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Somerset Maugham was a successful author of plays in his early career. He specialized in the same kind of light comedy as Oscar Wilde. At a critical point in his life he found that the public was losing interest in him as a playwright, so he decided to write novels and short stories and became just about the most famous writer in English-speaking countries, including America.
Maugham was a world traveler. He wisely realized that he needed to experience new characters and new settings. Many of his short stories focus on a single unique character whom he presumably met in his travels. He liked meeting unusual men and women like the man he calls Thomas Wilson in "The Lotus Eater." He says of this character:
Wilson did not look very interesting, but I wanted to meet him. I thought he would be an interesting man to talk to. He had made a decision that very few people make. Most people live simple lives. They do not make big decisions which change their lives completely. And very few people decide when they are going to die.
Wilson seems like an existentialist. He believes that this life is the only life there is and that he should get the maximum enjoyment out of the time he has here. He tells the narrator:
"After my first visit here, I went back to work in London....I was a bank manager and I had worked in the same bank since I was seventeen. I did not want to do the same work for the rest of my life. I wanted to go back and live on Capri for the rest of my life."
He later realized that the year he spent working at the bank before coming back to Capri was the one thing he regretted. He had lost a whole year out of his life.
Most people go to work when they are young and spend the next forty years or so doing some sort of routine work while looking forward to retirement. But when they are old enough to retire they may be too old to do much of anything but sit and read the newspaper or watch television. That's if they're lucky. If they're unlucky they either die about the time they retire, or they have contracted some disease that make their "golden years" miserable.
Thomas Wilson made a wise decision. He had twenty-five years of happiness and freedom from drudgery. The only problems were that he lived too long and that when the time came for him to commit suicide, as he had decided to do when his annuity ran out, he couldn't bring himself to do it. He had gambled on being dead or ready to die when his annuity ran out, but ironically the soft, pleasurable life on Capri probably kept him alive longer than if he had spent twenty-five years working at a desk in cold, smoggy London. He had to pay for his twenty-five years of pleasure with six years of misery living in a woodshed before he finally died.
"He lived happily for twenty-five years. He didn't do any work. Why didn't he kill himself when he said he would?"
"It's not so easy to kill yourself," I said. "For a very long time, Wilson had lived an easy life. He had not had to make any decisions. When the time came to make a decision, he was unable to do anything."
Wilson's story is reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Suicide Club" (1878) and also of Maugham's novel The Moon and Sixpence, based on the life of French Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin.
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