First Published in: 1951
There are some writers who once you sample their works, you cannot give up until you have covered a fair share of it. With Somerset Maugham, the challenge is both thrilling as well daunting. Thrilling because here is an author I am so happy I discovered and with whom I almost feel a kindred spirit - in terms of the themes he takes up and his so called cynicism - which is really not cynicism, but a certain astounding ability to discern human weaknesses. He's realistic about people, knowing well that human beings are inconsistent and complex. Also, he realizes that seemingly incongruous traits can exist in the same person. This prevents Maugham from either eulogizing a person too much or berating their depravity. According to Maugham, he could never judge anyone too harshly or be too shocked by sin, precisely because he was guilt-ridden about many things himself and understood only too well that perfection is a myth and that we all live extremely flawed lives. He said, “I take the goodness of the good for granted, and I am amused when I discover their defects or their vices. I am touched when I see the goodness of the wicked, and I am willing enough to shrug a tolerant shoulder at their wickedness.”
The above, in many ways, is the overarching theme of all his stories. The author gives voice to his own thoughts when one of his characters in The Fall of Edward Barnad says, "Perhaps we make too much of a difference between one man and another. Perhaps even the best of us are sinners and worst of us are saints"
His friend in the story is not willing to buy this argument and counters by saying, " You will never persuade me that white is black and black is white"
But almost every short story in this collection - and this quality applies to all the author's works in general - the writer points at the utter futility of catagorising people as good or bad, evil or virtuous. And to establish this truth, he puts his characters through all kinds of situations, delving deep into the recesses of their heart, acutely discerning their motives and the complex emotions that drive them.
There are about 30 stories in all, and each story is a wonder in character creation. And Maugham unfolds them with great relish, layer by layer – like the peeling of an onion. Many of them were written when he travelled far and wide – some of them were British colonies. Quite a few of the stories are based in London and are anecdotal . The Luncheon, Louise, The Promise, The Voice of the Turtle...all are delightful, and bristle with charm and ironic humour. There are some others which raise fundamental questions about religion, love and freedom.
As Maugham says in his book, The Summing Up, - themes came to him very easily. He could be talking to someone for an hour and he could envision a story revolving him. Such was the fecundity of his mind! Maugham’s characters are not entirely unusual, but they almost always have a quirk, which the author used to the fullest. He has a very fine sense of drama, so that you are always curious to know what happens next.
Mackintosh, for example, is a story that rests on his ability to sketch out the characters of the chief, Walter and his assistant, Mackintosh. The latter feels a strange mix of envy, hatred and derision for his boss. Walter is a loudmouth, a sadist, uncouth, but not without a roguish charm and a skill for repartee. He rules over the natives with an iron hand, but he also looks out for them like a tiger does for his cubs. Maugham is simply marvelous in his creation of these two persons.
Then there are other stories, where Maugham's skill with characters comes to the fore. The Mother is a poignant tale of a woman, who turns resentful and sullen after spending years in jail. Her only bundle of joy is her handsome son, whom she loves with a rare ferocity. But things go wrong again, and come to a tragic end.
The matriarch in Home is another gem of a creation. Equally enigmatic is the character of the laconic judge in The Happy Couple.
Maugham has written how he enjoyed the format of a short story, because he didn’t have to live with a story for too long. And yet, he believed that these stories no matter how small should be complete in themselves. He didn’t want any of them to trail off. This is partly a characteristic of Maugham’s writing – which is not only lucid, it never fails to make a point ever. This enables his stories to be engaging and dramatic. The flip side to this is that some of the endings to the stories appear too sudden and somewhat unconvincing . For example, in Rain – an otherwise powerful story about religion and its tyrannical propagators - it is never quite clear why the missionary Rev Davidson commits suicide. What are his motivations? The situation in the story and what you know of his character never lead you to believe what he does finally. Quite a few stories have an instance of a death or suicide at the end, but unfortunately, that decision at most times seems born out of the need for an ironic suggestion. You never quite understand why Mackintosh ends his life suddenly. Yes, human being are complex and contradict themselves often in action and words, yet, that can’t explain death/suicide so easily.
A few critics have also pointed towards racial undertones in a few of Maugham’s stories – one of them being The Pool. The story is about an English man, Lawson, an officer in the British colony of Apia. He falls in love with a beautiful native called Ethel and even marries her, much to the disapproval of the White community living there. But things don’t work as per his plans. He slowly loses his sway over the natives, has to bear the humiliation of working for a native owner. Seeing what a groveling lover he is, Ethel starts to despise him. The story ends with Lawson giving up his life, drowning himself in the Pool – the very place where he was first entranced by the native girl. If one has followed Maugham’s work keenly, one would be less inclined to read the story as a racial one. The theme is tied to the author’s belief in the idea that most women become heartless towards men who are unusually devoted to them and are willing to make any sacrifice. Maugham’s idea is that women will accept a man’s cruelty, but she can’t bear him being subservient. Of course, The Pool can be interpreted as a White man’s fascination for the exotic colonies he ruled over. The author could be suggesting that while it’s nice for the White man to admire the native land and its people, he must not allow their worlds to collide.
As expected, Maugham’s displays what a fine craftsman he is. The words are elegant and precise, with a wonderful sense for cadences - so that every now and then one feels like saying out a sentence aloud and relishing its ring. The delightful turn of phrases, the ironic wit, the keen insights – all ensure you don’t have a single dull moment with Maugham.