Themes and Meanings
W. Somerset Maugham’s title is taken from John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” which contains a poignant reference to the biblical character Ruth, who stood with heavy heart in Judah amid the alien corn. Although Maugham finds his chief talent in telling a story in a memorable way, he considers characters that are alienated from society the most interesting. In other narratives he writes of unassimilated but changed Englishmen in the colonies, particularly in Asia and the South Pacific. He likes to depict characters who are in a sense outsiders, who have a kink or unusual streak in their personalities.
In this story, the narrator identifies with the Blands, calling himself an alien because of his aesthetic detachment, yet he shows the reader, by probing beneath the surface of the characters, by catching them off guard, that they are not as assimilated as they think. As self-conscious outsiders, the Blands (the name they have chosen seems symbolic) are unusual because they strive so hard for assimilation. Their very striving to shut themselves off from their past creates tensions within the family involving three generations and leading to their son’s tragic death.
More than alienation, however, the quest for an ideal contributes to the tragedy. Another common and significant theme in Maugham is art, especially its power to attract absolute commitment. Although the Blands think the performing arts too trivial for their son, Lea Makart, the gifted pianist, expresses the view embraced by George. Artistic genius is all that matters. Other people are only the artist’s raw material in the creation of beauty. If one has genius, all sacrifices to further it pale into insignificance. Like other characters in Maugham’s works, George is willing to pin all of his hope on artistic success. A character such as Charles Strickland in The Moon and Sixpence (1919) takes a desperate gamble and succeeds, establishing himself as a renowned painter. In Of Human Bondage (1915), however, Fanny Price, seeking to become a painter despite her lack of talent, experiences a fate similar to George’s. When George discovers that he cannot attain his only ambition, he comes to the conclusion that life is not worthwhile, despite the wealth, status, and security that is assured to him by his doting family.