Guy de Maupassant’s iconic short story, “The Necklace”, is perhaps one of the most memorable of its time owing to its simple yet powerful depiction of contrasting values—both literally and figuratively—and the ironic conclusion that fittingly sums up the effects of societal norms and expectations. The author’s clear storytelling leaves the reader with a heartfelt appreciation of the ideals being put forth, without searching beneath any cryptic meanings. However, the story still is made whole by the use of symbolism, which is the appropriation of an object, person, act, or event to suggest certain ideas; and in “The Necklace”, the most apparent symbol is the necklace itself.
In discussing the probable intentions of de Maupassant in centering on this particular piece of jewelry, it is efficient to know the various social and economic circumstances prevailing in the story’s environment. Nineteenth-century Paris was not unlike others in the sense that it was divided into the upper, middle, and lower classes, but the particular dynamics within and among each is worth studying. Upper-class Parisian women were known to be consumed by wealth and privilege, and were wont to attend operas dressed in their finery. Middle-class women depended on the financial capabilities of the men, who were mostly clerks and employees of industrial capitalists, while women of the lower class were often peasants and maids, used to the rough life (Fleck and Choy pars. 3, 5, 11). These three classes are represented in the story at various points, and are integral in the understanding of the different meanings associated with the necklace.
II. The Necklace as a Symbol
In general, the diamond necklace showcased in the story represents the goal of French society—or most societies, in a sense—for acceptance, which ultimately translates to exclusivity. The invitation that Mr. Loisel fought for is evidence of the existence of these parameters, which is confirmed by his statement, “Everyone wants an invitation” (de Maupassant 5). Everybody desires to be accepted into the world of privilege associated with the Parisian upper class, and one’s presence at the ball would confirm his or her as a member of the elite.
The necklace then is presented as the key to the success of Madame Loisel’s foray into the high society she has been yearning for; the necklace and the upper class both belong in the range of ideals long desired by Madame Loisel, but the fact that it was borrowed signifies that this privilege was not permanently meant for her. That she misplaces and replaces the necklace later further validates this idea, and finally decided the kind of fortune she deserved.
The story reveals two actual necklaces—the one made of real diamonds and the other made of paste—which symbolize several concepts essential in the analysis of the story and its technique.
A. Deception and The Fake Necklace
Mathilde Loisel, for all her beauty and charm, is beset by the ugliness of shallow goals and wants; she believes she deserves more than she has, despite the fact that “women have no caste or breed” (de Maupassant 1). Though Madame Loisel was born and wed into the middle class, the hierarchy only applies to the men and their financial status—women needed only to exude charm, elegance, and beauty to compete with others. She sees her marriage to an honest and loyal man as a burden rather than a blessing, and continues to envy her wealthier friends and their possessions. For this, Madame Loisel is symbolized by the fake necklace she borrowed from Madame Forestier—beautiful and precious to the eye, disguising the pettiness and superficiality at its core.
The fake necklace is indeed similar to Madame Loisel in many ways, from its initial appearance encased in a satin box, suggesting its high value. Madame Loisel, lovely and charming, is assumed by many to possess the equivalent personality traits, as seen during her time at the ball, where she was “a grand success” (de Maupassant 7). But this acceptance brought on by the necklace only exists in her mind, for she believes it is the reason behind her beauty that evening. Therefore Madame Loisel’s concept of society and acceptance is as fake as the jewels she was wearing—all based on appearances, without any consideration for truth. This may be validated in a sense by her friend, Madame Forestier, who lent the fake necklace; the fact she actually owned a phony piece of jewelry can mean two things: that she did not care about the value, but only its appearance; or that she intentionally keeps such things to be lent to people like Madame Loisel. However, her admonishment of the latter’s lateness in bringing back the necklace clearly implies that she “should have brought it back sooner…[Madame Forestier] might have needed it” (de Maupassant 10). In any case, Madame Forestier is also symbolized by the fake necklace, for her idea of friendship and its value remains on the surface.
B. Truth and the Real Necklace
The only honest portrayals in the story are in the form of the real necklace and Mr. Loisel—both unquestionable in their genuineness, and their value exceeding their costs. The purchased diamond necklace, albeit presented via its tag price, means more than its equivalent in francs; it ultimately referred to ten years of hardship, the honesty of trust and friendship, and the love and loyalty of a man to his wife. In fact, it was Mr. Loisel who suggested to “see about replacing the necklace” (de Maupassant 9), which revealed his strength of character despite knowing that it would take him a lifetime to repay the costs. This strength echoes the standard qualities of a real diamond necklace, for this precious stone is known to be tough and impenetrable; however, only the learned knows how to distinguish the real from the fake, and in this case Madame Loisel failed in both tests in judging the necklace and her husband.
Unbeknown to Madame Loisel, she had been very fortunate to be married to a man whose sole objectives are to make her happy, even at his own expense. She had been too consumed by her obsession with being rich and belonging to the upper class that she failed to notice the value of her husband and his honesty, the same way she failed to discern the fakeness of the necklace shown her by Madame Forestier—for she just assumed it was real simply based on her friend’s status. In the end, though, Madame Loisel learns her lesson by being forced into a life of hard work—her and her husband’s occupations showing them as part of the lower class—just to pay for the one night of grandeur and acceptance; the final blow, however, is in discovering that the borrowed necklace was not worth the years of trouble and the lines on her face. The twist in the ending and the painful revelation are meant to remove all of Madame Loisel’s perceptions about wealth and social status, for they simply told her that everything was her own doing—the desire to appear rich, and her discontentment with the life she has. This kind of ending is not meant to merely provide a witty punch line to the twists and turns of the story, but a means to express a sense of irony that can only be made with the complete exposition of opposing conditions (Allen par. 3).
De Maupassant was clever in appropriating the necklace as the object of interest throughout the story, for his intents at symbolism becomes apparent. In fact, it is easy to decipher the necklace’s literal meaning on the outset, because its purposive nature of being worn around the neck already suggests situations akin to lifestyle and life, as well as status and restriction.
The presence of the real and fake necklaces would not have been revealed if not for the ending, but their representations have been seen throughout the story, specifically in the characters of Mr. and Madame Loisel. It is as if de Maupassant intended for his readers to understand the differences and form complete ideas about each one’s relevance before providing the ironic ending. While it is undeniable that the author’s style of closing the story was to introduce another element, its essence had been felt from the beginning and its announcement was merely a validation of its purpose as a symbol.
de Maupassant, Guy. “The Necklace”. The Necklace and Other Tales. New York: The
Modern Library, 2003.
Allen, Glen Scott. “Maupassant and the American Short Story: The Influence of Form at the
Turn of the Century”. Studies in Short Fiction, Spring 1996. 07 May 2009
Fleck, Danita and Linda Unson Choy. “Social Classes: Paris in the Nineteenth Century”.
San Jose State University. 07 May 2009 <http://gallery.sjsu.edu/paris/social_classes/index.html>.