Narration and Point of View
Like most of Maupassant’s short stories, “The Necklace” is told by an omniscient third-person narrator, who refrains from judging the characters or their actions. The narrator does have access to the characters’ thoughts, and mentions that Madame Loisel is unhappy because she feels that she married beneath her. But for the most part, the narrator simply describes the events of the story, leaving it up to the reader to determine the nature of the characters through their actions. Most of all, the narrator is concerned with Madame Loisel. Though most of the story concerns the events surrounding the ball, the narrator recounts her birth into a humble family, her marriage, and also the many years of poverty they suffer afterward as a result of losing the necklace. This deft narration allows Maupassant to tell a story that stretches many years in the space of only a few pages.
The necklace is the central symbol of the story. Madame Loisel “had no clothes, no jewels, nothing,” and while her husband can buy her a dress, they cannot afford jewelry. The necklace thus represents Madame Loisel’s greed and also her artificiality. She judges herself by the things that she has, and believes others will too. The necklace of artificial diamonds symbolizes the insincerity of her character. Those who admire the necklace only for its supposed worth have been fooled. Just because it looks real does not mean that it is real. This symbolism can be extended to Madame Loisel: Just because she looks like an upper-class lady in her ball gown and jewels does not mean that she is one. The men at the ball who admire her and succumb to her charms and wits can also be said to value appearance over reality, since they have been beguiled by a woman whose charms have been brought out by such artificial means.
Many critics have read “The Necklace” as a Cinderella tale in reverse. Like Cinderella, Madame Loisel lives a humble life of drudgery (or so she believes) and cannot attend the ball until a fairy godmother figure — Madame Forestier — provides her with a dazzling necklace that will make her one of the most beautiful women at the dance. As Madame Loisel leaves the ball, the illusion of her refinement begins to crumble. Just as Cinderella’s gown turns into a servant’s frock, so must Madame Loisel put on “modest everyday clothes” to protect herself from the cold of the night air. Ashamed, she “rapidly descend[s] the staircase,” likely losing the necklace then — just as Cinderella loses her glass shoe as she hurries to beat the stroke of midnight. The wagon that takes the Loisels home is old and shabby, more like a pumpkin than a grand carriage. Whereas Cinderella eventually wins her prince and thus gains admission to elite society, Madame Loisel’s fortunes progress in the opposite direction from “happily ever after.” In Cinderella, truth and beauty go hand-in-hand, but in “The Necklace,” Madame Loisel is not truthful to Madame Forestier about the fate of the necklace, and she loses her beauty during the years of hard labor she suffers as a result of her insincerity and greed.
Concerned with the disparity between appearance and reality, “The Necklace” deals with issues arising from ironic situations. In a society that so highly values appearance, it is ironic that the beautiful Madame Loisel is excluded from society because of her class standing. The story’s greatest irony, however, is embodied in the necklace itself; while it appears to be a piece of jewelry of great value, it is really an imitation. The Loisels sacrifice their humble but sufficient home to buy an expensive replacement for a cheap original. The reader may also discover irony in the main character’s name. “Madame Loisel” sounds much like “mademoiselle,” the French term for a young, unmarried girl, which is what Mathilde wishes she could be.
In tragic stories, hamartia is an error in action or judgment that causes the protagonist to experience a reversal of fortune. In “The Necklace,” this is not when Madame Loisel borrows her friend’s jewelry, but when she fails to tell Madame Forestier the truth about what has happened to it. Because she does not tell the truth, Madame Loisel does not learn that the necklace is a fake. She and her husband are forced into lives of poverty as a direct result of their dishonesty.