The Promise by W. Somerset Maugham
In The Promise by W. Somerset Maugham we have the theme of independence, strength, courage, love, honesty, change and acceptance. Taken from his Collected Short Stories collection the reader realises after reading the story that Maugham may be exploring the theme of independence. Lady Elizabeth though she may have previously been the talk of everybody around her is a strong and independent woman. She is aware that Peter is in love with another woman and rather than fighting to save her marriage she is prepared to let Peter go. It is as though Lady Elizabeth knows that it is pointless to hold onto a man who does not love her and rather than having a loveless marriage Lady Elizabeth wishes for Peter to be happy in life. Even if that happiness does not involve Lady Elizabeth being in Peter’s life. Though some critics might also suggest that Lady Elizabeth through her various romantic encounters is a dishonest woman (to her first husband) it is more likely that she has been honest to herself. Putting herself first just as a man may do. Which may be the point that Maugham is trying to make. At the time the story was written women were not seen to be the equal of men yet Lady Elizabeth in many ways lives her life as though she is the equal of a man. Putting herself first in each relationship she has had.
That is till she married Peter and became a dutiful housewife shunning her previous life. It is while she was married to Peter that Lady Elizabeth learnt to put someone else before her own feelings. Which suggests that Lady Elizabeth was very much in love with Peter. If anything her whole outlook on life changed while she was with Peter. Though she was still able to understand that there may come a time, due to her age, that Peter would look for love with a younger woman. At all times during Lady Elizabeth’s marriage to Peter she appears to have put him first. There is also no doubting that Lady Elizabeth’s relationship with Peter is different to any other relationship she has had and she is being courageous in her decision to divorce Peter. Who hasn’t got the heart to divorce Lady Elizabeth. It is as though Lady Elizabeth is putting Peter’s happiness before her own. Which shows an enormous amount of inner strength.
There may also be some symbolism in the story which could be important. The fact that the dining room of Claridge’s is full may suggest that symbolically Lady Elizabeth’s marriage has run out of space too. No longer can she see herself married to Peter when he loves another woman. The emerald ring which partially hides Lady Elizabeth’s wedding ring may also have some symbolic importance. Lady Elizabeth had lived her live contrary to how society expects a married woman to live their life. Prior to marrying Peter she has never been seen by others to have lived the life of a married woman. Just as the wedding ring is partially hidden society may consider that Lady Elizabeth has not put her marriage first. Which at the time the story was written would have meant for a woman to be permanently in the shadow of their husband. This most definitely is not the type of life that Lady Elizabeth wished or wishes to live. The narrator’s focus on the fact that his wife does not wear a watch could also be important as Maugham may be using the watch as symbolism to suggest that the narrator’s wife is not a woman of her time either. That in fact she may be as independent as Lady Elizabeth. Though may not necessarily be as motivated in her actions as Lady Elizabeth is.
The end of the story is also interesting as Maugham allows Lady Elizabeth to maintain her dignity though her heart is broken. She still is able to turn heads when she is walking along the street despite her age and the circumstances she finds herself in. She does not blend in with the crowd as she is leaving Claridge’s. This may be the point that Maugham is attempting to make. He may be suggesting that despite all that has happened Lady Elizabeth she still is able to be different to those around her. She has lived a life that is and would not be universally accepted by others yet she has never changed who she really is. She has never submitted to the pressures of society. Which again suggests that Lady Elizabeth is a strong independent woman. A woman who knows what she wants in life and who more importantly knows what she can give. Though sadly for her she is fully aware that she will never have Peter’s heart again. Something that Lady Elizabeth accepts. Hence her decision to ask Peter for a divorce rather than having him live his life as a lie. Living with a woman that he no longer loves.