The plot of ‘‘The Jewels’’ is very simple, as is the case with all of Maupassant’s work. The author lays out the bones of the story and the reader is left to interpret its meaning.
The reader is first introduced to the story’s protagonist, Monsieur Lantin, a clerk in a government ministry. Right away it is mentioned that the amount of Monsieur Lantin’s salary is 3,500 francs. While it is difficult to know precisely what this amount represented in Maupassant’s time, the fact that his salary defines Monsieur Lantin as much as any other characteristic is significant in the reader’s understanding of Maupassant’s world. It underscores the central role played by money and social class in all of his characters’ actions.
The story introduces Monsieur Lantin’s future wife, Madame Lantin, by the characteristics that most define her. She is the daughter of a deceased tax collector, a girl from a family that is ‘‘poor but honorable, quiet and unassuming.’’ But her main characteristic—and the quality that makes Monsieur Lantin desperate to marry her—is that she ‘‘seemed the very epitome of the virtuous spouse to whom every sensible young man dreams of entrusting his life.’’
The two characters marry and Monsieur Lantin is described as ‘‘unbelievably happy’’ with his new wife. He marvels at her seductiveness even six years after they first meet, and also at her amazing ability to manage their finances so that ‘‘there was no attention, no delicacy, no refinement’’ that she did not bring to their home life. He feels like a rich man, indeed.
Madame Lantin’s perfection is marred by two vices: her love of the theatre and her desire to own jewelry. But she apparently has no trouble being supplied with tickets to all the latest premieres by her female friends (other wives of ‘‘petty officials’’), and she comes home almost every night with some new piece of costume jewelry. At first Monsieur Lantin rebukes her for this vice, saying that fake jewels are in bad taste. Since they cannot afford real gems, she should appear ‘‘only in her grace and beauty.’’ But since the jewels do not cost Monsieur Lantin any money, he comes to regard them as charming, if incomprehensible, foibles. As long as he continues to get what he needs from his wife, he pays no attention to these aspects of her personality.
Madame Lantin at first begs her husband to accompany her to the theatre, but he refuses on the grounds that he is too tired. He finds an evening at the theatre ‘‘horribly exhausting’’ after a long day toiling at his job. Madame Lantin is at first very reluctant to attend public performances without her husband, but he insists: ‘‘He’d beg her to attend with some lady in her acquaintanceship.. .. It took her a long time to give in, as she didn’t find this arrangement quite proper.’’ The fact that Monsieur Lantin is too tired from his job to accompany her sets the stage for all that follows. Maupassant, in his role as an invisible narrator, never reflects on Monsieur Lantin’s exhaustion as illustrative of any injustice in the larger socioeconomic structure of French life. But the reader may speculate about its significance in this man’s life and in the lives of billions of workers worldwide. Monsieur Lantin is grateful when Madame Lantin stops begging him to attend the theatre and agrees reluctantly to go instead with her female friends.
One can also only speculate how Madame Lantin’s insatiable craving for jewels that her husband cannot afford is motivated by the socioeconomic condition of the world in which she moves. When Maupassant explains that Madame Lantin is extremely reluctant at first to go out in the evenings without her husband to escort her he gives the reader one of the only clues about her possible feelings as she makes the transformation from a dutiful and virtuous wife into a woman who is extravagantly showered with expensive gems by other men.
As the story continues, Madame Lantin meets her demise in classic Maupassant style that spans all of three sentences. ‘‘One winter night, upon returning from the opera, she was shaking with cold. The next day she was coughing. A week later, she succumbed to pneumonia.’’ At this juncture Monsieur Lantin’s life takes a drastic turn for the worse. His hair turns white, he cannot stop crying, and strangely, he now finds he cannot even feed himself on his salary, whereas his wife had always managed to provide him with ‘‘excellent wines and delicate foods’’ that he finds he is no longer able to afford. Penniless and hungry a week before his next paycheck, Monsieur Lantin decides to try to sell some of his wife’s costume jewelry, which he never liked anyway, feeling that if she could have real jewels she should appear ‘‘only in her grace and beauty.’’ Monsieur Lantin thinks that any of the gaudy pieces should bring in seven or eight francs, enough for a meal. He selects a large necklace and sets out to find a jeweler.
Once at a jewelry shop, he displays the necklace to the merchant. He is ashamed to be revealing the poverty that has led him to hocking such a worthless object. To Monsieur Lantin’s astonishment, the man offers him fifteen thousand francs for it. Thinking the man must be crazy, he hastens to another shop where he is offered eighteen thousand francs. Even more amazing, this jeweler claims to recognize the necklace because he himself sold it in the first place. Both of the merchants assume Monsieur Lantin is a thief, and this one asks for his name and address. Looking into his record book, the jeweler tells Monsieur Lantin that this necklace was indeed delivered to his address—to Madame Lantin.
Fleeing the store in bafflement, Monsieur Lantin is in the middle of a boulevard when he has the thought that if this necklace—and all the other objects in his wife’s jewel case—is real, they must have been gifts. But from whom? He faints and is carried by passersby to a pharmacy, then taken home by taxi, where he locks himself in and cries all day. The next morning, still baffled and hungrier than ever, Monsieur Lantin returns to the jewelry store, but cannot at first make himself enter because of his intense feelings of shame. As he paces in the street, he notices richlooking people and imagines how easy their lives are, how happy they must be. ‘‘How lucky a man is if he’s rich! With money you can snap out of any grief.’’
Driven by hunger, Monsieur Lantin enters the jewelry shop and accepts the eighteen thousand francs for the necklace. He tells the merchant he has several other items that have come to him ‘‘from the same legacy’’ and promises to bring them by. The jeweler and his assistants all know full well what is happening and can barely contain their amusement at Monsieur Lantin’s role in this transaction. They fully understand that he is a betrayed husband cashing in on a rich man’s love affair with his now-dead wife. The assistants rush outside to laugh their heads off. ‘‘With malicious bonhomie the merchant declared, ‘It all comes from somebody who invested everything in jewelry.’’’ But Monsieur Lantin quickly gets over his shame and brings all the remaining jewelry to the same jeweler. He haggles over the price of each item, demanding to see the original sale receipts—almost all of the pieces had been purchased from this shop—to make sure he is not being cheated. He leaves with nearly two hundred thousand francs. With this enormous amount of cash in his pocket he is a new man: a man who no longer feels sad about his wife’s death, a man who no longer feels anything at all, it seems, except a desire to spend money and brag about his newfound wealth. He consumes expensive foods and wine and spends the night with prostitutes. Each time he tells someone about his new wealth he increases the amount by a hundred thousand francs. He dramatically resigns from his job, declaring he has inherited four hundred thousand francs.
But the moment in which Maupassant signals that this tale has no happy ending—and highlights the impossibility of humans learning anything from their experiences—comes in the final three lines of the story. ‘‘Six months later he remarried. His second wife was extremely virtuous but she had a temper. She caused him a lot of suffering.’’ A reader can only contrast this with Monsieur Lantin’s prior marriage, during which he was ‘‘unbelievably happy.’’ Maupassant is asking which is better—the contentment Monsieur Lantin experienced born of ignorance in his first marriage, or his present unhappiness with his loyal yet angry wife? This is the world of Maupassant, in which there are no happy endings.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Guy de Maupassant, Published by Gale Group, 2010