The Necklace – Intermediate Level
Mathilde was one of those pretty and charming girls who are sometimes born, as if by a mistake of nature, into a working class family.
She had no hope of getting a good job. She saw no way of being known, understood, loved, married by a rich and important man. So she let herself be married to Loisel, a low level office worker in the Ministry of Education. She was as unhappy as if she had fallen from a much higher position in life.
With women beauty, grace and charm take the place of family and birth. Sometimes they make women of the people feel the equals of the very greatest ladies. So Mathilde suffered endlessly, feeling herself born for every fine thing in life. She suffered from the poorness of her house, from its bare walls, worn chairs, and ugly curtains. Other women of her class would not even have thought about these things. But they made her feel sad and angry. When the little girl they employed to do her housework came, she felt even worse. She imagined a house with large entertaining rooms, expensive furniture, beautiful pictures on the walls and many servants. She imagined other smaller rooms for parties with close friends, among them rich and famous men whose attention to her would make other women jealous.
At dinner, she would sit opposite her husband at the round table covered with a cloth that had not been changed for three days. He would take the cover off the dish saying excitedly, “Aha! Meat soup! What could be better?” She would imagine delicious meals made from all kinds of expensive food, served on fine plates with shining silver.
Mathilde had no nice clothes, no jewels, nothing. These were the only things that seemed important to her. She felt that she was made for them, and wished so much to be wildly attractive and desired by men. She had a friend, an old school friend, who was rich. But she did not like to visit her anymore because she felt so sad when she came home.
One evening Loisel came home looking very happy, holding a large envelope in his hand. “Here’s something for you,” he said.
She tore the paper quickly and drew out a printed card. On it were these words:
“The Minister of Education and Madame Ramponneau request the honor of Mr Loisel and his wife’s company at a ball to be held at the Ministry on the evening of Monday, January the 18th.”
Instead of being delighted, as Loisel had hoped, Mathilde threw the invitation across the table. “What do you want me to do with that?” she said angrily.
“Why, my dear, I thought you’d be pleased,” he answered. “You never go out, and this is a great opportunity. I had great trouble to get it. Every one wants to go, and very few invitations are given to office workers. Many important people will be there.”
“And what do you suppose I am to wear at such a thing?” she said impatiently.
He had not thought about it. “Why… the dress that you go to the theatre in,” he said. “It looks very nice… to me.”
He stopped, surprised and unable to understand when he saw that Mathilde was beginning to cry. Two large tears ran slowly down from the corners of her eyes towards the corners of her mouth.
“What’s the matter? What’s the matter?” he said.
With a great effort she stopped crying. “Nothing!” she replied in a calm voice, wiping her wet cheeks. “Only I don’t have a good enough dress and so I can’t go to this ball. Give your invitation to another worker whose wife is better dressed than I am.”
Loisel was very disappointed.
“Look here, Mathilde,” he continued. “What would be the cost of a suitable dress, one which you could also use on other occasions, something very simple.”
Loisel was always very careful with money, so Mathilde said nothing for several seconds. She was wondering how much she could ask for without getting a cry of horror and immediate refusal.
“I don’t know exactly,” she replied at last. “But I think I could do it with four hundred francs.”
Loisel grew slightly pale, for this was exactly the amount he had been saving to buy a gun. He was planning to do a little shooting next summer with some friends who went bird hunting on Sundays.
“Very well,” he said. “I’ll give you four hundred francs. But try and get a really nice dress with the money.”
The day of the ball drew near, and the dress was ready. However, Mathilde seemed sad and worried.
“What’s the matter with you?” Loisel said to her one evening. “You’ve seemed very odd for the last three days.”
“I’m very worried that I don’t have any jewels, not a single stone, to wear,” she replied. “I shall look very poor. I would almost rather not go at all.”
“Wear flowers,” he said. “They’re very stylish at this time of the year. For ten francs you could get some beautiful flowers.”
She was not sure. “No,” she said finally. “There is nothing that makes you feel so low as looking poor in the middle of a lot of rich women.”
“How silly you are!” said Loisel. “Go and see your friend Madame Forestier and ask her to lend you some jewels. You know her quite well enough for that.”
“That’s true,” she cried out in delight. “I never thought of it,”
The next day Mathilde went to see her friend and told her about her problem.
Madame Forestier went to her wardrobe, took out a large jewel box, brought it back, and opened it. “Choose, my dear,” she said.
First she saw some bracelets, then a pearl necklace, then a beautifully made gold cross set with jewels. She tried them on in front of a mirror, unable to make up her mind to leave them, to give them up. “Have you anything else?” she asked.
“Why, yes. Look for yourself. I don’t know what you would like.”
Suddenly she discovered, in a black box, a beautiful diamond necklace. Her heart began to beat for want of it. Her hands shook as she lifted it. She put it around her neck, looked at herself in the mirror, and decided that it was perfect.
“Could you lend me this, just this alone?” she asked.
“Yes, of course.”
She threw her arms around her friend’s neck and kissed her. Then she went home, filled with excitement.
The night of the ball arrived. Mathilde was a success. She was the prettiest woman present, attractive, graceful, smiling, and wild with joy. All the men looked at her, asked her name, and wanted to be introduced to her. All the important men wanted to dance with her. The Minister even noticed her.
She danced madly and in great happiness, drunk with pleasure. She had no thought for anything, in the triumph of her beauty, in the glory of her success. She was lost in a cloud of happiness because of the attention of men, a feeling so sweet to a woman’s heart.
She left the ball about four o’clock in the morning. Since midnight Loisel had been sleeping in an empty little room, in company with three other men whose wives were having a good time.
He threw over her shoulders the coat he had brought for her to go home in. It was an ordinary, everyday coat that did not match the beauty of the expensive ball dress. She knew this and wanted to hurry away. She did not want to be noticed by the other women putting on their costly furs.
Loisel held her back. “Wait a little. You’ll catch cold in the open. I’m going to get us a cab.” But she would not listen to him and quickly came down the staircase. When they were out in the street they could not find a cab. They began to look for one, shouting at the drivers whom they saw passing in the distance.
They walked down towards the Seine River, shivering with cold. At last they found a cab. It was one the those which are only to be seen in Paris after dark because they are too old and in poor condition to operate in the daylight. It took them to their door. They sadly walked up the stairs to their flat. It was the end, for her. As for him, he was thinking that he must be back at the office at ten.
She took off the coat, so as to see herself in all her glory in front of the mirror one more time. Suddenly she gave out a cry. The necklace was no longer around her neck!
“What’s the matter with you?” asked Loisel, already half undressed.
She turned towards him looking very worried.
“I… I… I’ve no longer got Madame Forestier’s necklace.”
He stood up, looking confused.
“What! How? Impossible!”
They searched through her dress, through the coat, in the pockets, everywhere. They could not find it.
“Are you sure that you still had it on when you came away from the ball?” he asked.
“Yes, I touched it as you put on my coat at the Ministry.”
“But if you had lost it in the street, we should have heard it fall. It must be in the cab.”
“Yes, probably. Did you take its number?”
“No. I didn’t notice it, did you?”
They looked at one another, unable to think what to do. At last Loisel put on his clothes again. “I’ll go over all the ground we walked,” he said, “and see if I can’t find it.”
She remained in her ball dress, sitting on a chair. She did not have the strength to get into bed and could not bring herself to make a fire or do anything else.
Loisel returned about seven o’clock. He had found nothing. Then he went to the police station, to the newspapers to offer a reward, to the cab companies. He tried everything he could think of that might help them to find it.
She waited at home all day long, not knowing what to do.
When Loisel finally came in that night, his face lined and pale. He had discovered nothing. “You must write to your friend,” he said, “and tell her that you’ve broken the clasp of her necklace and are getting it fixed. That will give us time to look further.”
By the end of a week they had lost all hope. “We must see about replacing the diamonds,” said Loisel, who looked like he had aged five years.
The next day they took the box which had held the necklace and went to the jewellers whose name was inside. He looked in his books.
“I am sorry, it was not I who sold this necklace. I must simply have supplied the box.”
Then they went from jeweller to jeweller, searching for a necklace like the first, trying hard to remember exactly what it looked like and sick with worry.
In a shop at the Palais-Royal they found a string of diamonds which seemed to them to be just like the one they were looking for. It was worth forty thousand francs. They were allowed to have it for thirty-six thousand.
They asked the jeweller not to sell it for three days. And they came to an agreement that he would buy it back for thirty-four thousand francs, if the first one were found before the end of February.
Loisel had eighteen thousand francs which had been left to him by his father. He planned to borrow the rest.
He did borrow it, getting a thousand from one man, five hundred from another, a hundred here, sixty there. He borrowed at high interest rates from greedy money lenders, not even sure that he could pay them back. Loisel was filled with horror at the terrible life that he saw for himself in the future. But he went to get the necklace and paid the jeweller the thirty-six thousand francs.
Mathilde took the necklace back to Madame Forestier. “You ought to have brought it back sooner,” her friend said in a cold voice. “I might have needed it.”
Madame Forestier did not, as Mathilde had feared, open the case. If she had noticed any change in the necklace, what would she have thought? What would she have said? Would she not have thought she was a thief?
After this, Mathilde came to know the terrible life of the very poor. From the very first she played her part bravely. The money they had borrowed must be paid back. She would help pay it. They changed their flat and took a small room high up under the roof of the building.
She stopped using the little girl to do the housework and came to know heavy work and the hateful duties of the kitchen. She washed the dishes, wearing out her pink fingernails on the the bottoms of greasy pots and pans. She washed the dirty sheets, the shirts and other clothes, and hung them out to dry on a rope. Every morning she took the garbage down into the street and carried up the water, stopping to rest on each landing. And, dressed like a poor woman, she went from shop to shop, a basket on her arm, bargaining for the cheapest possible prices and being treated rudely.
Every month money had to be paid back.
Loisel worked in the evenings doing the accounts of a shop keeper. At night, he often did copying for a few pennies a page.
This life lasted ten years.
At the end of ten years, everything was paid off… everything.
Mathilde looked old now. She had become like all the other strong, hard, rough women of very poor families. Her hair was badly done, her skirts were no longer neat, her hands were red, and she spoke in a loud, sharp voice. But sometimes, when Loisel was at the office, she sat down by the window and thought of that evening of long ago. She thought of the ball at which she had been so beautiful and so much admired.
What would have happened if she had never lost the necklace. Who knows? Who knows? How strange life is, how easily changed! How little is needed to make or ruin us!
One Sunday, Mathilde went for a walk to get some fresh air after working all week. She saw a woman who was walking with a child. It was Madame Forestier, still young looking, still beautiful, still charming.
Mathilde had a strange feeling in her heart. Should she speak to her? Yes, certainly. And now that the money had been paid back, she would tell her everything. Why not? She went up to her.
“Good morning, Jeanne.”
The other did not recognise her, and was surprised at being so familiarly addressed by a poor woman.
“But… Madame…” she said. “I don’t know… you must be making a mistake.”
“No… I am Mathilde Loisel.”
Her friend gave out a cry.
“Oh!… my poor Mathilde, how you have changed!”
“Yes, I’ve had some very hard life since I saw you last… and all because of you.”
“Of me! How was that?”
“You remember the diamond necklace you lent me for the ball at the Ministry?”
“Well, I lost it.”
“How could you? You brought it back.”
“I brought you another one just like it. And for the last ten years we have been paying for it. You realise it wasn’t easy for us, as we had little money. Anyway, it’s paid for at last, and I’m very happy about it.”
Madame Forestier had stopped.
“You say you bought a diamond necklace to replace mine?”
“Yes. You hadn’t noticed it?” said Mathilde, smiling proudly. “They looked almost the same.”
“Oh, my poor Mathilde!” said Madame Forestier, taking her two hands. “Why, that necklace was a cheap copy. It was worth at the very most five hundred francs!”