The Fall of Edward Barnard Essay - Essays and Criticism

W. Somerset Maugham

Essays and Criticism

Parallels in Themes to Other Literary Works

In his evocation of the naturalness of life in Tahiti as contrasted with the seemingly artificial, pointless life led by many in Chicago, Maugham takes the side of his character Edward. Any doubt about this can be eliminated by consulting Maugham’s reflections on his life and career, The Summing Up (1938). In section fifty-three, Maugham writes of his experience in the South Seas, saying that his encounter with the East supplied him with ‘‘a new self.’’ He had been accustomed to thinking that the most important things in life were art and culture (rather like Isabel in the story). But in the South Seas, he entered a new world in which the people were unlike any he had known before. Few of them had any culture, but they had more vitality than people in the West. They lived a more elemental life and did not disguise themselves with the masks of culture:

They had learnt life in a different school from mine and had come to different conclusions. They led it on a different plane; I could not . . . go on thinking mine a higher one. It was different. Their lives too formed themselves to the discerning eye into a pattern that had order and finally coherence.

This could almost be Edward in the story, trying to explain himself to an uncomprehending Bateman.

In the opposition between nature (Tahiti) and culture (Chicago) that drives the story, ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard’’ has many literary echoes. This can be seen not only in the work of other writers of the period who tackled the meeting of East and West (Kipling and Conrad, for example) but also in the themes of the romantic movement in the early nineteenth century. Maugham’s back to nature theme might, for example, be illustrated by William Wordsworth’s two poems ‘‘Expostulation and Reply’’ and ‘‘The Tables Turned’’ from Lyrical Ballads (1798). These poems, like ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard,’’ contain a dialogue between two men with opposing opinions. One values culture as preserved in books and counsels hard work. The other, who speaks for Wordsworth, finds his fulfillment not in books but in silent communion with nature. He tells his friend to ‘‘Come forth into the light of things, / Let Nature be your teacher.’’

The debate is couched in different terms by Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his two poems ‘‘Ulysses’’ and ‘‘The Lotos Eaters,’’ which were inspired by Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. In ‘‘Ulysses,’’ the great virtue is active endeavor. Having returned to his home on Ithaca, Ulysses cannot bear to remain idle. Like the ever-questing, ever-expanding, and progressing Western civilization, he longs to seek out new knowledge and adventures. In ‘‘The Lotos Eaters,’’ on the other hand, the people drug themselves into a state of passivity with the fruit of the lotos. They forget their homeland, their own civilization, and are content to rest forever in their calm, dreamy paradise. The two poems illustrate two modes of being, the active and the passive, and in that they resemble the Chicago and Tahiti of ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard.’’ Interestingly, this is exactly the position Bateman takes when he tells Edward that his infatuation with the island is like that of a ‘‘dope-fiend.’’ He tries to convince Edward that when he gets back to Chicago and pursues an active life again, he will feel relieved to have weaned himself from the drug.

In his use of a framing device to tell his story, Maugham creates yet another literary echo, this time of a common pattern in Shakespearean comedy. In a number of these comedies, the action begins in the real world of the city or court (the equivalent of Chicago in the story) and then moves quickly to a ‘‘green world’’ in which life is lived in a purer way (the equivalent of Tahiti). Finally, the action moves back to the city. This is the pattern found in As You Like It, for example. The green world of the Forest of Arden is a place where the characters are freed from their normal social selves and are able to discover deeper values of life, just as Edward and Arnold Jackson do in the ‘‘green world’’ of Tahiti.

The literary echoes in the story are not confined to earlier themes in English literature. The other stories in The Trembling of a Leaf (the collection of stories in which ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard’’ appears) also provide valuable commentary, pointing up certain themes in the story, modifying our perception of others. For example, ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard’’ is the most optimistic story in the collection, and a reader might well suppose that Edward is set for a happy life with his native bride in his South Sea paradise. But reading ‘‘Red’’ and ‘‘The Pool’’ might lessen the reader’s belief that such an intercultural marriage can work. In Maugham’s stories, fate does not treat lovers with much kindness, and the ultimate results of the encounters between Western men and Eastern women are rarely happy.

In ‘‘Red,’’ a young American sailor named Red deserts from...

(The entire section is 2108 words.)

Between the Wars: Far East

In the notebooks Maugham brought back from his wartime voyaging in the South Seas were entries relating to other places besides Tahiti, in...

(The entire section is 2305 words.)