A story within a story, “A String of Beads” draws much of its thematic complexity from the counterpoints it provides between the two levels of its narrative. The broader narrative is told in the first person by a male speaker who has been invited to a dinner and has been seated next to a woman named Laura. Almost immediately, she indicates her eagerness to share with him a story that evolved out of an incident at another dinner party. Presumably because he is a writer to whom others are perpetually offering stories, he expresses his hope that she will find something else to talk about.
Despite his obvious reluctance to hear it, she persists with her story. She attended a dinner party at the Livingstones, who, because they had been a guest short, had invited their governess, Miss Robinson, to join the party. Another guest was Count Borselli, a world-renowned expert on gemstones. After confirming that Mrs. Lyngate’s pearls were indeed worth the £8,000 she paid for them, he suggested that Miss Robinson’s seemingly much more modest string of pearls was actually worth some £50,000. Miss Robinson stated, however, that she paid just 15 shillings for the pearls. As she did so, two men arrived wishing to question her. The assumption that the men were policemen generated speculation among the guests about Miss Robinson’s possible criminal activities and criminal acquaintances. But when Miss Robinson shortly returned to the dinner party, she revealed that the two men were actually the jewelers from whom she had bought her inexpensive necklace, which, as Borselli immediately noticed, she was now wearing. When she had taken it back to them to have its clasp repaired, they had mistakenly given her the much more expensive necklace. After she had readily agreed to exchange the necklaces, they had, however, presented her with a reward of £300.
Extending beyond the events of the dinner party, Laura’s story hinges on what Miss Robinson eventually did with the £300. When it came time for her vacation, she informed Mrs. Livingstone that she meant to spend the entire sum living in luxury for at least a month at a seaside resort. Before that month was quite up, she informed Mrs. Livingstone that she would not be returning to her position as governess because she had entered another profession. In the meantime, Laura has discovered that Miss Robinson has become a courtesan, living first with a wealthy Argentinian and then leaving him for an even wealthier Greek.
Although the narrator suggests that Laura’s story is of little use to him because he has already written several well-known stories featuring necklaces, he does actually use it, recognizing that its point of interest has nothing to do with the string of pearls. Indeed, when Laura goes on to tell him that, for the story to be satisfying, Miss Robinson should not become a wealthy courtesan but should, instead, marry a disabled war veteran who scrapes by on the salary he earns at a bank, he interjects that such a resolution might be rather “dull,” and she responds that it would nonetheless be “moral.” In the narrator’s view, the story is an exposé of Laura’s class consciousness and her rigid belief that to act morally is to accept one’s place in the hierarchical social structure in which she and the Livingstones conveniently hold a privileged place.
Maugham, W. Somerset. The Collected Short Stories. London: Penguin, 1977.