The Duchess and the Jeweller by Virginia Woolf

In The Duchess and the Jeweller by Virginia Woolf we have the theme of appearance, trust, vanity, happiness, insecurity and control. Taken from her The Complete Shorter Fiction collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises how significant the setting is. By describing Oliver’s flat in detail Woolf appears to be highlighting the idea or theme of appearance and just how important appearance is to Oliver. It is also interesting that the reader is given some insight into Oliver’s past. We are aware that he is from a working class family, Woolf describing Oliver’s younger days when he ‘began life in a filthy little alley.’ However it is also interesting that Oliver’s jewellery store is described as being a ‘dark little place.’ This may be important as Woolf could be suggesting that despite the outward appearance of success in reality very little may have changed for Oliver. It is also noticeable that Oliver likes to know that the other jewellers consider him to be a success as this would also play on the idea of appearance and how important appearance is to Oliver.

Woolf may also be exploring the theme of trust. Oliver is fully aware that the Duchess has already tried to pass off some of her jewellery to him claiming it to be genuine when the reality has been that it was fake. Also the reader is aware that when Oliver was younger he sold stolen dogs to high society women. This may be important as it suggests that Oliver (and the Duchess) cannot be trusted and if anything Woolf may be suggesting that those who consider themselves to be upper class or those who strive to be considered a part of the upper echelons of society may not necessarily be trustworthy. Oliver also seems to be driven by his own vanity when he decides to buy the pearls from the Duchess. Though his instinct tells him to get the pearls verified he hesitates and is more preoccupied with the possibility that he might have the opportunity to spend a weekend in the company of Diana, one of the Duchess’s daughters. It is also noticeable that Oliver associates wealth and the accumulation of wealth to an individual’s social class. With it being his belief that by being wealthy he will be accepted by those who have been born upper class.

It may also be important that the Duchess calls Oliver an ‘old friend’. It is possible that by doing so she is attempting to not only charm Oliver but to play on his weaknesses or insecurities as well. Oliver longs to be a part of upper class society and by suggesting that he is an old friend the Duchess knows that she is able to manipulate Oliver and in turn have him buy the pearls from her. It is also interesting that despite his wealth Oliver does not appear to be happy, rather there is a sense that something is missing from his life. The reader is aware that the Mademoiselle no longer spends time with Oliver having decided to marry someone else instead. As to why she abandoned or left him the reader is never told however by introducing her into the story and having Oliver think about her it is possible that Woolf is suggesting that despite all his success and wealth, Oliver is in fact unhappy. Similarly there is a sense that Oliver, even though his mother has passed away, continues to try and impress her which may suggest that Oliver remains insecure about who he is and is reliant on trying to impress others. Which would again play on the theme of appearance and the importance of appearance to Oliver.

It is also noticeable that Woolf is using animal imagery in the story. First she compares Oliver’s search for the perfect piece of jewellery to the search a hog might make while attempting to find a piece of truffle. Later on Woolf also compares Oliver to a horse who is neighing. Both these comparisons are important as they are not only unflattering to Oliver but it is possible that by comparing Oliver to an animal Woolf is attempting to highlight to the reader the type of character that Oliver really is. That he is not necessarily an individual who may be considered to be nice. It is also interesting that Woolf continues her use of animal imagery when she compares the Duchess’s bag, which contains the pearls, to a ferret. Again it is possible that by including another unfavourable comparison to an animal, Woolf is further suggesting how unpleasant those considered to be upper class (the Duchess) really are. Oliver’s surname may also be important as it is possible that Woolf is using his surname (Bacon) to again shine an unflattering light onto Oliver.

The end of the story is also interesting as the reader becomes aware of just how vulnerable or insecure Oliver may be. After he realises that he has been swindled (again) by the Duchess he looks at the portrait of his mother in his office and asks her to forgive him, Woolf telling the reader that Oliver felt again like ‘he was a little boy in the alley where they sold dogs on Sunday.’ This line may be important as it suggests that even though Oliver knows that he has been swindled by the Duchess he may not necessarily have matured in any way since his days in the alley selling dogs. He is still unable to control his vanity and his desire to be part of upper class society. Something that becomes clearer when Woolf also tells the reader ‘it is to be a long week-end.’ Rather than pursuing the Duchess for the return of his cheque Oliver accepts that he has been sold fake pearls and if anything there is a sense that it is the Duchess who is controlling Oliver (by suggesting he could stay with her for the week-end) instead of it being Oliver who is controlling the Duchess. By playing on his insecurities the Duchess has succeeded in not only swindling Oliver but remains in complete control of him.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Duchess and the Jeweller by Virginia Woolf." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 30 Nov. 2015. Web.


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