The Necklace is an ironic story about the distinction between appearance versus reality, written by Guy de Maupassant in 1884. We hope this study guide is particularly useful for teachers and students eager to appreciate the nuances of the story.
Mathilde Loisel - The greedy wife of a clerk who seeks wealth and believes it will bring her happiness. She remains miserable in her middle class status and strives to appear wealthy and glamorous for a fancy party. She borrows jewels from her rich friend and wears a beautiful gown, but her happiness is fleeting when she loses the necklace and is forced to spend the rest of her life paying off the debt to replace it.
Monsieur Loisel - Mathilde's husband is completely content as a clerk, enjoys his humble lifestyle and is generous. Quite the opposite from his wife.
Madame Forestier - The wealthy friend from whom Mathilde borrows the diamond necklace, Madame Forestier is the object of Mathilde's jealousy.
The Ramponneaus - The couple who throws the fancy party that the Loisels attend, George Ramponneau is the Minister of Public Instruction, Monsier Loisel's boss.
Plot Summary: The story is set in 19th century France where the main characters are a middle class couple. The wife, Madame Mathlide Loisel, strives to appear wealthy (which she equates with happiness). She borrows an opulent necklace from her friend, Madame Forestier, to wear at a special party, but then loses the necklace. The couple must come up with thirty-four thousand francs to replace it, resulting in ten years of hard work to pay off the new necklace. When the women run into each other, Madame Forestier does not recognize the much older looking Mathilde after her years of toil. Forestier reveals in a dramatic twist-ending, that the old necklace was a fake (called a "paste"), worth no more than five hundred francs.
Reality versus Appearance - This theme that things aren't as they seem plays out on many levels throughout the story. The most obvious is the original, fake diamond necklace which appeares genuine and valuable, but is actually a convincing imitation. The same is true for Mathilde, masquerading in the appearance of wealth, while in reality, she is middle class, jealous, and ugly on the inside.
Moral lesson - "Beauty is only skin-deep." This proverbial expression is the story's main lesson, meaning that a pleasing appearance is no guide to character.
Greed versus Generosity - Mathilde is filled with discontent, greed and appearances, while her husband is content and generous in his station in life.
Wealth versus Happiness - These two conditions do not necessarily correlate, though people who envy weathly people tend to think they do. Mathilde is miserable striving to be wealthy, which she believes would bring her true happiness. Ironically, she had to assume the life of a hardworking, poor woman (losing all outward appearances of beauty or wealth) in order to purchase a replacement necklace. Because of her greed, her condition was even worse than before.
Maupassant is known for his dramatic twist endings or plot twists. This is a technique in which authors make a radical change in direction of the expected outcome of a story, usually springing it on the reader near the end of the story. The result is a "gotcha" moment for the characters and the reader (though sometimes one will learn of it before the other)). When the reader learns the surprise before the characters, it's called dramatic irony.
Foreshadowing is an important literary device in the story, particularly when Maupassant writes that the new necklace "seemed" to be exactly like the old one (he does not say it is exactly the same). The reader knows something is wrong before we discover the truth in the end. Another example is early in the story, when Maupassant reveals: "she was unhappy as if she had really fallen from a higher station" which foreshadows that they fall from middle class into poverty later in the story.
Paste: Fake or imitation, as in the last sentence of the story: "Oh, my poor Mathilde! Why, my necklace was paste! It was worth at most only five hundred francs!"
Usurers: Money lenders who charge interest for their service: "He gave notes, took up ruinous obligations, dealt with usurers and all the race of lenders."
Explain what the following quotes mean and how they relate to the story:
"She dressed plainly because she could not dress well, but she was unhappy as if she had really fallen from a higher station; since with women there is neither caste nor rank, for beauty, grace and charm take the place of family and birth."
"'Nothing. Only I have no gown, and, therefore, I can't go to this ball. Give your card to some colleague whose wife is better equipped than I am.' He was in despair. He resumed:
'Come, let us see, Mathilde. How much would it cost, a suitable gown, which you could use on other occasions--something very simple?'"
"'You might wear natural flowers,' said her husband. 'They're very stylish at this time of year. For ten francs you can get two or three magnificent roses.'"
"She did not open the case, as her friend had so much feared. If she had detected the substitution, what would she have thought, what would she have said? Would she not have taken Madame Loisel for a thief?"
"She bore her part, however, with sudden heroism. That dreadful debt must be paid. She would pay it. They dismissed their servant; they changed their lodgings; they rented a garret under the roof."
"But sometimes, when her husband was at the office, she sat down near the window and she thought of that gay evening of long ago, of that ball where 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 and changeful is life! How small a thing is needed to make or ruin us!"
"'Oh, my poor Mathilde! How you are changed!'
'Yes, I have had a pretty hard life, since I last saw you, and great poverty--and that because of you!'"
Oh, my poor Mathilde! Why, my necklace was paste! It was worth at most only five hundred francs!"
1. Explain how Maupassant hooks the reader with his opening line: "The girl was one of those pretty and charming young creatures who sometimes are born, as if by a slip of fate, into a family of clerks."
2. Define a morality tale and how Maupassant's story qualifies as one. Relate your answer to the adage: "Beauty is only skin-deep."
3. Discuss the theme of appearance versus reality.
4. Discuss how "a slip of fate" and "an error of fate" foreshadows the story's plot.
6. Discuss the literary device of a twist ending. Explain what it is and why readers are drawn to these type of stories.
7. While Maupassant is best known for his realism stories with twist endings, but his works include a number of gothic horror stories, such as The Hand and A Ghost. Read one of these and compare his writing style in both genres.
8. Explain the significance of Mathilde's reflection upon losing the necklace: "How small a thing is needed to make or ruin us!"
9. Why does Monsieur Loisel put up with his wife, giving their opposing views on life?
10. Put yourself in her shoes: would you have hidden the truth if you lost something valuable of your friend's? Do you sympathize or feel Mathilde deserves her situation for trying to pretend she's something she's not?
11. Compare the elements of irony in The Gift of the Magi to this story. Identify literary devices used by each author to engage his reader in the protagonists' covetous behavior towards the objects they value.
Compare The Necklace themes and literary devices to these stories:
Choose one of these Short Story Morality Tales and compare it to this story.
Is It Actually Ironic? 3 TED-Ed lessons on irony
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