Introduction by Amanda Huggins.
The necklace in Maupassant’s story is beautiful. To Mathilde, it represents everything she wants and doesn’t have, though for us it symbolises the difference between appearances and truth. When Mathilde borrows it for an evening she believes herself transformed, become wealthy in the eyes of onlookers.
When everything subsequently goes wrong, Mathilde spends ten years paying for her one night of pleasure – but then we are handed the perfect twist. The whip-crack ending turns the story upside down and changes everything in a single sentence. We discover she lost her youth, beauty, and previous lifestyle – positively luxurious compared to what she has endured since – for nothing. Like all great twists it doesn’t make the reader feel tricked or deceived, but rather that their emotional commitment to the story has paid off.
She was one of those pretty and charming girls who, as if by a mistake of destiny, are born in a family of employees. She had no dowry, no expectations, no means of becoming known, understood, loved, wedded by any rich and distinguished man; and so she let herself be married to a petty clerk in the Bureau of Public Instruction. She was simple in her dress because she could not be elaborate, but she was as unhappy as if she had fallen from a higher rank, for with women there is no inherited distinction of higher and lower. Their beauty, their grace, and their natural charm fill the place of birth and family. Natural delicacy, instinctive elegance, a lively wit, are the ruling forces in the social realm, and these make the daughters of the common people the equals of the finest ladies. She suffered intensely, feeling herself born for all the refinements and luxuries of life. She suffered from the poverty of her home as she looked at the dirty walls, the worn-out chairs, the ugly curtains. All those things of which another woman of her station would have been quite unconscious tortured her and made her indignant. The sight of the country girl who was maid-of-all-work in her humble household filled her almost with desperation. She dreamed of echoing halls hung with Oriental draperies and lighted by tall bronze candelabra, while two tall footmen in knee-breeches drowsed in great armchairs by reason of the heating stove's oppressive warmth. She dreamed of splendid parlours furnished in rare old silks, of carved cabinets loaded with priceless bric-a-brac, and of entrancing little boudoirs just right for afternoon chats with bosom friends –men famous and sought after, the envy and the desire of all the other women. When she sat down to dinner at a little table covered with a cloth three days old, and looked across at her husband as he uncovered the soup and exclaimed with an air of rapture, "Oh, the delicious stew! I know nothing better than that," she dreamed of dainty dinners, of shining silverware, of tapestries which peopled the walls with antique figures and strange birds in fairy forests; she dreamed of delicious viands served in wonderful dishes, of whispered gallantries heard with a sphinx-like smile as you eat the pink flesh of a trout or the wing of a quail. She had no dresses, no jewels, nothing; and she loved nothing else. She felt made for that alone. She was filled with a desire to please, to be envied, to be bewitching and sought after. She had a rich friend, a former schoolmate at the convent, whom she no longer wished to visit because she suffered so much when she came home. For whole days at a time she wept without ceasing in bitterness and hopeless misery. Now, one evening her husband came home with a triumphant air, holding in his hand a large envelope. "There," said he, "there is something for you." She quickly tore open the paper and drew out a printed card, bearing these words: "The Minister of Public Instruction and Mme. Georges Rampouneau request the honour of M. and Mme. Loisel's company at the palace of the Ministry, Monday evening, January 18th." Instead of being overcome with delight, as her husband expected, she threw the invitation on the table with disdain, murmuring: "What do you wish me to do with that?" "Why, my dear, I thought you would be pleased. You never go out, and this is such a fine opportunity! I had awful trouble in getting it. Every one wants to go; it is very select, and they are not giving many invitations to clerks. You will see all the official world." She looked at him with irritation, and said, impatiently: "What do you expect me to put on my back if I go?" He had not thought of that. He stammered: "Why, the dress you go to the theatre in. It seems all right to me." He stopped, stupefied, distracted, on seeing that his wife was crying. Two great tears descended slowly from the corners of her eyes toward the corners of her mouth. He stuttered:"What's the matter? What's the matter?" By a violent effort she subdued her feelings and replied in a calm voice, as she wiped her wet cheeks: "Nothing. Only I have no dress and consequently I cannot go to this ball. Give your invitation to some friend whose wife has better clothes than I." He was in despair, but began again: "Let us see, Mathilde. How much would it cost, a suitable dress, which you could wear again on future occasions, something very simple?" She reflected for some seconds, computing the cost, and also wondering what sum she could ask without bringing down upon herself an immediate refusal and an astonished exclamation from the economical clerk. At last she answered hesitatingly: "I don't know exactly, but it seems to me that with four hundred francs I could manage." He turned a trifle pale, for he had been saving just that sum to buy a gun and treat himself to a little hunting trip the following summer, in the country near Nanterre, with a few friends who went there to shoot larks on Sundays. However, he said: "Well, I think I can give you four hundred francs. But see that you have a pretty dress." * * * * * The day of the ball drew near, and Madame Loisel seemed sad, restless, anxious. Her dress was ready, however. Her husband said to her one evening: "What is the matter? Come, now, you've been looking queer these last three days." And she replied: "It worries me that I have no jewels, not a single stone, nothing to put on. I shall look wretched enough. I would almost rather not go to this party." He answered: "You might wear natural flowers. They are very fashionable this season. For ten francs you can get two or three magnificent roses." She was not convinced. "No; there is nothing more humiliating than to look poor among a lot of rich women." But her husband cried: "How stupid you are! Go and find your friend Madame Forestier and ask her to lend you some jewels. You are intimate enough with her for that." She uttered a cry of joy. "Of course. I had not thought of that." The next day she went to her friend's house and told her distress. Madame Forestier went to her handsome wardrobe, took out a large casket, brought it back, opened it, and said to Madame Loisel: "Choose, my dear." She saw first of all some bracelets, then a pearl necklace, then a Venetian cross of gold set with precious stones of wonderful workmanship. She tried on the ornaments before the glass, hesitated, could not make up her mind to part with them, to give them back. She kept asking: "You have nothing else?" "Why, yes. But I do not know what will please you." All at once she discovered, in a black satin box, a splendid diamond necklace, and her heart began to beat with boundless desire. Her hands trembled as she took it. She fastened it around her throat, over her high-necked dress, and stood lost in ecstasy as she looked at herself. Then she asked, hesitating, full of anxiety: "Would you lend me that – only that?" "Why, yes, certainly." She sprang upon the neck of her friend, embraced her rapturously, then fled with her treasure. * * * * * The day of the ball arrived. Madame Loisel was a success. She was prettier than all the others, elegant, gracious, smiling, and crazy with joy. All the men stared at her, asked her name, tried to be introduced. All the cabinet officials wished to waltz with her. The minister noticed her. She danced with delight, with passion, intoxicated with pleasure, forgetting all in the triumph of her beauty, in the glory of her success, in a sort of mist of happiness, the result of all this homage, all this admiration, all these awakened desires, this victory so complete and so sweet to the heart of woman. She left about four o'clock in the morning. Her husband had been dozing since midnight in a little deserted anteroom with three other gentlemen, whose wives were having a good time. He threw about her shoulders the wraps which he had brought for her to go out in, the modest wraps of common life, whose poverty contrasted sharply with the elegance of the ball dress. She felt this and wished to escape, that she might not be noticed by the other women who were wrapping themselves in costly furs. Loisel held her back. "Wait here, you will catch cold outside. I will go and find a cab." But she would not listen to him, and rapidly descended the stairs. When they were at last in the street, they could find no carriage, and began to look for one, hailing the cabmen they saw passing at a distance. They walked down toward the Seine in despair, shivering with the cold. At last they found on the quay one of those ancient nocturnal cabs that one sees in Paris only after dark, as if they were ashamed to display their wretchedness during the day. They were put down at their door in the Rue des Martyrs, and sadly mounted the steps to their apartments. It was all over, for her. And as for him, he reflected that he must be at his office at ten o'clock. She took off the wraps which covered her shoulders, before the mirror, so as to take a final look at herself in all her glory. But suddenly she uttered a cry. She no longer had the necklace about her neck! Her husband, already half undressed, inquired: "What is the matter?" She turned madly toward him. "I have – I have – I no longer have Madame Forestier's necklace." He stood up, distracted. "What! – how! – it is impossible!" They looked in the folds of her dress, in the folds of her cloak, in the pockets, everywhere. They could not find a trace of it. He asked: "You are sure you still had it when you left the ball?" "Yes. I felt it on me in the vestibule at the palace." "But if you had lost it in the street we should have heard it fall. It must be in the cab." "Yes. That's probable. Did you take the number?" "No. And you, you did not notice it?" "No." They looked at each other thunderstruck. At last Loisel put on his clothes again. "I am going back," said he, "over every foot of the way we came, to see if I cannot find it." So he started. She remained in her ball dress without strength to go to bed, sitting on a chair, with no fire, her mind a blank. Her husband returned about seven o'clock. He had found nothing. He went to police headquarters, to the newspapers to offer a reward, to the cab companies, everywhere, in short, where a trace of hope led him. She watched all day, in the same state of blank despair before this frightful disaster. Loisel returned in the evening with cheeks hollow and pale; he had found nothing. "You must write to your friend," said he, "that you have broken the clasp of her necklace and that you are having it repaired. It will give us time to turn around." She wrote as he dictated. * * * * * At the end of a week they had lost all hope. And Loisel, looking five years older, declared: "We must consider how to replace the necklace." The next day they took the box which had contained it, and went to the place of the jeweller whose name they found inside. He consulted his books. "It was not I, madame, who sold the necklace; I must simply have furnished the casket." Then they went from jeweller to jeweller, looking for an ornament like the other, consulting their memories, both sick with grief and anguish. They found, in a shop at the Palais Royal, a string of diamonds which seemed to them exactly what they were looking for. It was worth forty thousand francs.They could have it for thirty-six thousand. So they begged the jeweller not to sell it for three days. And they made an arrangement that he should take it back for thirty-four thousand francs if the other were found before the end of February. Loisel had eighteen thousand francs which his father had left him. He would borrow the rest. He did borrow, asking a thousand francs of one, five hundred of another,five louis here, three louis there. He gave notes, made ruinous engagements, dealt with usurers, with all the tribe of money-lenders. He compromised the rest of his life, risked his signature without knowing if he might not be involving his honour, and, terrified by the anguish yet to come, by the black misery about to fall upon him, by the prospect of every physical privation and every mental torture, he went to get the new necklace, and laid down on the dealer's counter thirty-six thousand francs. When Madame Loisel took the necklace back to Madame Forestier, the latter said coldly: "You should have returned it sooner, for I might have needed it." She did not open the case, to the relief of her friend. If she had detected the substitution, what would she have thought? What would she have said? Would she have taken her friend for a thief?
* * * * * Madame Loisel now knew the horrible life of the needy. But she took her part heroically. They must pay this frightful debt. She would pay it. They dismissed their maid; they gave up their room; they rented another, under the roof. She came to know the drudgery of housework, the odious labours of the kitchen. She washed the dishes, staining her rosy nails on the greasy pots and the bottoms of the saucepans. She washed the dirty linen, the shirts and the dishcloths, which she hung to dry on a line; she carried the garbage down to the street every morning, and carried up the water, stopping at each landing to rest. And, dressed like a woman of the people, she went to the fruiterer's, the grocer's, the butcher's, her basket on her arm, bargaining, abusing, defending sou by sou her miserable money. Each month they had to pay some notes, renew others, obtain more time. The husband worked every evening, neatly footing up the account books of some tradesman, and often far into the night he sat copying manuscript at five sous a page. And this life lasted ten years. At the end of ten years they had paid everything, everything, with the exactions of usury and the accumulations of compound interest. Madame Loisel seemed aged now. She had become the woman of impoverished households, – strong and hard and rough. With hair half combed, with skirts awry, and reddened hands, she talked loud as she washed the floor with great swishes of water. But sometimes, when her husband was at the office, she sat down near the window and thought of that evening at the ball so long ago, when she had been so beautiful and so admired. What would have happened if she had not lost that necklace? Who knows, who knows? How strange life is, how changeful! How little a thing is needed for us to be lost or to be saved! * * * * * But one Sunday, as she was going for a walk in the Champs Elysees to refresh herself after the labours of the week, all at once she saw a woman walking with a child. It was Madame Forestier, still young, still beautiful, still charming. Madame Loisel was agitated. Should she speak to her? Why, of course. And now that she had paid, she would tell her all. Why not? She drew near. "Good morning, Jeanne." The other, astonished to be addressed so familiarly by this woman of the people, did not recognise her. She stammered: "But – madame – I do not know you. You must have made a mistake." "No, I am Mathilde Loisel." Her friend uttered a cry. "Oh! my poor Mathilde, how changed you are!" "Yes, I have had days hard enough since I saw you, days wretched enough – and all because of you!" "Me? How so?" "You remember that necklace of diamonds that you lent me to wear to the ministerial ball?" "Yes. Well?" "Well, I lost it." "How can that be? You returned it to me." "I returned to you another exactly like it. These ten years we've been paying for it. You know it was not easy for us, who had nothing. At last it is over, and I am very glad." Madame Forestier was stunned. "You say that you bought a diamond necklace to replace mine?" "Yes; you did not notice it, then? They were just alike." And she smiled with a proud and naive pleasure. Madame Forestier, deeply moved, took both her hands. "Oh, my poor Mathilde! Why, my necklace was paste. It was worth five hundred francs at most."
Amanda Huggins is the author of the novellas All Our Squandered Beauty and Crossing the Lines, as well as five collections of short stories and poetry. She has won numerous awards, including two Saboteur Awards for poetry and fiction, the Colm Toibin International Short Story Award 2020 and the H E Bates Short Story Prize 2021. She was also a runner-up in the Costa Short Story Award 2018 and the Fish Short Story Prize 2021, and has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, The Alpine Fellowship Award and many others. Amanda lives in Yorkshire and works in publishing.