilled to get such big money into his previously empty pockets.

However, the story resolves when he remarries a "most upright" woman who makes his "life very miserable." In terms of theme, the story seems to convey a few choice ideas: first, that appearances can be deceiving. Lantin's first wife seemed to be "the ideal" but she ended up unfaithful and, therefore, not ideal at all. Likewise, the jewelry seemed fake, but it was very real and valuable (this is the story's central symbol): nearly the reverse of the character of his first wife.

However, though his second wife would evidently never dream of cheating on him, given her description as "upright," she makes him miserable! This seems to indicate that we often want what we do not have, but when we get it we find that it is not as wonderful as we'd imagined it to be. In other words, the grass is always greener on the other side!

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Let's go through your list item by item:

Plot: Lantin, the protagonist, is a government clerk who is married to to a "nice" girl from the country. He lives a happy life with his wife, who develops two passions living in Paris: one for the theatre, and a second for costume jewelry. When his wife suddenly dies of pneumonia, Lantin is devastated and surprised to find that it is difficult to make ends meet on his salary—something his wife found easy to do. Finally, in need of money, Lantin decides to sell some of his wife's costume jewelry, but when he takes it to a jeweler, he finds that all the jewelry is real and worth a fortune! Clearly, his wife had been the mistress of a wealthy man. This unexpected windfall allows him to quit his job and remarry, and although his second wife is very upright, his life with her is miserable.

Setting: Maupassant's story is set in Paris. For such a short story, there is a lot of local detail mentioned. The fancy restaurants where Lantin dines—Café Anglais and Voisin's—are real places, as are all the many streets mentioned in the story and even Lantin's address, 16 Rue des Martyrs. It is fun to look these places up in Google streetview.

Character: Lantin is the major character of the story. He is a minor government official and a bit clueless. He is taken with his own self importance, which blinds him to his wife's infidelity. His wife is a secondary character. She appears in the first part of the story, but her true nature is difficult to discern.

Conflict: The conflict in the story is best understood as an internal conflict, perhaps, or an implied one. In a sense, the true conflict—that Lantin's wife is misleading Lantin and leading a kind of double life—is only hinted at, since Lantin only begins to suspect the truth after her death. In another sense, the story is about conflicts that are deferred or missing. Lantin never confronts his wife, and once he learns the truth about her, he is unable to examine his own motives for marrying her or think about how he could have been so deceived.

Symbol: The jewelry, obviously, is the main symbol in the story. One way to think about symbolic nature of the jewelry is to understand it as a token of love: first, as presents to Lantin's wife from her lover, and second, as a legacy the wife leaves to her husband. Ironically, as long as Lantin thinks the jewels are fake, he can believe in the genuineness of his wife's love. It is when their true nature is revealed that their relationship is proved to be a sham.

Theme: The themes of the story are the nature of love, self deception, and the degree to which one is able to truly know another person. Another theme could be that greed is stronger than love, or that whatever we might believe about love, self interest is always more important.

When reading stories like this, I like to think about what parts of the story might be missing. Here, the whole story of the wife's affair and her lover is missing. It's clear that his wife, for all her country naïveté, was much more savvy than her husband. It may even be that her affair was a way for her to provide for him, since his salary was not enough to support his lifestyle. How interesting it would be to tell the story from the wife's point of view!

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