Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Deceptiveness of Appearances
The reality of Mathilde’s situation is that she is neither wealthy nor part of the social class of which she feels she is a deserving member, but Mathilde does everything in her power to make her life appear different from how it is. She lives in an illusory world where her actual life does not match the ideal life she has in her head—she believes that her beauty and charm make her worthy of greater things. The party is a triumph because for the first time, her appearance matches the reality of her life. She is prettier than the other women, sought after by the men, and generally admired and flattered by all. Her life, in the few short hours of the party, is as she feels it should be. However, beneath this rightness and seeming match of appearances and reality is the truth that her appearance took a great deal of scheming and work. The bliss of her evening was not achieved without angst, and the reality of her appearance is much different than it seems. Her wealth and class are simply illusions, and other people are easily deceived.
The deceptiveness of appearances is highlighted by Madame Forestier’s necklace, which appears to be made of diamonds but is actually nothing more than costume jewelry. The fact that it comes from Madame Forestier’s jewelry box gives it the illusion of richness and value; had Monsieur Loisel suggested that Mathilde wear fake jewels, she surely would have scoffed at the idea, just as she scoffed at his suggestion to wear flowers. Furthermore, the fact that Madame Forestier—in Mathilde’s view, the epitome of class and wealth—has a necklace made of fake jewels suggests that even the wealthiest members of society pretend to have more wealth than they actually have. Both women are ultimately deceived by appearances: Madame Forestier does not tell Mathilde that the diamonds are fake, and Mathilde does not tell Madame Forestier that she has replaced the necklace. The fact that the necklace changes—unnoticed—from worthless to precious suggests that true value is ultimately dependent on perception and that appearances can easily deceive.
The Danger of Martyrdom
Mathilde’s perception of herself as a martyr leads her to take unwise, self-serving actions. The Loisels live, appropriately, on the Rue des Martyrs, and Mathilde feels she must suffer through a life that is well beneath what she deserves. Unable to appreciate any aspect of her life, including her devoted husband, she is pained by her feeling that her beauty and charm are being wasted. When Mathilde loses the necklace and sacrifices the next ten years of her life to pay back the debts she incurred from buying a replacement, her feeling of being a martyr intensifies. She undertakes the hard work with grim determination, behaving more like a martyr than ever before. Her beauty is once again being wasted; this work eventually erases it completely. Her lot in life has gotten worse, and Mathilde continues to believe she has gotten less than she deserves, never acknowledging the fact that she is responsible for her own fate. Her belief in her martyrdom is, in a way, the only thing she has left. When Madame Forestier reveals that the necklace was worthless, Mathilde’s sacrifices also become worthless, and her status as a martyr—however dubious—is taken away entirely. At the end of the story, Mathilde is left with nothing.
Whereas Mathilde sees herself as a martyr but is actually very far from it, Monsieur Loisel himself is truly a martyr, constantly sacrificing his desires and, ultimately, his well-being for Mathilde’s sake. He gives up his desire for a gun so that Mathilde can buy a dress, and he uncomplainingly mortgages his future to replace the necklace Mathilde loses. Forced to sacrifice his happiness and years of his life to accommodate Mathilde’s selfish desires, he is the one who truly becomes a martyr.
The Perceived Power of Objects
Mathilde believes that objects have the power to change her life, but when she finally gets two of the objects she desires most, the dress and necklace, her happiness is fleeting at best. At the beginning of “The Necklace,” we get a laundry list of all the objects she does not have but that she feels she deserves. The beautiful objects in other women’s homes and absence of such objects in her own home make her feel like an outsider, fated to envy other women. The things she does have—a comfortable home, hot soup, a loving husband—she disdains. Mathilde effectively relinquishes control of her happiness to objects that she does not even possess, and her obsession with the trappings of the wealthy leads to her perpetual discontent. When she finally acquires the dress and necklace, those objects seem to have a transformative power. She is finally the woman she believes she was meant to be—happy, admired, and envied. She has gotten what she wanted, and her life has changed accordingly. However, when she loses the necklace, the dream dissolves instantly, and her life becomes even worse than before. In reality, the power does not lie with the objects but within herself.
In contrast to Mathilde, Madame Forestier infuses objects with little power. Her wealth enables her to purchase what she likes, but more important, it also affords her the vantage point to realize that these objects are not the most important things in the world. She seems casual about, and even careless with her possessions: when Mathilde brazenly requests to borrow her striking diamond necklace, she agrees. And later, when Mathilde informs her that the necklace in her possession is actually extremely valuable, she seems more rattled by the idea that Mathilde has sacrificed her life unnecessarily. The fact that Madame Forestier owned fake jewels in the first place suggests that she understands that objects are only as powerful as people perceive them to be. For her, fake jewels can be just as beautiful and striking as real diamonds if one sees them as such.
Throughout “The Necklace,” Mathilde covets everything that other people have and she does not. Whereas Monsieur Loisel happily looks forward to having hot soup for dinner, Mathilde thinks only of the grandness of other homes and lavish table settings that she does not own. When Monsieur Loisel obtains an invitation for a party, she covets a new dress so that she can look as beautiful as the other wives as well as jewelry so that she does not look poor in comparison to them. She is so covetous of Madame Forestier’s wealth that she cannot bear to visit her, but she overcomes her angst when she needs to borrow jewelry for the party; there, her coveting is briefly sated because she gets to take one of the ornaments home with her. After the party, she covets the fur coats the other women are wearing, which highlight the shabbiness of her own wraps. This endless coveting ultimately leads to Mathilde’s downfall and, along the way, yields only fleeting happiness. It is so persistent, however, that it takes on a life of its own—Mathilde’s coveting is as much a part of her life as breathing.
The necklace, beautiful but worthless, represents the power of perception and the split between appearances and reality. Mathilde borrows the necklace because she wants to give the appearance of being wealthy; Madame Forestier does not tell her up front that the necklace is fake, perhaps because she, too, wants to give the illusion of being wealthier than she actually is. Because Mathilde is so envious of Madame Forestier and believes her to be wealthy, she never doubts the necklace’s authenticity—she expects diamonds, so diamonds are what she perceives. She enters willingly and unknowingly into this deception, and her complete belief in her borrowed wealth allows her to convey an appearance of wealth to others. Because she believes herself rich for one night, she becomes rich in others’ eyes. The fact that the necklace is at the center of the deception that leads to Mathilde’s downfall suggests that only trouble can come from denying the reality of one’s situation.