A friendly intention of taking an friendout to lunch can result in important situations about oneself not experienced in other events. This comes to the forefront in Somerset W. Maugham’s anecdotal short story “The Luncheon.” The young protagonist, a writer, learns he should not be too generous for fear of being taken advantage of after feeling humiliated and angry because he took a pretentious woman out to lunch.
The elements of structure, vivid imagery, symbols and style help to develop the acquaintance’s personality and the protagonist’s feelings from excitement to anger while also delineating to which extent the protagonist’s perception of things has changed for his own good. Structure is important to the evolution of the protagonist’s personal feelings. Initially, the protagonists feels flattered and excited that he has been asked by an older woman to take her out to lunch in one of the fanciest and most expensive restaurants in Paris.
Although his financial situation worries him, he wants to please his acquaintance. However, when she begins to order many expensive items, he first worries about how he will pay the bill. Then, he feels humiliated for being used to satisfy her expensive food tastes only. Next, her insensitive discourse angers him: “I see that you’re in the habit of eating a heavy luncheon. [the protagonist ate only a mutton chop]. I’m sure it’s a mistake.
Why don’t you follow my example and just eat one thing? I’m sure you’d feel ever so much better for it.” However, he replies sarcastically, “I am only going to eat one thing.” Finally, the only solution for him is to not care about her and to be as mean to her as she was to him, whenever possible. His final statement shows that he has had his revenge at last… “Today she weighs twenty one stone.”
Vivid imagery and symbols help reveal the protagonist’s feelings and his acquaintance’s personality. Several times throughout the story, his acquaintance states, “I never eat more than one thing for luncheon.” The luncheon is symbolic of the concept of “the survival of the fittest.” On the one hand, his acquaintance possesses a manipulating and insincere personality, while the protagonist is good, kind, and pleasing.
As a result, she gets what she wants while the protagonist must pay the price for taking such a person out to lunch because he is a good person. the color white in the image of “her white large teeth” and “French white wines” suggests her cold personality (Jobes 1676). The salmon she eats reveals an abundance in the food items she eats (Jobes 1391) pointing to her extravagant personality. The caviar represents her delicate connoisseur tastes (de Vries 89).
Even her age – she is forty – is significant in that “a woman is a devil at forty” (de Vries 200), so that it can be concluded she possesses a devilish nature. The symbolic number one in the acquaintance’s ironic statement, “I never eat more than one thing for luncheon” possesses several qualities evident of her character. It suggests boldness, consciousness and self-centeredness (Jobes 1209).
The latter is the most significant because all she cares about is getting the food she wants. By referring to the head waiter as having a “priest-like face” and a “false face”, the protagonist emphasizes his anger about his financial means. In essence, the waiter and the acquaintance are performing rituals and acting on behalf of their best interests. The acquaintance pursues eating while the waiter expects a fine tip.
Style, too, confirms the acquaintance’s personality as well as the protagonist’s illumination. The protagonist, being a down to earth and honest man is not convinced by her contradictory statements and therefore, doesn’t care about her. On the other hand, the protagonist’s style of speaking is sincere and honest even during his angry moments.
At the end when the acquaintance says, “Never eat more than one thing for luncheon” he emotionally releases himself by retorting, “I’ll eat nothing for dinner tonight!” His second release though less stormy, happens when he complacently says, “Today she weighs twenty one stone.” These statements confirm he is no longer flattered by her.
Style, vivid imagery and symbols as well as structure help develop the protagonist’s initial child-like feelings of flattery and excitement to disgust and anger due to the unfortunate sequence of events causes by his insensitive acquaintance. These elements also create a cold picture of his acquaintance’s personality. However, as he realizes what is happening to him during the course of events, he matures. The moral implications behind the short story “The Luncheon” are the thoughtful steps involved when one commits oneself to taking a stranger out to lunch.
De Vries, Ad. Dictionary of symbols and Imagery. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Co, 1974.
Jobes, Gertrude. Dictionary of Mythology Folklore and Symbols. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1962.
“The Luncheon” by W. Somerset Maugham [Maugham, W. Somerset (1977). Collected Short Stories: Volume 1. Penguin Classics, pp. 97-100.