She was one of those pretty and charming girls, born, as if by an error of destiny, into a working-class family.
She had no dowry, no expectations, no way of becoming known, understood, loved, married to a rich and distinguished man; and she let herself be married to a lowly civil servant from the Ministry of Education.
Unable to indulge in luxury, she lived simply, but she was as unhappy as somebody cast out from society; women have no caste or race, but their beauty, their grace and their charm act in place of their birthright and their family.
Their natural finesse, their instinctive elegance, their flexible spirit are the only hierarchy that applies to them, and these things make equals of girls from the village and the most important ladies.
She suffered constantly, feeling that she was born for every delicacy and every luxury. She suffered from the poverty of her home, the misery of the walls, the worn chairs, the ugly fabric.
All these things, which another women of her class would have never noticed, tortured and offended her. Seeing the girl from Brittany who did her housework aroused in her bitter regrets and distraught dreams.
She dreamt of clean antechambres, hung with Oriental drapes, lit by tall bronze lamps, and of two tall valets in knee breeches who slept in large armchairs, drowsy from the heavy heat of the stove.
She dreamt of large rooms covered in ancient silk, of delicate furniture laden with priceless trinkets, and of small stylish perfumed rooms, designed for five-hour chats with her most intimate friends, well-known and sought-after men, whom every woman wanted.
When she sat down to eat, at the round table covered with the tablecloth of the last three days, across from her husband, who uncovered the soup tureen and declared, with an enchanted air,
"Ah! the delicious pot-au-feu! I can't think of a better meal!" she dreamt of fine dinners with gleaming silverware and tapestries populating the walls with ancient characters and strange birds in the middle of a fairy forest;
she dreamt of exquisite dishes served in marvelous tableware, of gallant remarks whispered and heard with a sphinx's smile, while eating the pink flesh of a trout or the wings of a grouse.
She had no outfits, no jewels, nothing. And she loved nothing but that; she felt made for it. She would have so loved to please, to be wanted, to be seductive and longed for.
She had a rich friend, a classmate from the convent whom she no longer wanted to visit, since she suffered so much when she had to come back. And she cried for entire days, from chagrin, from regret, from despair and distress.
But one day, her husband came home, ecstatic, holding a large envelope in his hand. "Look," he said, "something for you." She rapidly tore the paper and pulled out a card containing these words:
"The Ministry of Education and Mrs. Georges Ramponneau kindly request that Mr. and Mrs. Loisel do them the honour of spending an evening at the Minister's estate, Monday, January 18."
Instead of being delighted, as her husband had hoped, she hastily threw the invitation onto the table, muttering: "What do you expect me to do with this?"
"But, my darling, I thought you would be happy. You never go out, and this is an opportunity, a good one! I had an immense amount of trouble procuring it.
Everybody wants it; it's very sought-after, and it's not usually given to employees. You will see all the important people there."
She looked at him irritatedly and said with impatience, "What do you want me to throw on my back to go there?" He hadn't thought of that; he stammered, "Why not the dress you wear to go to the theatre? It seems to me to be very nice..."
He stopped, stupefied, distraught, seeing that his wife was crying. Two big tears rolled slowly from the corners of her eyes towards the corners of her mouth; he stammered, "What's wrong? What's wrong?"
But, with a violent effort, she had suppressed her sadness, and she replied in a calm voice, wiping her damp cheeks:
"Nothing. It's just I don't have anything to wear and consequently, I can't go to this party. Give your invitation to a colleague whose wife will be better-dressed than I." He was sorry. He tried again:
"Look, Mathilde. How much would it cost to buy a proper outfit, which you could use again for other occasions, something quite simple?"
She reflected for several seconds, mentally tabulating her finances and considering also what sum she could request without eliciting an immediate refusal and a terrified exclamation from the thrifty civil servant. Finally, she replied hesitantly:
"I don't know exactly, but I think with four hundred francs I could do it."
He had paled a little, since he was putting aside just that sum to buy a gun and go on hunting trips next summer, in the plains of Nanterre, with some friends who went there to shoot skylarks, on Sundays.
However, he said: "All right. I will give you four hundred francs. But try to get a nice dress."
The day of the party approached, and Mrs. Loisel seemed sad, worried, anxious, although her outfit was ready. One evening, her husband asked her:
"What's wrong? Look, you've been acting strange for three days." And she replied: "It bothers me that I don't have a jewel, a precious stone, nothing to wear. I will look like the poorest of the poor. I would almost rather not go to the party." He replied:
"You can wear flowers. It's very stylish this season. For ten francs you can get two or three magnificent roses." But she wasn't convinced. "No... there's nothing more humiliating than appearing poor when one is in the company of rich ladies."
But her husband cried, "Silly thing! Go find your friend Mrs. Forestier and ask her to lend you some jewels. Surely you're close enough with her to do that." She gave a cry of joy. "You're right! It had never occurred to me."
The next day, she went to her friend's house and told her about her troubles. Mrs. Forestier went to her mirrored wardrobe, took out a large box, brought it over, opened it, and said to Mrs. Loisel:
"Choose, my dear." First she saw bracelets, then a pearl necklace, then a Venetian cross, gold and precious stones, admirable handiwork. She tried on the jewelry in front of the mirror, hesitant, unable to take them off, to give them back. She kept asking,
"You don't have anything else?" "But of course I do! Keep looking. I don't know what you will like."
All of a sudden she discovered, in a black satin box, a superb diamond necklace; and her heart started beating with wild desire. Her hands shook as she took it. She tied it around her throat; on her high-collared dress, and stood in ecstasy before her reflection.
Then she asked, hesitantly, anxiously: "Could you lend me this, just this?" "But of course." She passionately embraced her friend, then fled with her treasure.
The day of the party arrived. Mrs. Loisel was a success. She was the prettiest one there, elegant, gracious, smiling and wildly happy. Every man watched her, asked her name, sought to be introduced to her. All the senior employees wanted to waltz with her. The Minister noticed her.
She danced drunkenly, passionately, intoxicated by the pleasure, thinking of nothing else, in the triumph of her beauty, in the glory of her success, in a sort of cloud of happiness made of all those homages, all that admiration, all those awakened desires, that victory, so complete, and so sweet to the heart of a woman.
She left around 4am. Her husband, since midnight, had been sleeping in a small deserted room with three other gentlemen whose wives were having a good time.
He threw on her shoulders the clothes he had brought for the outing, modest clothes from everyday life, whose poverty clashed with the elegance of her outfit from the dance. She felt it and wanted to flee, so she wouldn't be noticed by the other women who wrapped themselves in rich furs.
Loisel held her back: "Wait a second. You'll get cold outside. I'll call a cab." But she didn't listen and ran quickly down the stairs. When they reached the road, they found no cab; and they started to search for one, crying after the chauffeurs they saw passing from far away.
They descended towards the Seine, desperate, shivering. Finally, on the quay, they found one of those old nocturnal coupés that one only sees in Paris once the night falls, as if ashamed of their poverty during the daytime.
He delivered them to their door, rue des Martyrs, and they sombrely climbed the stairs home. It was over, for her. And it occurred to him that he would have to be at the Ministry at 10am.
She removed the clothes she had wrapped around her shoulders, in front of the mirror, in order that she might see herself once again in her glory. But suddenly she uttered a cry. The diamond necklace was gone from her neck!
Her husband, already halfway undressed, asked: "What's wrong?" And she turned towards him, panic-stricken. "I've... I've... I've lost Mrs. Forestier's necklace." He sat up, distraught. "What! ... how!... That's impossible!"
And they searched in the folds of the dress, in the folds of the coat, in the pockets, everywhere. They found no trace of the necklace. He asked: "Are you sure you still had it when you left the party?" "Yes, I felt it in the Ministry's lobby."
"But if you had lost it in the street, we would have heard it fall. It must be in the coach." "Yes, probably. Did you take down the number?" "No, and you? You didn't look at the number?" "No."
They looked at each other, floored. Finally Loisel got dressed. "I'll go," he said, "retrace the whole route that we did on foot, to see if I can't find it."
And he left. She stayed in her ballgown, lacking the energy to go to bed, slumped on a chair, with no energy, no inspiration. Her husband returned around 7:00. He had found nothing.
He went to the police department, to the newspapers, offered a reward, checked the taxi companies, anywhere and everywhere he thought he felt a glimmer of hope.
She waited all day, in an unchanging state of dismay over this horrible disaster. Loisel returned in the evening, with a hollow and pale face. He had had no luck.
"We need," he said, "to write to your friend and tell her you broke the clasp of her necklace and you're getting it fixed. That will give us the time to organize ourselves. She wrote under his dictation.
By the end of the week, they had lost all hope. And Loisel, looking five years older, declared: "We need to start thinking about replacing that necklace."
The next morning, they took the case that had contained the necklace and went to the jeweller, whose name was inside the box. He consulted his books: "It wasn't me, madame, who sold this necklace. I must have simply provided the box."
So they went from jeweller to jeweller, looking for a necklace like the other one, digging in their memory; both of them sick with chagrin and anxiety.
They found, in a boutique near the Palais Royal, a string of diamonds that appeared to be entirely identical to the one they were looking for. It cost forty thousand francs. They could have it for thirty-six thousand.
They begged the jeweller not to sell it during the next three days. And they made a deal that they could return it in exchange for thirty-four thousand francs, if they found the other one before the end of February.
Loisel possessed eighteen thousand francs that his father had left him. He would borrow the rest.
He borrowed, asking for a thousand francs from one, five hundred from another, five louis here, three louis there. He wrote bills, consented to ruinous pledges, did business with usurers, all kinds of moneylenders.
He compromised everything to the end of his existence, risked his signature without even knowing if he could honour his word, and, terrified by anxiety about the future, by the black misery that would fall on him, by the prospect of all the physical privations and all the moral tortures, he went to buy the new necklace, depositing on the merchant's counter thirty-six thousand francs.
When Mrs. Loisel brought the necklace to Mrs. Forestier, the latter told her coldly, "You should have returned it sooner; I might have needed it."
She didn't open the box, something her friend was afraid of. If she had noticed the substitution, what would she have thought? What would she have said? Wouldn't she have taken her for a thief?
Mrs. Loisel lived the horrible life of those in need. In any case, she accepted her lot, all at once, heroically. This terrible debt had to be paid. She would pay. They dismissed the maid; they changed houses; they rented a garret under the roof.
She learned heavy household duties and the odious tasks of the kitchen. She washed dishes, wasting her pink nails on greasy pots and the bottoms of saucepans.
She lathered the dirty laundry, the shirts and the rags, which she dried on a string; she took down to the street, every morning, the trash, and brought up the water, stopping at each floor to gasp for breath.
And, dressed like a peasant, she went to the greengrocer's, the corner store, the butcher, with her basket on her arm, haggling, abused, protecting her money down to every last penny.
Every month there were bills that needed to be paid, and others that needed to be renewed, to gain more time. The husband worked, during the evening, as an accountant for a businessman, and in the night, often, he copied out manuscripts at five sous per page. And this life lasted ten years.
At the end of ten years, they had paid everything back, everything, with interest and accumulations of compound interest.
Mrs. Loisel looked old, now. She had become the strong, hard, rough woman of poor households. Badly-combed, with her skirts on sideways and red hands, she spoke loudly, dousing her floors in water as she cleaned them.
But sometimes, when her husband was at work, she sat by the window, and she thought of that night, of that dance where she had been so pretty and so celebrated.
What could have happened if she had not lost that necklace? Who knew? who knew? Life is so strange, so unpredictable. Such a small thing can make you or break you!
One Sunday, when she was visiting the Champs-Elysées in order to forget the week's hard work, she suddenly noticed a woman walking with her child. It was Mrs. Forestier, still young, still beautiful, still seductive.
Mrs. Loisel was moved. Should she speak to her? Yes, of course. And now that she had paid, she could tell her everything. Why not? She approached.
"Hello, Jeanne." The lady didn't recognize her at all, and was shocked at being called so familiarly by this bourgeoise. She stammered,
"Madame! I don't know... You must be mistaken." "No! I am Mathilde Loisel." Her friend let out a cry. "Oh! My poor Mathilde! You look so different!..."
"Yes, I've lived a hard life since I've last seen you; and plenty of misery... and all because of you!" "Because of me! How so?"
"You remember, of course, the diamond necklace that you lent me to go to the party at the Ministry." "Yes. And what of it?" "Well, I lost it."
"How? Because you returned it to me!" "I brought you another one, identical to it. And we've been paying for it for ten years. You understand it wasn't easy for us, who had nothing... but it's finally over, and I'm devilishly happy."
Mrs. Forestier stopped short. "You said you bought a diamond necklace to replace mine?" "Yes. You never noticed, eh! They were exactly alike." And she smiled with a proud and naïve joy.
Mrs. Forestier, deeply moved, took her by the hands. "Oh! My poor Mathilde! But mine was fake! It was worth five hundred francs at the most!..."