The Necklace (La Parure) by Guy de Maupassant, 1885
THE NECKLACE (La Parure)
by Guy de Maupassant, 1885
First published in the daily newspaper Le Gaulois on 17 February 1884 and then included in 1885 in Contes du jour et de la nuit (Stories of Day and Night), "The Necklace" ("La Parure") is rightly one of the most famous of all Guy de Maupassant's short stories. In just a few pages it vividly evokes a situation with which every reader—especially female Parisian readers at the time of the Third Republic towards the end of the nineteenth century—could easily identify. This is a story of aspirations and fears, and then there is a conclusion rich in ambiguities that has the force and heartbreaking irony of tragedy. All this Maupassant recounts vividly without wasting a word. Rather than commenting on what has been taking place he leaves us to find what response we may to the situation.
Monsieur Loisel is a minor clerk in the Ministry of Instruction (just as Maupassant himself had been a couple of years before writing this story), and things are beginning to go reasonably well for him in his modest way. He has a little money put aside and is promising himself a few hunting trips with his friends next summer. That does not mean, however, that he is anything but very happy to be at home in his little flat in Paris where his very pretty young wife, Mathilde, always waits for him after his day's routine work with an economical but tasty meal. One evening he arrives home in particularly good spirits because he is sure he has achieved something that will delight his wife: he has managed to get an invitation for them both to attend an official reception at the ministry.
What he does not know is that Mathilde has been eating her heart out at home. Like any pretty young woman—but perhaps the thought came more easily to Mathilde when she reflected what the possibilities might well be in Paris for someone like her at this particular period in French history—she thought there was no limit to what she might have achieved if only she had not been so poor. In an age when the expression "articles de Paris" was synonymous with luxury and high style, she felt frustrated by poverty, and waiting at home preparing supper for her husband seemed a poor substitute for a brilliant social life of restaurants and evening parties. But to her husband's surprise, if not to the reader's, Mathilde is far from pleased when she hears her husband proudly tell her about the invitation to the ministry reception. She could not possibly go, she argues, for she has nothing suitable to wear. She does not even have to wheedle, however, for her husband very quickly decides to sacrifice his savings and offers her a suitable sum of money for a new gown.
As the great day comes closer, however, Mathilde begins to fret again: she really must have some jewelry to set off the new gown. The idea of wearing some flowers is just silly in her view; she cannot think of anything more humiliating than looking poor in the company of rich women. This time her husband cannot come up with cash, but he has an idea, and he does not have too much difficulty in persuading Mathilde to borrow some jewelry from a friend. Madame Forestier, who seems well provided for, is only too pleased to oblige by lending a fine diamond necklace, and at the ministry reception Mathilde really does feel that she is the belle of the ball.
On the way home, though, disaster strikes. Somehow, somewhere, the clasp of the diamond necklace must have come undone. Mathilde and her husband search everywhere desperately and make enquiries in all the right places, but all in vain. Rather than face the disgrace of going and telling Madame Forestier of the loss, they buy a replacement. The price is enormous. All Monsieur Loisel's savings, including a small inheritance, have to be paid over, and he contracts debts with a number of his friends. Now begins a desperate race against time to pay off everything.
The couple move into a smaller flat and dismiss their maid; Monsieur Loisel takes on miserably paid overtime jobs, and Mathilde loses her youthful freshness and prettiness as she becomes a hard-natured housewife, doing all the household cleaning herself and fighting with shopkeepers over every centime as she struggles to make do on the least possible amount of money each month.
Heroically the couple wins its battle and manages to pay off the debt. Mathilde can take some pride in that, and when she meets Madame Forestier she cannot resist telling her the whole story of the loss of the necklace and the gigantic effort that she and her husband have made to pay for its replacement. Madame Forestier is moved, but, in a last line that leaves us to answer a thousand questions about values, appearances, and bourgeois respectability that must flood through Mathilde's mind, reveals that the diamonds in the necklace were not real ones, just paste—and not worth very much at all.