A young woman, Mathilde, is born to a low class family. With no money for a dowry, she is married to Monsieur Loisel, a clerk from the Board of Education. Mathilde always felt like she should have been born to the upper class and is unhappy in her married life, hating their home, their food, and her lack of fine clothing and jewelry. One evening, her husband presents her excitedly with an invitation to attend an event at the Minister of Public Instruction’s home. To the surprise of M. Loisel, Mathilde–now Mme. Loisel–throws the invitation down in dismay, weeping and complaining that she has nothing to wear to such an event. Her husband offers to give her the money for something suitable, and she calculates the maximum amount she could request without him refusing her immediately. When she requests this amount, her husband pales, thinking of the hunting gun for which he has been saving that exact amount; nonetheless, he agrees.
The day of the ball approaches and Mme. Loisel’s dress is made ready, but she is still dismayed. When asked why, she replies that she is embarrassed to attend the ball without any jewels. Her husband, after being chastised for suggesting she wear flowers in her hair instead, suggests that she ask to borrow some jewels from her rich friend, Mme. Forestier. Mme Loisel agrees and goes to see her friend the next day, greedily choosing one of Mme. Forestier’s finest necklaces.
At the ball, Madame Loisel is a hit - elegant, joyful, and desired for waltzes. She and M. Loisel return home at nearly 4 o’clock in the morning. Once they are home, Mme. Loisel realizes that she lost the necklace. She and her husband discuss the situation frantically; Mme. Loisel that she felt it on her after leaving the ball, so it must be in the road somewhere. Her husband goes back out to look on the ground the entire way they just walked, though he must be at work in only a few hours. He returns empty-handed hours later.
The couple places a notice with the police department and, at the suggestion of her husband, Madame Loisel writes a note to her friend saying the clasp of the necklace has broken and they are having it repaired. After a week with no news, M. Loisel proclaims that they must replace it, and the couple finds a replacement for 36,000 francs. M. Loisel had 18,000 francs from his father’s will and borrows the remaining sum, making “ruinous promises”(p.36) in the process. After all this, Madame Loisel puts the new necklace in the case belonging to the original necklace; she returns it without arousing suspicion.
To pay off the debt, both Monsieur and Madame Loisel must work tirelessly. They rent rooms and Madame Loisel learns to cook, clean for many, be “clothed like a woman of the people”(p.36) and haggle at the market. Her husband works evenings and takes on side jobs bookkeeping and copying. After ten years, they are finally able to pay off all of their debts. Sitting at home, a hardened, old woman, Madame Loisel thinks back on how her life might have been, had she not lost the necklace.
One day, while taking a walk, Mme. Loisel runs into Mme. Forestier. She approaches her old friend, and Mme. Forestier almost doesn’t recognize her. In a sudden burst of emotion, Madame Loisel reveals her entire story of losing the necklace, replacing it, and working off the cost of the replacement ever since. In response, Madame Forestier replies that the original necklace did not contain actual diamonds but rather fake diamonds, meaning the original necklace cost no more than 500 francs.
As writer in 19th-century France, Maupassant writes in a style called Literary Realism. The clearest example of this style comes in the final third of the story, when he describes the poor, working lives of the Loisels. Maupassant contrasts this with the almost romantic description of the party that the Loisels attend, at which Mathilde wore the titular necklace.
As gender played an important role in 19th-century French society, so too does it in "The Necklace." Women of the middle and upper classes did not work, instead being taken care of by their husbands. Thus, many of the Loisels’ problems involve money. Not only is Mme. Loisel bitter about her inability to improve her social class, but the Loisels also value different things, with those values mapping along gender lines. When invited to the party, Mme. Loisel begins to weep, asking her husband to lend her the money for a new dress, as clothing and jewelry were especially important indicators of status for women. In contrast, M. Loisel thinks to himself that he had wanted to save that money to buy a new gun, a manly pursuit that he could have used to bond with male friends and relax from his busy work schedule.
Beauty is treated in "The Necklace" at times as objective and at times as quite subjective, dependent on social class. On one hand, Maupassant writes that beauty was the way women could advance their place in society. On the other hand, Mme. Loisel sees Mme. Forestier's necklace as beautiful largely because of its supposed worth and the social capital it provides. At the party, it is said that Mme. Loisel felt and looked quite beautiful, and that many men desired to dance with her. In this case, the reader must ask whether this is because of her natural beauty, the upper-class attire she was able to acquire for the event, or perhaps simply her confidence from her clothing.
Until the end of the story, Mme. Loisel is not presented as a particularly likeable or sympathetic character. One example of Mme. Loisel's flaws comes when the couple has just gotten home from the party: Mme. Loisel says, "I have--I have--I no longer have Mrs. Forestier's necklace."(p.35) In this moment, it seems that she is trying, even in her panicked state, not to take the blame of what has happened, refusing to admit that she lost the necklace.
In setting up the eventual irony in one of his classic twist endings, Maupassant is careful to write that the necklace "seemed to them exactly like the one they had lost"(p.36). This is not enough to alert the reader to the eventual irony, but it points to the couple's inability to tell the two necklaces apart precisely because they were not accustomed to lavish jewelry. This in turn raises the question of whether Mme. Forestier would have recognized the substitution; though she does not let on that she recognizes any difference upon seeing the replacement for the first time and seems genuinely surprised when she hears Mme. Loisel's tale after ten years, it is suspicious that a woman of a higher class would not be able to tell the difference.
Finally, the fact that the characters never find out what happened to the necklace points toward the randomness of life and importance of circumstance. As Maupassant writes, "How would it have been if she had not lost that necklace? Who knows? Who knows? How singular is life, and how full of changes! How small a thing will ruin or save one!"(p.37) This moral of the story may be seen as a critique of the importance of social class, since the story demonstrates that a simple accident or circumstance forced upon a person (since the necklace could have been stolen purposefully) can doom a person to a completely different way of life. At the same time, Maupassant demonstrates that social class does not correlate to happiness, as Mme. Loisel seems more content in her life and her marriage when in the poor class than when behaving either as a middle- or upper-class woman.