The story is set in Paris in the 1880s. The protagonist Mathilde Loisel, a young middle-class woman, and her husband, a modest clerk, are invited to a prestigious ball. Mathilde, being very vain, complains to her husband that she cannot go without a new dress and some jewelry. To appease her, her husband gives her money he had been saving so she can buy a dress. However, she still feels poor without a bauble to wear. Thinking quickly, she goes to a wealthy friend, Mme. Forestier, to borrow a necklace.
At the ball, Mme. Loisel is a success, and has the evening of her life. Her happiness dissipates when she realizes she has lost the necklace. The couple struggles to find it to no avail. They are forced to replace it with an identical looking piece, so expensive that they'll have to work ten years to pay it off. Mme. Loisel runs into her friend at the market years later, and finds out that the necklace was fake - merely costume jewelry.