What is the allegory in the short story "The Luncheon" by William Somerset Maugham?

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samcestmoi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“The Luncheon” tells the story of a writer living in Paris, who meets up with a woman, who has corresponded with him about his works, for lunch.  As he is a writer, the man has very little money, only eighty francs to last him until the end of the month.  He happens to be very polite, however, and agrees to the woman’s suggestion that they eat at Foyot’s, a particularly ritzy restaurant in the city.  The man is surprised to see that the prices were even higher than he had imagined, but the woman puts his mind at ease, asserting, “I never eat anything for luncheon….a little fish, perhaps.”  She then orders a fish that is not in season, and is therefore expensive.  Throughout the luncheon she continues to make assertions and then hypocritically negate them with her actions – she never eats “more than one thing, unless you have a little caviar.”  “I never drink anything with luncheon…except white wine.” And that, according to her doctor, must be champagne.  The woman never eats anything for lunch, but she’s in Paris, after all, and would hate to leave Paris without trying their giant asparagus, much to her host’s horror – it is exceptionally expensive.  She performs the same act for coffee, ice cream, and peaches, which are definitely not in season and therefore expensive…the woman is a money pit, taking advantage of the narrator’s manners and ordering expensive and seemingly never-ending dishes, while the narrator has a simple pork chop and a coffee.

By the end of the lunch, the man has spent his entire fortune, and the woman is totally oblivious to the fact that her behavior was massively inappropriate.  She is a hypocrite, spending much of the meal amazed that the narrator is eating something as heavy as meat for luncheon, which completely ruins one’s appetite.  The lesson here is that things are not always what they seem – the woman is not at all what the narrator imagined she would be from her letters.  And during lunch, she is constantly saying one thing and doing another, maintaining an appearance of frugality and constraint when in reality she is gorging herself on expensive foods.  In addition to this, one should be aware that there will always be people out there who are just searching for a free lunch, and who will take advantage of you to the fullest extent possible.  These people are fatuous vampires, and will bleed you for all you’re worth – literally, in the narrator’s case.  It is therefore unwise to agree to anything that is beyond one’s means, lest one fall prey to these sorts of people.

This story, despite the awful behavior of the woman, is a humorous one, and in the end it is the narrator who gets the last laugh, because “Today,” he says, speaking of the woman, “she weighs twenty-one stone.”  These people will always get their comeuppance.

Read the study guide:
Somerset Maugham

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