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Mathilde Loisel wants to be a glamour girl. She's obsessed with fancy, beautiful, expensive things, and the life that accompanies them.
Unfortunately for her, she wasn't born into a family with the money to make her dream possible. Instead, she gets married to a "little clerk" and lives with him in an apartment so shabby it brings tears to her eyes (1). Cooped up all day in the house with nothing to do but cry over the chintzy furniture and the fabulous life she's not having, Mathilde hates her life, and probably her husband too. She weeps "all day long, from chagrin, from regret, from despair, and from distress" (6) and dreams day after day about escaping it all.
When it all comes down to it, Mathilde's kind of a material girl. What she wants out of life is expensive stuff.
She suffered intensely, feeling herself born for every delicacy and every luxury… She let her mind dwell on the quiet vestibules, hung with Oriental tapestries, lighted by tall lamps of bronze, and on the two tall footmen in knee breeches who dozed in the large armchairs, made drowsy by the heat of the furnace. She let her mind dwell on the large parlors, decked with old silk, with their delicate furniture, supporting precious bric-a-brac, and on the coquettish little rooms, perfumed, prepared for the five o'clock chat with the most intimate friends… (3)
Now why does Mathilde want all of these expensive, material possessions? It doesn't sound like she just wants it because she's money-obsessed. No, for Mathilde, the rich life is attractive because it's glamorous: beautiful, exciting, fine, and unlike the dingy apartment in which she lives. The glamorous life has a certain kind of magical allure to it. A lot of the objects Mathilde wants are magical, like the "tapestries peopling the walls with ancient figures and with strange birds in a fairy-like forest" (4). For Mathilde, being wealthy amounts to living in a fairy tale. Being middle class amounts to boredom.
Does her wish to live the fairy tale life make her "greedy"? Well, throughout the first part of the story, Mathilde's never satisfied. When her husband brings her the invitation all she can think about is the dress she wants. When she gets the dress, all she can think about is the jewels she doesn't have. And when she visits Mme. Forestier, she's not really satisfied with any of her jewel collection – she keeps on asking, "You haven't anything else?" (46). At least until she sees the most fabulous, expensive looking piece of jewelry, that is: the diamond necklace.
So yes, by many standards, Mathilde is probably greedy. But her greed's not the end of the story. Material things aren't the only things she wants. And there's also a deeper reason for her greed: dissatisfaction. We can't help but thinking that if she truly were satisfied with her life as it is (i.e., marriage, home, etc.) that she wouldn't be day-dreaming of a life she could never have.
The other thing Mathilde wants? Men. Rich, attractive, charming, powerful men. That passage we quote above finishes with: "the most intimate friends, men well known and sought after, whose attentions all women envied and desired" (3). Just a little afterwards, we're told:
She would so much have liked to please, to be envied, to be seductive and sought after. (5)
What's interesting about Mathilde's man-craze is that she seems to be more interested in seducing men than in the men themselves. That's because what Mathilde really wants is to be wanted. The ultimate measure of being glamorous is being attractive to glamorous men. It all forms part of one big glamorous, fairy-tale world, the world about which Mathilde fantasizes.
What's particularly frustrating to Mathilde is that she knows she's got the natural looks and charms to be a splash with the rich playboy types she wants to impress. She just needs the outward signs of being wealthy, but can't afford the necessary clothing and jewelry. Mathilde's quite vain about her "feminine charms." Her vanity may be why she's unwilling to go to the ball unless she looks better than everyone else there.
And when she does go to the ball, that's exactly what she is:
The day of the party arrived. Mme. Loisel was a success. She was the prettiest of them all, elegant, gracious, smiling, and mad with joy. All the men were looking at her, inquiring her name, asking to be introduced. All the attaches of the Cabinet wanted to dance with her. The Minister took notice of her. (53)
So Mathilde may be vain, but she's at least not deluding herself about her attractiveness. Mathilde's vanity about the ball might seem a little extreme, but think of it this way: so far as she knows, that ball might be the one chance she has to experience the life she dreams about. If you were in her shoes, wouldn't you want to make it absolutely perfect?
We know Mathilde can be a hard character to like. She can seem vain, greedy, and shallow, especially compared to her husband, who goes to great lengths to please her. He's happy with what he has, while she always wants more. He seems to care a great deal for her, while she almost never shows any sign of caring for him. Does Mathilde have any redeeming qualities?
We don't know, but we do think Mathilde deserves a little sympathy. Think about what it means to be a middle-class woman in 19th Century France. Because she's a woman, Mathilde has almost no control over her life: her family marries her off to her husband, and once she's married, he's her master. He goes out and works, and gets to go out on hunting expeditions with his buddies, while she has to stay in the house all day.
She doesn't seem to have a terribly close bond to her husband, or find him attractive. She doesn't seem to have many friends – how would she meet them? She doesn't have any kids to occupy her time. She doesn't even have anything to do, since the maid takes care of the housework. Her life seems to be miserably boring. In fact, she doesn't have anything to do except to daydream about a different life. That makes Mathilde a classic case of the desperate housewife. (For the classic case, head on over and check out Emma Bovary, the leading lady of Flaubert's Madame Bovary.
In those circumstances, can you blame Mathilde for creating a fantasy world that's more glamorous, more exciting, more beautiful than her own? Can you blame her for wanting to be wanted by somebody rich and important? Back then, if you were a woman, being wanted by a man was practically the only way to be anybody at all. And Mathilde feels like a nobody.
Still, we can't sympathize completely with Mathilde. It does seem like at some level her complete and total unhappiness has got to be self-induced. Her situation makes her unhappy, but she also refuses to try to make herself happy. She refuses to try to be content with what she does have. Which is too bad, because, as she finds out when she loses the necklace, things can get a lot worse.
Mathilde's poverty later in the story raises another question though. When Mathilde's poor, she certainly seems to be worse off. Her impoverished life suddenly becomes difficult and uncomfortable in a way her middle-class life never was. She's constantly busy doing physically demanding chores. She gets exhausted. She has to be rude to people, and pick fights over pennies. Her good looks disappear.
But then again, once she's poor, at least Mathilde is doing something. She can no longer be bored and useless. And all her hardship and work has a purpose: she and her husband have to repay the debts. So maybe, in a certain way, Mathilde's better off when she's poor. What do you think?