- I may in due course transfer these comments to a Note by analogy with those on "Somerset Maugham (W.) - Short Stories". However, this book is basically “holiday reading”, so I may not get round to annotating many of the stories. As the bulk of them didn’t find their way into the “Greatest Hits” selection, they may not be worth such close attention. This is very much work in progress.
- I intend to precis the stories only to the degree strictly necessary to provide the context for whatever I have to say, but anyone other than me reading these accounts probably won’t fully understand what I’m on about unless they’ve read – and can recall – the stories. But take this as a “spoiler alert”.
- My intention has been merely to reflect on – and remind myself of – various “ethical1” or more generally philosophical issues that arise. I don’t claim to be a literary critic.
Contents & Commentary
- Rain – 3
- The fall of Edward Barnard – 49
- Honolulu – 85
- As with almost all WSM’s stories, this is an entertaining yarn, but I was in two minds whether to write anything on it as it seems inconsistent, and the supernatural element makes it rather silly.
- However, I thought I’d try out a couple of reinterpretations that might make it more satisfying, though still of little philosophical interest.
- The story begins with an introductory passage saying that – while “armchair travel” might allow us to reflect on the generalities of tourism in foreign parts, it can’t provide the oddities that make such travel most interesting. The story that follows is an example.
- The Narrator4 is in Honolulu and has a letter of introduction to an American – Winter – who shows him the sights before taking him to a bar at which he’s encouraged to make the acquaintance of Captain Butler. The Captain is a jolly – if somewhat short and rotund – American who had been captain of a passenger steamer off the California coast until he negligently lost his ship and several passengers (presumably when drunk) and was stripped of his license in the subsequent enquiry. He now captains a freight ship for a Chinese who doesn’t care about his lack of a license because it enables him to pay less.
- The Narrator has initially little interest in Captain Butler, but Winter encourages them to meet up again as the Captain has an interesting tale to tell. So, they meet up on the Captain’s boat where, after rather too many whiskey and sodas – the Captain tells his tale.
- Captain Butler’s cabin and his own general appearance are clothing are grubby, but he has a very attractive native girl (a Kanaka5) who has been living with him for the last year or so – it is said – and who he’d purchased for $200 from her father, having had to borrow some of the money given a recent loss at poker. Quite what the attraction there can have been in him for her is left unexplained, but they appear to be genuinely in love.
- The Captain has an extremely ugly Chinese cook, and a strong but silent first mate, also a Kanaka and known as Bananas. The latter is a highly-competent sailor and an excellent deputy that the Captain esteems in that regard, but not otherwise as he’s always ribbing him, though the Captain is said to be a good natured sort who doesn’t hold grudges or otherwise think ill of people.
- Well, Bananas takes a shine to the Captain’s girl and tries to force himself on her so that the Captain knocks him out with a knuckle-duster to the chin. Bananas recovers after a couple of days, but is mightily resentful of the Captain, whose girl says that he must be dismissed. The Captain, however, considers Bananas indispensable and the matter settled.
- Over the next month, the Captain takes sick and after eventually consulting a doctor, who can find nothing wrong, but prescribes a placebo, as the Captain approaches death his girl persuades him to consult a native medicine man, who ascertains that someone is “praying for his death”. The Captain will still not get rid of Bananas, so his girl decides to do it herself – by defeating native magic with more of the same.
- It seems that if she can get him to look at the water in a calabash6 so that he sees his image – which is his soul – reflected in the water, and can then violently agitate the water, he will die.
- The girl pretends to be leaving the stricken Captain – by this time reduced to skin and bone and very near death – distracts Bananas by giving him what he wants so that Bananas become besotted – and somehow manages the trick with the calabash, at which point Bananas drops down dead, and the Captain subsequently returns to full health.
- The sting in the tail is that – according to Winter – neither the girl asleep on the Captain’s lap as he tells the story nor the ugly Chinese cook who serves the drinks are those that feature in the story. The girl is said to have run off with the previous Chinese cook, and the Captain found another girl two months ago, and recruited the ugliest replacement cook he could find, lest history repeat itself.
- The story appears to be inconsistent7, and given that the native magic is all hogwash, I wonder whether we’re supposed to suspect a cover-up of some sort, though how they explained the death of Bananas to the authorities is – well – left unexplained. Then, it’s also unexplained why the girl went to such trouble to eliminate Bananas and then ran off with the cook.
- The doctor had (supposedly) determined that the Captain was not being poisoned, so that seems to rule out some subterfuge by the former Chinese cook to poison the Captain and blame it on Bananas (murdering him in some non-supernatural way).
- Alternatively, maybe the whole calabash story and that of the elopement is a cover-up for the elimination of Bananas by non-supernatural means, followed by burial at sea, and the girl and cook are the same as those in the story.
- Or maybe the story is simply inconsistent for no reason other than carelessness.
- The luncheon – 112
- A brief tale of a lunch at a ruinously expensive restaurant that a middle-aged admirer of the then impecunious Narrator’s literary work invites herself to at his expense.
- The Narrator is bound by convention to pay whatever the meal costs, and as this cost mounts up his disquiet mounts likewise: it eventually accounts for all he has to live on for the month.
- All but the fabulously wealthy will have found themselves in something of a similar situation at one time or another.
- The lady claims to eat only one small thing for lunch, while choosing in turn the most exotic items on the menu, washed down with champagne, making an exception in each case. The author is chided for having chosen a lamb chop (in fact chosen as the cheapest item on the menu) which had “evidently” filled him up so he could eat no more.
- The closing paragraph reveals that the lady – when they meet again by chance 20 years later, the trigger for narrating the tale – is now 21 stone, though quite how this precise fact was elicited is not revealed.
- The episode reminds me of a hotel breakfast (the morning after a wedding celebration) at which the brother of the groom’s voluble and somewhat corpulent girlfriend was explaining in a loud voice how she normally ate very little. An involuntary and rather unkind (though not so intended) “liar!!” emerged from my mouth.
- I suppose a moral of WSM’s tale is that sometimes it is necessary to be open with people and not be constrained by convention or “saving face”. Not just for practical purposes, but because otherwise we don’t really “connect”. That, and avoiding being taken advantage of by flagrant spongers.
- The ant and the grasshopper – 117
- A reverse take on La Fontaine’s fable8, which is briefly rehearsed, the Narrator recording that he’d never warmed to the tale as a child and had always stamped on any industrious ant he’d come across.
- In the human anti-parallel there are two brothers – George and Tom Ramsay – of whom George is the long-suffering Ant who is always bailing out his profligate Grasshopper brother, who has given up a respectable job and family in order to pursue a life of pleasure.
- Tom seems to be the life and soul of the party, and many of his friends think it worth it to provide him the “loans” that enable him to pursue his extravagant lifestyle.
- When all else fails, he falls back on his brother, sometimes resorting to “blackmail” – in the sense of taking up jobs that will embarrass his socially-conscious brother (bar tender and cabbie are examples) unless he’s paid to desist. On one occasion an accomplice feigns to sue Tom so that Tom’s at risk of gaol, which is more than George could bear, though not on Tom’s behalf, and then the two squander the moneys provided by George in an out-of-court settlement.
- The story has a “happy ending” for Tom, in that he marries a woman old enough to be his mother, and when she dies inherits an enormous fortune. This contrasts with Tom’s careful and industrious life leading – he hopes – to a comfortable, but hardly lavish, retirement.
- The Narrator finds this hilarious, but George is incensed at the injustice of it all.
- No doubt there are many morals to be taken from this immoral tale, which is really just a re-working of the fable that goes back to Aesop. We can’t all be grasshoppers relying on the ants to bail us out, yet the ants could do the baling with a better spirit and not just to save face or avoid public embarrassment.
- Home – 122
- “Home” is an old farmhouse in a farm farmed by the same family for 300 years. Two brothers from the family – George and Tom Meadows – fall in love with the same woman – Emily Green – who chooses George, the younger and safer, rather than the older, who goes to sea and becomes a Captain plying the coast of China for 40 years, after which he retires – worn out – to a sailors’ home in Portsmouth. After another 10 years he decides to come home, walks up the long drive of Elms, meets the family – including the two generations that have arisen during his absence – and then rather unexpectedly – despite his decrepitude – dies in his sleep overnight.
- Everyone in the story has had a happy life – Tom would live his over again – yet there’s an element of regret. Tom only ever loved Emily, so never married, and Emily – a strong-willed and intelligent woman who continues to run the farm after her husband’s death – wonders whether she married the wrong brother.
- The pool – 127
- This story is a tragedy set in Samoa. A bank manager from England (or Scotland) – Lawson – moves to Samoa for the good of his health. He is fairly literate and cultured and only fits in with the rough ex-pat community after he’s “had a few”.
- Soon after he arrives, he meets – or in the first few instances “sees” – Ethel Brevald, a beautiful “half-caste9” – the daughter of a Norwegian and his native wife at the eponymous “pool” – a natural affair fed by a stream. She wears a modest “Mother Hubbard10” even for bathing, so the attraction isn’t of the raw Tahitian kind exemplified by Gauguin’s paintings.
- Eventually, they marry – against the advice of the ex-pats, who think he’d retain control of her better if they just lived together. They have a child (a boy) who turns out – “unluckily” (“luck” – particularly bad luck – being a key part of Lawson’s view of the world) – to be as black as the “natives”; there’s no suspicion of unfaithfulness on Ethel’s part, at this stage at least.
- Lawson loves Ethel and the boy, but he grows to hate the Samoan “paradise” and the ex-pat community, and gets a more junior banking job in Scotland, to which he and his family move.
- Initially, Ethel is keen on the move, but she can’t fit in properly to society there, ostensibly not for racist reasons (she’s said to look no darker than a Spaniard) but, while she’s been educated at a mission school, it has only been up to elementary level and she’s a fairly unsophisticated girl, quite young when they met. She takes to swimming in the freezing-cold Scottish analogue of her Samoan pool, thinking nostalgically of home. Eventually, she escapes back to Samoa, taking the boy with her, and produces another child soon thereafter.
- Lawson cannot live without her, and resigns his job in Scotland, sells up and returns to Samoa. There, he cannot find decent employment, and ends up working in a store for a “half-caste”, which he takes to be an ultimate indignity. He has to live at his father-in-law’s bungalow, which is small and squalid and over-run with Samoan family and hangers-on; so, he spends his evenings drinking at the English Club.
- He spirals down into drunkenness. Ethel has her own life, and Lawson gets jealous – assuming she’s seeing another white man – and occasionally gets violent with Ethel, who retaliates. He becomes a figure of scorn to his wife and everyone else.
- Eventually, Lawson loses a very brief fight with Miller – a robust and intelligent German-American he’d once worked for – and been sacked by – who threatens him over his “abuse” of Ethel and whom Lawson suspects of having an affair with her. Then, after picking himself up, he bumps into the Narrator and bares his soul, pondering how it all went wrong. Later, after attending the New Year’s Eve Midnight Mass with the Narrator, he returns to the pool and drowns himself.
- The story is rather too long for its themes, and contains many incidental passages I’ve not mentioned. I think the main moral is how the decisions in life – big and small – can snowball into an unfortunate and not altogether foreseen path. That, and how radically different cultures – while they can co-exist alongside one another – cannot really mix intimately because of their different expectations from life.
- Mackintosh – 170
- Appearance and reality – 208
- The three fat women of Antibes – 225
- The facts of life – 242
- Gigolo and Gigolette – 263
- The happy couple – 283
- The voice of the turtle – 299
- The lion's skin 317
- The unconquered – 343
- The escape – 375
- The judgement seat – 379
- Mr Know-All – 384
- The happy man – 391
- The romantic young lady – 396
- The point of honour – 407
- The poet – 423
- The mother – 428
- A man from Glasgow – 443
- Before the party – 455
- Louise – 484
- The promise – 492
- A string of beads – 499
- The yellow streak – 506
- In the widest sense, including matters of life-choice and self-evaluation.
Footnote 5: Footnote 6:
- I think WSM says somewhere that when he uses the term “I” it is a literary device, so the reader doesn’t worry about how the author could know the various details of the plot. The stories are imaginative creations, not accounts of anything that really happened, though inspired by such.
- This is a bowl – usually made from the calabash gourd, but in Hawaii from hardwood.
Footnote 8: Footnote 9:
- The Narrator clearly states that the girl on the Captain’s lap is the one purchased a year ago, while the closing codicil says the Captain only took up with her a couple of months ago and that she’s not the same one.
- But, maybe there’s some other consistent construction of the text?
- Given the era in which it was written, Somerset Maugham’s writings reflect the casual racism of the colonial societies in which the stories are set.
- The N-word is used without a second thought of any dark-skinned person.
- This footnote is to be understood to apply to comments and descriptions of like ilk passim. I’m not unaware of them, but it’s tedious to keep pointing them out.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021