This is a very short, short story, but memorable. Matilda is married to a minor clerk in a government office in Paris. She is pretty and charming and believes deeply that she was born for a better life. De Maupassant says:
“Women are dependent neither on caste nor ancestry. With them, beauty, grace and charm take the place of birth and breeding.”
She views her own modest house and her little maid with dismay and moves through her life in a constant state of “frantic yearnings“.
“Details which another woman of her class would scarcely have noticed, tortured her and filled her with resentment . . . She had no pretty gowns, no jewels, nothing – and yet she cared for nothing else.”
There is very little mention of her husband who is content with his state in life and appears to be devoted to the the unhappy Matilda. One day he comes home with an invitation to a party at the ministry he works for, expecting his wife to be delighted, but she pouts and says she has nothing to wear. The kind, obliging husband gives her his savings to buy a dress but then she has no jewellry to go with it. Her husband, to the rescue again, suggests she borrow something from a friend and this she does:
” . . . a superb diamond necklace . . . her heart began to beat with frantic desire.”
The night of the party arrives and Matilda is beside herself with joy:
“She moved as in a beatific dream, wherein were mingled all the homage and admiration she had evoked . . . all that complete and perfect triumph so dear to a woman’s heart.”
But when the couple arrive home, Matilda realises she has lost the necklace.
Her husband goes to moneylenders, he raises loans, he compromises his entire future until there is enough money to buy another necklace. Matilda gives it to her friend but says nothing of the deception. Herself and her husband move to a garret, the maid is dismissed and Matilda goes out to scrub floors. Over the next ten years she and her husband work at every extra and menial job they can get to repay the loans, and they make it. They manage to get themselves clear of debt, but by this time Matilda has lost all her looks and charm:
“She had become the typical poor man’s wife, rough, course, hard-bitten. Her hair was neglected; her skirts hung awry; and her hands were red.”
A day arrives then when she meets her old friend by accident and she decides to tell her the truth about the necklace. Her friend is shocked and greatly distressed by this disclosure:
“Oh, my poor, dear Matilda. Why, my diamonds were only imitation . . . “
Because of the denouement, the story is memorable, and there are echoes of O Henry here. Matilda is presented as an empty-headed, silly girl, unable to realise that she has a good life – a loving husband, a maid, a nice home. And yet . . . a certain sympathy . . . I’d like some diamonds myself, and a green velvet coat, an apartment in Venice . . .
And what about her husband who did his best and lost everything on her account? Was he resentful? Did he ever blame her for her vanity and greed? How they communed together I can’t imagine as Matilda lived entirely inside her own head. So I’m left with two questions:
What happened next? I’d really love to know. And why had they no children?