The speaker portrays a vain mistress who devotes herself to socialising. The mistress is a posh lady whose most proud possession is her pearl necklace. The same pearls, designed to impress and attract handsome men, put off potential lovers because they carry her servant’s body odour. The posh lady is unaware of this problem. The maid gains an unintended revenge against the mistress who uses her only to beautify herself. The mistress is described as ‘indolent’ or lazy. Her only effort is when she fans herself. But the outcome of all her preparation and attempts to impress men is loneliness. She returns home alone from the ball every night.
The poem shows the power the upper class once had over the servant class. The servant sleeps in an attic, the mistress in a luxurious bedroom. The mistress is surrounded by wealth in the form of French perfume, pearls and silk. The mistress lives an idle life of luxury while the servant works. The servant seems to regard work as superior to the idleness and airs of the mistress as she does her work ‘willingly’. The servant regards her mistress pearls as a ‘rope’ around her own neck. The servant could express an opinion of the damage the mistress is doing to her social prospects with the pearls. But the strict division between the social classes requires her to remain silent. The servant admits that she burns with rage or jealousy in her room at night. But she also realises that the pearls give her a victory over her mistress. To the mistress they are a rope, a symbol of power. But the servant realises that her odour on the pearls leads to loneliness and social failure for the mistress.
The central relationship in the poem is between a servant speaker and her employer, maid and mistress. The maid performs humble tasks such as wearing her mistress’ pearls. The word which shows the mistress’ relationship to the maid is ‘bids’; it means she orders the maid to do tasks. The maid prepares her mistress for her nightly social outings. She performs tasks of an intimate nature for her mistress, such as powdering her shoulders. Her mistress relates to her from a sense of power. The necklace she warms for the mistress is thus a sort of rope. But by the end of the poem this so-called rope is also a means to a secret revenge the maid gains in this relationship. The maid may not speak to her mistress as she performs her duties. She cannot communicate to her mistress the damage she knows her body heat is causing the mistress at the parties she attends.
The maid is so fascinated by her mistress that she even imagines her undressing. Meanwhile the mistress goes out to great social events but remains a loner. She cannot establish relationships with the men she meets because of the smell of the servant off her white stones. The mistress fails to find love—due to the fact that she carries in her pearls the body odour of her maid. At the end of the poem the maid secretly burns with rage or jealousy at her mistress. But she also burns with satisfaction at the secret revenge she is gaining on her mistress.