Back Cover Blurb
- The stories in this collection move from Malaya to America and England, and include some of Maugham's most famous tales; 'Flotsam and Jetsam1', the story of an old woman trapped for years in a loveless marriage in the remote rubber plantations; 'The Man with the Scar2', and notably the opening story 'The Vessel of Wrath3', a tale of the unexpected love that grows between a devout missionary nurse and a drunken reprobate.
- In this second volume of his collected stories, Maugham illustrates his characteristic wry perception of human foibles and his genius for evoking compelling drama from an acute sense of time and place.
- There is one point I want to make about these stories. The reader will notice that many of my stories are written in the first person singular. That is a literary convention which is as old as the hills. It was used by Petronius Arbiter in the Satyricon and by many of the story-tellers in The Thousand and One Nights. Its object is of course to achieve credibility, for when someone tells you what he states happened to himself you are more likely to believe that he is telling the truth than when he tells you what happened to somebody else. It has besides the merit from the story-teller's point of view that he need only tell you what he knows for a fact and can leave to your imagination what he doesn't or couldn't know.
- Some of the older novelists who wrote in the first person were in this respect very careless. They would narrate long conversations that they couldn't possibly have heard and incidents which in the nature of things they couldn't possibly have witnessed. Thus they lost the great advantage of verisimilitude which writing in the first person singular offers.
- But the I who writes is just as much a character in the story as the other persons with whom it is concerned. He may be the hero or he may be an onlooker or a confidant. But he is a character. The writer who uses this device is writing fiction and if he makes the I of his story a little quicker on the uptake, a little more level-headed, a little shrewder, a little braver, a little more ingenious, a little wittier, a little wiser than he, the writer, really is, the reader must show indulgence. He must remember that the author is not drawing a faithful portrait of himself, but creating a character for the particular purposes of his story.
Vintage Classics; New Edition (3 Jan. 2002)
"Somerset Maugham (W.) - Collected Short Stories: Volume 2"
Source: Somerset Maugham (W.) - Collected Short Stories: Volume 2
- See this Note1 for my thoughts.
- The above Note uses Sub-Notes which - rather than the Paper or the Note - should be updated if the Write-up is to be updated.
Write-up2 (as at 20/09/2023 23:52:48): Somerset Maugham Short Stories - Volume 2
- I have now transferred these comments on "Somerset Maugham (W.) - Collected Short Stories: Volume 2" – such as they are as I’ve only just started to read the book – to a Note by analogy with those on "Somerset Maugham (W.) - Collected Short Stories: Volume 1" and in particular on "Somerset Maugham (W.) - Short Stories". As the bulk of them didn’t find their way into this “Greatest Hits” selection, some may not be worth such close attention, though the book’s cover blurb highlights ‘Flotsam and Jetsam3’ and ‘The Man with the Scar4’ as being especially famous. However, while this book is basically “holiday reading”, I intend to annotate most of the stories in enough detail to provide the framework for any further thoughts.
- I will summarise the stories only to the degree strictly necessary to provide the context for whatever I have to say, so 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”.
- I will provide links to the various summaries of the stories on Wikipedia where these are available but will only read these after making my own summaries, so they may not always agree.
- My intention will be merely to reflect on – and remind myself of – various “ethical5” or more generally philosophical issues that arise. I don’t claim to be a literary critic.
Preface – i
- The vessel of wrath6 – 3
- The force of circumstance7 – 46
- Flotsam and jetsam8 – 75
- The alien corn9 – 103
- The creative impulse10 – 148
- Virtue11 – 187
- The man with the scar12 – 228
- The closed shop13 – 232
- The bum14 – 242
- The dream15 – 250
- The treasure16 – 254
- The colonel's lady17 – 272
- Lord Mountdrago18 – 293
- The social sense19 – 320
- The verger20 – 328
- In a strange land21 – 336
- The taipan22 – 341
- The consul23 – 349
- A friend in need24 – 355
- The round dozen25 – 360
- The human element26 – 390
- Jane27 – 431
- Footprints in the jungle28 – 460
- The door of opportunity29 – 495
Preface – i
- The vessel of wrath – 3
- The force of circumstance31 – 46
- This tale – while atmospheric and well-written – is a little too long for the rather simple plot.
- The action takes place in Sembulu32 and features the Resident, Guy – a short, fat, pimply and rather ugly man now aged nearly 30 – but one with – it seems – many redeeming qualities, including his wit and good humour.
- Guy has recently married an English woman, Doris, who has come out to live with him after they met when Guy was on vacation in England and Doris – the secretary of an MP – was on holiday for a month with her parents in the same hotel.
- Guy was born in Sembulu. His father had been in the service of ‘the second Sultan’ for 30 years and Guy considers it his home. He’d come out again aged 19 straight from school, originally as an assistant, but when the Resident became ill and returned home he took his place. At the time there were few alternative appointees ‘given the war33’, so he was appointed despite his youth because he had the right background and ‘spoke the language34 like a native’.
- It is obvious very early on in the tale that Guy has a guilty secret is – and what it is. A native woman causes a series of scenes and three ‘half-caste’ children make an appearance. Eventually Guy ‘comes clean’ and tells Doris the truth. Like the vast majority of the Europeans (he says) he’d been effectively married35 for 10 years to a native woman – by whom he had had these three children –and had recently ‘put her away’ in order to get married to a European. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a new posting – as he’d expected – when he returned from England, having been on leave with the purpose of finding an English wife – and so he couldn’t hide what he had done, at least when his former native wife tries to blackmail him.
- Anyway, Doris just cannot come to terms with this – she’s revolted at the thought of Guy being intimate with a ‘black36’ woman. She thinks about things for 6 months – having effectively separated from Guy – and then returns to England. It’s not clear if she will divorce Guy, not that it makes much difference to him. He thinks the situation is irrecoverable, and – following prompting37 from his elder son – allows his native wife to return.
- This tale raises a lot of ethical issues which – as usual – Somerset Maugham leaves for the reader to raise and address, to ignore, or not to notice. I don’t attempt to pontificate on their resolution. There are at least the following:-
- The first is what might be called ‘conventional immorality’. It’s commonly accepted that the young European men would take native wives for ‘comfort’, despite not being committed to them, with the intention of paying them off when the opportunity to marry a European comes along. The native wife’s parents are complicit in this arrangement.
- Then there is the casual assumption of a racial hierarchy, both by the participants in the story and by Somerset Maugham himself.
- There’s Guy’s attitude towards his children. Because they are ‘black’, he doesn’t feel as though they are his, and feels no more for them than for any other children. He is, however, willing to ‘provide for them’ to some degree.
- Again, there’s his attitude towards his native wife – he just turfs her, and his children by her, out of the house when Doris arrives, though with financial provision of some sort.
- Doris objects to the violent treatment of Guy’s native wife, before she knows who she is, but doesn’t in any way try to make the best of the situation once she finds out. She just finds the whole affair disgusting.
- Finally, there’s Doris’s racially-motivated repugnance at the intimate elements of Guy’s previous marriage. Would she have felt the same way had he been divorced from a white woman?
- I suppose it also raises the question of just what the Europeans were doing in these regions. Not from a political point of view (colonialism had many pluses and minuses) but from a personal point of view. Why did they choose this sort of life?
- As is often the case in Somerset Maugham’s writing, human instincts lead to a situation that is much worse than could have been the case had reason prevailed. So, in the end, we have two people who love one another living apart and two who don’t love one another living together.
- Finally, a reflection on Somerset Maugham’s choice of title ‘The force of circumstance’. Circumstances – his youth and isolation and the conventional wisdom of his class – ‘compel’ Guy to act as he did, and having done so, to seek to hide his actions. Then, the circumstance of his return posting then mean that he cannot hide what he has done. Finally, Doris’s psychological make-up and the prejudices of the time mean that she cannot find a way to resolve the situation to mutual satisfaction but has to choose the worst of all possible worlds.
- Flotsam and jetsam38 – 75
- This is a very well-written tale, though I have some doubts about its coherence at one point, noted later.
- The story is split into two parts: the long introduction, which has three main characters, and the denouement, which introduces a fourth. It doesn’t immediately say where it is located, but it seems it’s in north Borneo like The Yellow Streak39 & The Force Of Circumstance40. As an aside, it mentions ‘brunch41’, which I’d thought was a modern locution. It also reports that it’s best for native-born Europeans to marry native girls – as discussed in The Force Of Circumstance42.
- The first part concerns Skelton, an anthropologist who has been in the country for two years to study the tribes who have been without European contact, and who has caught malaria and is near death. The local Dyaks don’t want him to die while enjoying their hospitality and send him, his Chinese servant Kong, and a Dyak guide downriver by canoe to seek hospitality with the local planters, Mr & Mrs Grange.
- The Granges are desperately poor because Norman Grange bought the plantation before the bottom fell out of the rubber market and subsequently had to mortgage the estate to some Chinese businessmen. Now things have picked up any profits go in interest payments.
- Norman Grange is a robust but taciturn character and his wife is a well-meaning but ill-educated retired C-list actress. She is 46 but looks 60 and has a couple of terrible tics: she shakes her head involuntarily and appears to be trying to wipe something off her dress. Norman reads and re-reads some of the classics of English literature but appears to have learnt nothing humane from them. Mrs Grange reads pulp fiction. The Granges scarcely communicate and evidently hate one another.
- While Norman is out at the plantation, Mrs Grange unburdens herself to Skelton. She describes her career with a group of travelling actors that had had some success in a tour of the Far East, but went but went bankrupt and the owners left them all in the lurch. Norman was in Singapore on holiday and proposed to Mrs Grange43 when she scarcely knew him, but she liked him well enough and marrying him gave her a way out of her immediate predicament.
- They were happy for a year while she got used to the estate and the life, but she eventually got bored. Norman had promised her a trip back to England, but nothing came of it, and he admitted that it was foreign to him and he never wanted to go there again. He’d been born in Sarawak, Borneo, where his father had been in government service, went to school in England, but returned to Sarawak aged 17 and had lived there ever since apart from a tour of duty in Mesopotamia in WWI.
- Skelton recovers in a few days, and Norman encourages him to get going. Skelton lets him have one of his guns as rather excessive payment for his bed and board. Mrs Grange says she has something further to say to him that would set ears burning in the clubs for a few days. Skelton offers Mrs Grange the opportunity to unburden herself further, promising never to reveal what she says, but she’s unwilling to burden him with her troubles any further. So, Skelton departs.
- We now move on to the second part of the story. It is effectively a soliloquy by Mrs Grange in front of the mirror on the dressing table that Norman had had made to her exact specifications soon after they were married. She recounts the incident that happened 15 years ago.
- A company with cash to spare had set up a plantation on the other side of the river to that of the Grange’s, and the planter installed there was an educated man – from a public school and university, named Jack Carr – who (unlike Norman) looked good in evening wear. Soon after they met, they seem to have fallen passionately in love. Jack had a motor launch, so it was easy for them to meet and conduct an affair. Mrs Grange falls pregnant and she’s sure it is Jack’s child. Jack has to go away for a few weeks to Singapore of business but is back before her confinement, scheduled to be in Kuching44.
- She is desperate to see Jack and, when she hears he has returned, says she will go to see him first thing the following morning to collect some things he has got for her. She chatters rather too much and doubtless makes Norman suspicious.
- After she’s been rowed over, and while she and Jack are in a passionate embrace, Norman shoots and kills Jack. His warm blood spurts over Mrs Grange, leading to the tic that stays with her thereafter. She has a miscarriage that night and while it was touch and go for a few days – lives on. Norman says the shooting was an accident – which of course it was not – but Mrs Grange cannot tell the truth – or (she thinks) she would starve – and he cannot divorce her or he would incur suspicion and hang. Mrs Grange had earlier revealed to Skelton that she and her husband would like to kill one another (without revealing the reason) but they can’t; she can’t kill him because – even were she to get away with it by poison, ‘the Chinks’ would foreclose on her and ‘she doesn’t have a friend in the world’. He can’t kill her because suspicion would fall on him and – though she’s often thought of suicide – she intends to live as long as her husband as it’s the only way she can get back at him.
- The ‘accident’ is investigated by the District Officer, but the natives are afraid of Norman so the DO – while he thinks the episode ‘damned fishy’ has to accept Norman’s account – which is that there had been a problem with Norman’s gun and that it had gone off while Jack was looking at it – in the absence of evidence to the contrary.
- Mrs Grange ends her soliloquy by covering her nose with lipstick like a clown and exclaiming, with hysterical laughter, ‘to hell with life’.
- Having taken the trouble to write all this up, I’m not sure I’ve much to say. I didn’t find the infatuation between Jack and the younger Mrs Grange very convincing, but that’s a plot detail. Otherwise, the tale is another that shows the isolation and pressures the planters and administrators – and especially their wives – were under. It would be good to have had some philosophical reflection from Somerset Maugham on what it was all for – either for the British Empire or for its servants – but Maugham leaves any such reflection to his readers45.
- I have no idea why the title of the story is ‘Flotsam and Jetsam46’.
- The alien corn – 103
- The creative impulse48 – 148
- Virtue – 187
- The man with the scar – 228
- The closed shop – 232
- The bum – 242
- The dream – 250
- The treasure – 254
- The colonel's lady – 272
- Lord Mountdrago – 293
- The social sense – 320
- The verger – 328
- In a strange land – 336
- The taipan – 341
- The consul – 349
- A friend in need – 355
- The round dozen – 360
- The human element – 390
- Jane – 431
- Footprints in the jungle – 460
- The door of opportunity – 495
In-Page Footnotes ("Somerset Maugham (W.) - Collected Short Stories: Volume 2")
- This is the write-up as it was when this Abstract was last output, with text as at the timestamp indicated (20/09/2023 23:52:48).
- Link to Latest Write-Up Note.
Footnote 31: Footnote 32:
- In the widest sense, including matters of life-choice and self-evaluation.
- The background is rather similar to that in The Yellow Streak in "Somerset Maugham (W.) - Collected Short Stories: Volume 1", which is located in the same (fictional) place.
- Somerset Maugham doesn’t attempt to provide a detailed location for the story, which the other tale describes in some detail: it’s – I deduce – in the north of Borneo. See my Note there (via the link above) for further information on Sembulu, Dyaks, prahus, Kuala Solor and the like.
- The frequent reference to ‘Malays’ is confusing as it tends to suggest a location in Malaya, but this is not the case. The Malay Archipelago (see Wikipedia: Malay Archipelago) seems to include everywhere – more or less – south of Thailand and north of Australia – except the Malay Peninsula (Wikipedia: Malay Peninsula).
- I presume this is the First World War, given that the action of the story takes place 10 years after his appointment.
- The linguistic situation is complex. Presumably the language is Malay since Doris is said to have been studying a Malay grammar in order to learn ‘the language’.
- See Wikipedia: Malay Language: the official language of Brunei and elsewhere, but this is not the language of the Malay Peninsula (see Wikipedia: Malaysian Malay).
- I’ve been uncertain how to represent this relationship. It’s official only insofar as Guy comes to a financial arrangement with the girl’s parents; it wouldn’t have been recognised by the Colonial authorities. But to save tedium and excessive scare quotes, I’ve decided to use the term ‘native wife’ (without scare quotes) hereafter.
- The term ‘black’ is used rather loosely in this story and in others to do with the region. It’s not stated which race Guy’s native wife is. I had presumed she was a Dyak. There’s a reference to Dyaks being ‘headhunters in those days’ but being affable enough to talk to during the day. It’s only at night that Guy’s loneliness strikes.
- Maybe the usage is influenced by a classical education, where – for example – Greek heroes are referred to as ‘black’ – that is, sun-tanned – as distinct from upper class women and stay-at-home ninnies who are ‘white’.
- See "Whitmarsh (Tim) - Black Achilles".
- Malays aren’t mentioned, but presumably there are Malays (and Chinese and sub-Continentals) in the towns and the girl would have been ‘sourced’ from a Malay family. I’m led to this supposition from the suggestion in the next story (Flotsam and jetsam) that the only thing for a native-born white man to do is to take up with a native girl.
- Anyway, neither Dyaks nor Malays are ‘black’ in the Afro-Caribbean sense, but would hardly be considered white. But then upper-class Victorians had their doubts about Italians and Greeks (as do many of our lower-class contemporaries). See "Forster (E.M.) - Where Angels Fear to Tread".
- Islanders from Melanesia and Polynesia would be considered ‘black’. See Wikipedia: Melanesia and Wikipedia: Polynesia.
Footnote 38: Footnote 41:
- This prompting may be significant, as Guy was originally ‘prompted’ into his native liaison by his ‘boy’ (servant) who had found an appropriate girl for him.
- In the story, the relevance is that a planter gets up early and goes out to check his estate. By the time he gets back it’s too late for breakfast but too early for lunch.
- It seems the word was coined earlier, in England.
- See Wikipedia: Brunch.
- We never get to know Mrs Grange’s first name. Later on, we learn that her stage name had been Vesta Blaise.
- No doubt this is ironic; her life is now completely defined (and confined) by her marriage to Norman Grange.
- Kuching is the capital of the State of Sarawak on the Island of Borneo. See Wikipedia: Kuching.
- Or to other near-contemporary writers: George Orwell was an Imperial Police Officer in Burma from 1922-27 and hated both the job and the Empire and wrote about it (eg. in "Orwell (George) - Shooting an Elephant"). I should follow this up some time, for instance in his Burmese Days.
→ National Ocean Service: What are flotsam and jetsam?, and
→ Wikipedia: Flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict.
- From the above one learns that Flotsam is marine debris – often the result of a wreck – that had not been voluntarily thrown overboard, and so remains the property of the original owner. Jetsam, however, had been thrown overboard and becomes the property of whoever finds it.
- Maybe one could extract an allusion from these definitions relevant to our tale, but I cannot as yet think of one with any conviction.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2023
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)