Last Updated 28 Jan 2021

The Duchess and The Jeweler

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“The Duchess and the Jeweller”, a story by Virginia Wolf, tells the tale of Oliver Bacon a man who grew up very poor but ended up a master jeweler with very rich and titled customers. Although his outward appearance is one of high breeding and richness it hides his insecurity and his longing for something else. Oliver is a tortured soul who cannot enjoy the fruits of his labor and his dissatisfaction with his life causes him to treat those around him with disdain and rudeness.

Oliver is a tall thin man with a long and flexible nose, “like an elephant’s trunk,..”. He is not a handsome man nor a friendly one. He walks down the street perfectly dressed “with his gloves, with his cane;” and strides through his shop without speaking to his employees and only acknowledges them with a waggle of “one finger of the amber coloured glove”. He reflects often on his past, his bet with his mother and how he “became the richest jeweler in England”. He dismantles himself repeatedly, becoming the frightened little boy in the alley, the little boy who had to sell stolen dogs to survive. This dismantling is a way for Oliver to keep the past in the present. It also contributes to his inability to rejoice in the accomplishments of his life. His basic mistrust of those around him causes him to look at others with disdain but it isn’t until he is enamoured with Diana, the daughter of the Duchess that he does something out of character.

As the story progresses we see Oliver try to be nice to the Duchess. He first makes her wait “in ten minutes”, he says “not before”. He keeps her waiting while he sits at his desk and daydreams again of little boy that was playing in the alley. Finally he goes to see her. He gets pleasure out of the fact that she is waiting on a chair at his counter. He likes that she would have to wait until he was ready for her. His motivation is clear, he does not like her, but he needs her. They are each others friend and each others enemy. The Duchess needs Oliver as her husband has gambled away their money, although Oliver does not believe her. She is trying to sell her pearls to Oliver.

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He is wary but knows that she is the way to get to Diana. Even as he looks at the picture of his mother and hears her voice in his head admonishing him, “Don’t be a fool”, he writes her a check for 20,000. Once she has the check she becomes sweet and nice and invites him to their estate. Oliver realizes that this is the price he has paid for a weekend with Diana. He is motivated by his desire to be with Diana so he looks past the idea that maybe the pearls are fake. Oliver doesn’t change in the story. He is the same individual at the end as he was in the beginning. He returns to the memory of the little boy in the alley who sold dogs on Sunday. He realizes the pearls are fake that they are “rotten at the centre – rotten at the core”. But Oliver doesn’t care. Oliver is a rich man but poor of spirit. He cannot let the past go and lives in the wretched world of the alleys of his childhood. He does not look at the achievements of his life as something good but rather as something he can wield over others. He has made no noticeable contribution to society but rather kept his jewels in a hidden compartment in his office. Oliver is not a sympathetic character nor is he someone you would like to know.

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