The speaker, a maid, has an unusual daily task: to wear her mistress’ pearls during the day to warm them. It is one of her duties as a maid or servant. In the first stanza the speaker or maid describes how she transfers the pearls from her throat to her mistress’ throat when she brushes her mistress’ hair every evening at six o’ clock. The feeling of the pearls on the servant’s throat all day is a constant reminder of her mistress.
In the second stanza the speaker describes the idle daily life of her mistress as she plans her evening outfit and fans herself. The mistress is obviously a socialite; that is someone who lives for parties. The speaker on the other hand works all day as her maid. The maid feels like she is a slave on a rope. The rope represents the power of the mistress over her. The pearl necklace forms the imaginary rope.
In the third stanza the speaker considers her mistress’ social life. She praises her mistress’ beauty. As the maid lies in the attic at night she daydreams about the handsome men who dance with her mistress at parties. The maid has a funny thought then. She realises that her mistress’ dancing partners are probably put off by the pearls because they carry her body odour from warming the pearls. This odour is not hidden by the expensive French perfume that the mistress wears. It is funny that the maid pictures the scene of men feeling confused by this persistent scent but the mistress never cops on to it. Thus, it is ironic or a funny contradiction that the pearl necklace is the very thing that prevents the mistress from gaining a lover or partner. The maid obviously likes this mischievous thought.
In the fourth stanza the speaker applies various cosmetics on her mistress’ skin, one of her main duties. She is aware of the lazy luxury of her mistress’ lifestyle. There is a suggestion of a sigh. This suggests that behind all the fussing the idle mistress is not happy with her rich life. As the maid dusts on the powder she has an urge to tell her mistress something, most likely the reason for her lack of success with men. But the maids of posh ladies are not supposed to express opinions so she stays quiet. Perhaps the maid remains silent also because if her point about the disturbing scent is true, then it is a type of revenge for being used and abused as a servant. It is payback for the rope factor.
In the fifth stanza, the posh lady arrives home alone in her grand carriage. The speaker imagines her mistress undressing and going to bed after putting her precious pearls in their case. The scene in the opening line of a carriage in the full moon reminds us of Cinderella. The mistress is a rich Cinderella who doesn’t win over a handsome prince.
In the final stanza, the maid lays awake thinking about the pearls cooling in their case. She is aware that the mistress is always alone. The maid misses the cool feeling they gave her throat. She burns either with a desire to have the pearls around her neck or with rage at the contrast between her lifestyle and her mistress’ lifestyle.