The Judgement Seat by W. Somerset Maugham
In The Judgement Seat by W. Somerset Maugham we have the theme of honesty, infidelity, trust, conflict and guilt. Taken from his Collected Short Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Maugham may be exploring the theme of honesty. Both Mary and John though they have remained married have not lived a happy or honest life. Mary in particular through her actions has never forgiven John for his infidelities with Ruth. She has thrown herself into charitable work yet she is not able to show the same charity or forgiveness to John. This may be important as Maugham may be suggesting that despite the fact that Mary and John remain married. There is no love in their marriage. It is as though both are living as society expects them to live. They have remained together not out of any sense of love towards each other but perhaps more so because of the fear they might feel should they separate. Where once Mary loved John dearly. She cannot see it in her heart to love him again. Which may be important as Maugham could be highlighting the conflict that exists when one person in a relationship commits adultery. The other person (in this case Mary) though on the surface may seem as though they have forgiven their partner (John). The reality is in fact very much different. Where once there was trust. Now there is loathing.
It is also interesting that all three characters. Mary, John and Ruth. Consider that they have lived good lives. If anything it might be a case that all three are allowing their pride to blind them of the realities of their life. Mary though heartbroken should have accepted the fact that John did not love her. Rather than allowing him to return to her and live his life with bitterness. Similarly John and Ruth appear to be overwhelmed by guilt yet the Eternal does not see their actions as being something that merits guilt. They were just two people who loved one another. This might be surprising to some readers but it is possible that Maugham is advocating for the possibility of a second chance in life for people. For those who are unhappy. People like John. To find happiness again. However due to the teachings of religion. John’s actions would be frowned upon. Though acceptable to the Eternal.
If anything Maugham may be suggesting that everybody deserves a second chance at happiness regardless of the circumstances that they find themselves in. Even when John returned to Mary there is a sense that he is doing so not only because he feels guilty (which may be unmerited) but because society expects him to stand by his wife. Even though he no longer loves her as he had previously done. Ruth as well feels guilty over her actions and her guilt is so overpowering that she foregoes the love she feels for John. Maugham possibly highlighting the structures within society that can sometimes choke an individual. Which seems to be the case with Ruth. She does after all never give up on John. Loving him till he dies. So over powering is her love for John that Ruth on hearing of John’s death kills herself. It is as though she had kept a place for him in her heart hoping that maybe one day he would return.
It might also be a case that the Eternal believes that men and women should live their lives as they feel rather than as how they are taught. If John and Ruth had followed their hearts they would have most likely married or at least have stayed together. Mary too might have recovered from the anxiety she felt due to John’s infidelities. Instead however all three have lived their lives obeying a code of practice or a way of life that may not necessarily be agreeable to the Eternal. It is possible that the Eternal would have been happier for all three to live happy lives regardless of the circumstances that they found themselves in. Instead both Mary and John remained married and bitter towards one another. All three characters in the story are victims of the teachings they believe in. Teachings which appear to be contrary to the teachings of the Eternal. However it might be important to remember that all three are no more than diligent students of accepted societal norms. There is a sense that they did not know better nor were they informed by anybody that it was okay for them to pursue a life of happiness. Even if it did mean a brief moment of unhappiness. Instead Mary, John and Ruth have lived lives that are void of happiness. All because they believe that their actions were contrary to the directives of the Eternal. It is only when it is too late to change that all three realise that they have not lived their lives in a manner that is pleasing to the Eternal.