Mathilde was a pretty and charming girl, born, as if by an error of fate, into a family of clerks. She had no means of becoming known, understood, loved or be wedded to an aristocrat; and so she let herself be married to a minor official at the Ministry of Education.
She dressed plainly, because she had never been able to afford anything better. She suffered endlessly, feeling she was entitled to all the luxuries of life. She suffered because of her shabby, poorly furnished house. All these things, that another woman of her class would not even have noticed, tormented her and made her resentful. She dreamed of a grand, palatial mansion, with vast rooms and inviting smaller rooms, perfumed for afternoon chats with close friends.
Yet, she had no rich dresses, no jewels, nothing; and these were the only things she loved. She wanted so much to charm, to be envied, to be sought after.
She had a rich friend, a former schoolmate at the convent, whom she avoided visiting, because afterwards she would weep with regret, despair and misery.
One evening her husband came home with an air of triumph, holding a large envelope in his hand. “Look,” he said, “here’s something for you.”
She tore open the paper and drew out a card, on which was printed the words: “The Minister of Education and Mme. Georges Rampouneau request the pleasure of M. and Mme. Loisel’s company at the Ministry, on the evening of Monday, January 18th.”
Instead of being delighted, as her husband had hoped, she threw the invitation on the table resentfully, and muttered, “What do you want me to do with that ? And what do you expect me to wear if I go?”
He hadn’t thought of that. He stammered, “Why,
the dress you go to the theatre in. It seems very nice to me …”
He stopped, stunned, distressed to see his wife crying … He stuttered, “What’s the matter ? Let’s see, Mathilde. How much would a suitable dress cost ?”
She thought for a moment, computing the cost, and also wondering what amount she could ask for without an immediate refusal. At last she answered hesitantly, “I don’t know exactly, but I think I could do it with four hundred francs.”
He turned a little pale, because he had been saving that exact amount to buy a gun for a hunting summer, in the country near Nanterre, with a few friends. However, he said, “Very well, I can give you four hundred francs. But try and get a really beautiful dress.”
The day of the party drew near, and Madame Loisel seemed sad, restless, anxious, though her dress was ready.
One evening her husband said to her, “What’s the matter ? You’ve been acting strange these last three days.”
She replied: “I’m upset that I have no jewels, not a single stone to wear. I would rather not go to the party.”
“You could wear flowers,” he said, “They are very fashionable at this time of year.” She was not convinced. The next day she went to her friend’s house and told her of her distress.
Madame Forestier went to her mirrored wardrobe, took out a large box, brought it back, opened it, and said to Madame Loisel:
“Choose, my dear.”
First Mathilde saw some bracelets, then a pearl necklace. She tried on the jewellery in the mirror. She kept asking, “You have nothing else ?” “Why, yes. But I don’t know what you like.” Suddenly she discovered, in a black satin box, a superb diamond necklace, and her heart began to beat with uncontrolled desire. Her hands trembled as she took it. She fastened it around her neck and stood lost in ecstasy as she looked at herself.
Then she asked anxiously, hesitating, “Would you lend me this, just this ?”
“Why, yes, of course.”
She threw her arms around her friend’s neck, rapturously, then fled with her treasure.
The day of the party arrived. Madame Loisel was a success. She was prettier than all the other women, elegant, gracious, smiling, and full of joy.
She danced wildly, with passion, forgetting everything in the triumph of her beauty and success, floating in a cloud of happiness.
Mathilde and her husband left at about four o’clock in the morning. When they were finally in the street, they could not find a cab. They walked down toward the Seine, till they found one. They were dropped off at their door in the Rue des Martyrs, and sadly, it was all over, for her.
In front of the mirror, she took a final look at herself in all her glory. But suddenly she uttered a cry. She no longer had the necklace round her neck ! “What is the matter ?” asked her husband.
She turned towards him, panic-stricken, “I have … I have … I no longer have Madame Forestier’s necklace.” He stood up, distraught, “What!… How! …That’s impossible !”
They looked in the folds of her dress, in the folds of her cloak, in her pockets, everywhere. But they could not find it.
“Are you sure you still had it on when you left the hall ?” he asked.
“Yes. I touched it in the hall at the Ministry.” “But if you had lost it in the street we would have heard it fall. It must be in the cab.”
“Yes. That’s probably it. Did you take his number ?”
“No.” They stared at each other, stunned. At last Loisel put his clothes on again.
“I’m going back,” he said, “Over the whole route we walked, and see if I can find it.”
He left. She remained in her ball dress all night, her mind blank. Her husband returned at about seven o’clock. He had found nothing.
He went to the police, to the newspapers to offer a reward, to the cab companies, everywhere the tiniest glimmer of hope led him.
She waited all day, in despair at this frightful disaster. Loisel returned in the evening, a hollow, pale figure; he had found nothing. “You must write to your friend,” he said, “tell her you have broken the clasp of her necklace and that you are having it mended. It will give us time to look some more.”
She wrote as he dictated.
At the end of one week they had lost all hope. And Loisel, who suddenly looked aged, declared, “We must consider how to replace the jewel.”
And so, they went from jeweller to jeweller, looking for a necklace like the other one, consulting their memories, both sick with grief and anguish.
In a shop at the Palais Royal, they found a string of diamonds which seemed to be 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 would take it back for thirty-four thousand francs if the other necklace was found before the end of February.
Loisel had eighteen thousand francs which his father had left him. He would borrow the rest.
And he did borrow. He gave notes, made ruinous agreements, dealt with every type of money-lender. Then he went to get the new necklace, and laid down on the jeweller’s counter thirty-six thousand francs.
When Madame Loisel took the necklace back, Madame Forestier said coldly, “You should have returned it sooner, I might have needed it.”
From then on, Madame Loisel knew the horrible life of the very poor. But she played her part heroically. The dreadful debt must be paid. She would pay it. They dismissed their maid; they changed their lodgings; they rented a garret under the roof.
She came to know the drudgery of housework, the odious labours of the kitchen. She washed the dishes, the dirty linen, she carried the garbage down to the street every morning, and carried up the water, stopping at each landing to catch her breath and dressed like a commoner. She had to bargain at markets, quarrel and face insults over every miserable sou.
Each month they had to pay some loans, renew others, get more time. Her husband worked extra, every evening, doing accounts for a tradesman, and often, late into the night, he sat copying a manuscript at five sous a page. And this life lasted ten years. At the end of ten years they had paid off everything, even the interest.
Madame Loisel looked old now. Often, she brooded over the past – What would have happened if she had not lost that necklace ? How strange life is, how fickle ! How little is needed for one to be ruined or saved!
One Sunday, as she was walking in the Champs Élysées suddenly she saw Madame Forestier, still young, still beautiful, still charming.
Madame Loisel felt emotional. Should she speak to her ? Yes, of course. And now that she had paid, she would tell her all. Why not ?
She went up to her, “Good morning, Jeanne.” The other, astonished to be addressed so familiarly by this common woman, did not recognise her. She stammered:
“But-Madame -I don’t know. You must have made a mistake.”
“No, I am Mathilde Loisel.”
Her friend uttered a cry, “Oh! … my poor Mathilde, how you’ve changed ! …”
“Yes, I have had some hard times since I last saw you, and many miseries … and all because of you! …”
“Me ? How can that be ?” “You remember that diamond necklace that you lent me to wear to the Ministry party?” “Yes. Well ?” “Well, I lost it.” “What do you mean? You brought it back.” “I brought you back another exactly like it. And it has taken us ten years to pay for it. It wasn’t easy for us, we had very little. But 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 didn’t notice then? They were very similar.” And she smiled with proud and innocent pleasure. Madame Forestier, deeply moved, took both her hands.
“Oh, my poor Mathilde ! Mine was an imitation ! It was worth five hundred francs at most! …”