The narrator introduces us to a girl. We don't know her name yet, but apparently she's charming, attractive, and, believes that she should have been born into a rich family.
Instead she wound up in a family of "employees" and ended up marrying a "little clerk" in Department of Education (1).
Our ordinary girl is convinced that she's meant for the extraordinary life of a fabulously rich girl.
She hates her own humble surroundings and spends her time dreaming about fancy tapestries and tall footmen. While her husband slurps his stew she imagines grand banquets.
A life of luxury is all the girl wants – it's what she's made for. But sadly, she doesn't lead the luxurious life of which she dreams.
Consequently, she spends all her days weeping and feeling sorry for herself.
One evening, the girl's husband comes in with a large envelope.
She tears it open to find that she and her husband – M. and Mme. ("Monsieur and Madame) Loisel – have been invited to a fancy party at the Minister of Education's palace. Her husband can't wait to see her reaction.
Mme. Loisel is not happy about this. She's got nothing to wear. This is enough to send her into tears.
M. Loisel feels awful, and asks his wife, Mathilde, how much a simple, pretty dress for the ball would cost.
Mathilde stops to think it over – how much can she ask for before her husband flips out – and at last tells him four hundred francs would probably do it.
M Loisel agrees to give Mathilde four hundred francs. There goes that new gun he'd been saving for.
The date of the party approaches, and Mathilde is in a bad mood again.
This time it's jewels: she doesn't have any to wear over her dress.
M. Loisel suggests she wear flowers, but Mathilde will have none of that.
M. Loisel suggests that Mathilde borrow some jewels from her rich friend Mme. Forestier. Now there's an idea.
The next day, Mathilde visits Mme. Forestier and tells her about her situation. Mme. Forestier brings out a big box of jewels and tells Mathilde to pick whatever she wants.
Mathilde isn't satisfied with anything she sees, but then Mme. Forestier brings her another box containing a spectacular diamond necklace.
Mathilde is beside herself. It's the only thing she wants. Mme. Forestier agrees to let her borrow it.
The evening of the party arrives, and Mathilde is a smash hit. All the men – including the Minister – notice her. She's in heaven. Her husband, meanwhile, has also been having a great time: he's been off dozing in a corner since midnight.
When it's four o'clock and at last time to go, M. Loisel brings the coats. But Mathilde is self-conscious: her coat is so shabby compared to the rest of her appearance. So she dashes off into the street to avoid being seen.
M. Loisel follows Mathilde into the streets, and they spend a long time wandering around, shivering, and looking for a carriage.
At last they find one and head back home, glumly. Mathilde doesn't want to go back to her ordinary life, and M. Loisel doesn't want to get up for work at ten a.m.
As soon as they enter the house, Mathilde rushes to a mirror to see herself all decked-out one last time. But the diamond necklace is missing. She screams.
M. Loisel wants to know what the matter is, and Mathilde tells him. They search frantically through her dress and coat for the necklace, but it's nowhere to be found.
The Loisels review all the places they've been to figure out where the necklace could have been lost, and M. Loisel decides it must have been left in the cab. But unfortunately, neither of them has the cab number.
M. Loisel goes back out in search of the necklace, and returns at seven a.m. with nothing. He spends all of the next day searching, visiting the police HQ, the cab company, and still has nothing.
Mathilde, meanwhile, spends the day stuck in a chair, too traumatized to do anything.
When he returns, M. Loisel has Mathilde write to Mme. Forestier to say that they broke the clasp of the necklace and are having it fixed. They need to buy more time.
A week passes, and still no sign of the necklace. M. Loisel, who already looks five years older, decides they have no choice but to replace it.
He and Mathilde go to see the jeweler whose name was on the necklace box to see about a replacement. The jeweler says that he did not sell the necklace, just the case.
M. and Mme. Loisel start going from jeweler to jeweler, hoping to find a necklace just like the one they remember.
At last they find one in a jewelry store at the Palais Royale.
There is just one problem: it's forty thousand francs (thirty-six thousand after bargaining), which is a ton of money. M. Loisel asks the jeweler to hold the necklace for them a few days.
It turns out that M. Loisel has only 18,000 francs to his name, in the form of his inheritance from his father. All the rest of the money to buy the necklace he has to get by taking out loans.
So he takes out enough loans to pay for the necklace – and to ensure that his life will be ruined forever – and then goes back to the jeweler's to buy it.
Mathilde takes the replacement necklace to Mme. Forestier, who's miffed that she didn't return her necklace sooner. Mathilde's worried she'll notice the substitution.
Mme. Forestier does not open the box, and does not see the substitution.
Now Mathilde and M. Loisel are poor. They have to dismiss the maid and move into an attic. Mathilde starts to do the housework, and run the errands, haggling at stores over every cent. M. Loisel works two night jobs.
This goes on for ten years, until all the interest on the Loisels' loans is paid. Mathilde is now a rough, hard woman, and her looks are ruined. She occasionally thinks of how her life might have been different if she hadn't lost the necklace…
One Sunday, Mathilde goes for a stroll on the Champs Elysées (main street of Paris that you see in all the movies), and notices a beautiful young-looking woman walking with her child.
It's Mme. Forestier, who hasn't aged one day. Mathilde decides it's time to tell her everything that happened.
When Mathilde greets Mme. Forestier by her first name, Mme. Forestier does not recognize her former friend, because she looks so different She gives a cry of surprise when Mathilde reveals who she is.
Mathilde tells Mme. Forestier that her life's been hard, and all on account of her. Mme. Forestier doesn't understand.
Mathilde explains that she'd lost the diamond necklace, but replaced it, and has spent the last ten years paying for the replacement. (Mme. Forestier apparently hadn't noticed the difference)
Mme. Forestier grabs Mathilde by the hands, shaken.
Her diamond necklace, she tells Mathilde, was a fake. It was worth at most five hundred francs.