The Jewelry (or The False Gems) Themes

The main themes in “The Jewelry” (or “The False Gems”) include hypocrisy and greed, modesty and virtue, and deceit and perception.

  • Hypocrisy and greed: Monsieur Lantin praises his wife’s supposed modesty and economy, but when he becomes rich, he exaggerates the amount he has gained.
  • Modesty and virtue: It is partially Madame Lantin’s love for the theater, a luxury, that leads to her death. 
  • Deceit and perception: Madame Lantin deceives Monsieur Lantin in wearing “fake” jewels that are actually real. Monsieur Lantin also deceives himself, believing that wealth will be the end of his problems, and finally lies about his wealth to others.

Themes

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Last Reviewed on May 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 815

Hypocrisy and Greed

At the beginning of the story, Monsieur Lantin appears to value nothing above modesty and virtue, as is seen through the narrator’s descriptions of Madame Lantin at the beginning of the story and Monsieur Lantin’s insistence that his wife’s “beauty and modesty alone . . . are the rarest ornaments of [her] sex.”

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Monsieur Lantin’s love for his wife is based on their simple and humble life. Even as he forgives Madame Lantin her small indulgences—her love of theater and her collection of “fake” jewelry—he does so with extreme judgment. The theater, to him, is boring, and the false gems are “deceptions” and “trash.”

As soon as Monsieur Lantin sees the potential for acquiring easy wealth in his own future, this conviction begins to dissolve. After years of condemning his wife for aspiring to her versions of moderate luxury, he begins to fantasize about how wealth, above anything else, might ameliorate his perpetual grief over her death:

The rich, indeed, are happy. With money, it is possible to forget even the deepest sorrow. One can go where one pleases, and in travel find that distraction which is the surest cure for grief. Oh if I were only rich!

When he finally does come into money, he appears to lose sight entirely of the honor he used to find in “angelic modesty.” Instead, he instantly begins inflating the perception of his new wealth to seem more and more impressive to others—after making 143,000 francs, he daydreams about yelling to passersby that he’s suddenly worth 200,000 francs. By the time he’s made it to his workplace to resign, he’s upped the number yet again to 300,000. At dinner, he tells a man nearby that he’s just inherited 400,000. This is an inversion of the metric by which he judged his wife at the beginning of the story—the virtuous honor of humility, modesty, and frugality have been instantly abandoned for the social prestige of pomp, excess, and luxury.

Modesty and Virtue

It is Monsieur Lantin’s austere fixation on modesty and humility that define his relationship with his first wife. They’re bonded together by this shared virtue and frugality, which appears to be, to him, the mechanism by which a person might exist in the world honorably:

He was unspeakably happy with her. She governed his household with such clever economy that they seemed to live in luxury.

Monsieur Lantin readily confers the epithets of “virtuous” and “modest” upon his wife, despite her indulgent habits that irk him.

The circumstances of Madame Lantin’s death could, to some degree, be viewed as a vindication of Monsieur Lantin’s viewpoint toward extreme austerity. It was, after all, during an evening excursion to the theater where she caught the winter chill that led first to her lung inflammation and, ultimately, to her death. Had Madame Lantin shared her husband’s views in full, she wouldn’t have gone on such an extravagant outing in the first place, and her life might have been spared.

Though there are very few details given about Monsieur Lantin’s second wife—the author gives her only three brief statements at the story’s end—she, too, is said to be virtuous. Per the narrative, she also brings the now-wealthy Monsieur Lantin “much sorrow.” This, when contrasted with the joys of his first marriage, suggests that the ideological definitions and rigid absolutes drawn by Monsieur Lantin are much more porous than he thinks.

Deceit and Perception

There are several intersecting threads of deceit woven throughout this short story. After his wife’s death, Monsieur Lantin’s ideological foundation begins to unravel when he realizes that his wife deceived him about her jewelry collection. Monsieur Lantin realizes first that the jewels themselves are a lie—they’re real, and quite valuable. The second realization, however, is so disturbing that it causes Monsieur Lantin to faint: the couple could never afford the gems on their own, which means that someone else has been sending his wife expensive gifts all along. Madame Lantin’s jewels turn out to be real and valuable, and in discovering this, Monsieur Lantin realizes that his wife’s supposed “angelic modesty” and virtue may be the real imitations.

Monsieur Lantin, for his part, then deceives himself into believing that wealth is a ready cure for grief. When he does find himself in possession of a small fortune, Monsieur Lantin begins deceiving others. He incrementally inflates his wealth, lying first in his mind, imagining what he might yell to the passersby, but then to his colleagues and again to a man in a restaurant. The intention here might be to acquire social prestige, but it may also be another layer of self-deception—it’s unclear whether he knows he’s lying or whether he’s been through such a paradigmatic shift that he’s no longer thinking straight.

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