Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story represents the powerful conflict between two characters with contrasting values, temperaments, and personalities. When two characters so unlike are brought together, even minor matters can lead to animosity. Beyond character differences, however, the story touches on two more general themes. The first is W. Somerset Maugham’s ambivalent attitude toward the English upper class and aristocracy. On the one hand, he finds them in decline and failing as leaders; they cling to illusions and are too proud and aloof to be effective. On the other, as in the story, they still possess admirable qualities—industry, resourcefulness, courage, aplomb, perseverance—and in a crisis, often acquit themselves well. Thrown among the indigenous people, Mr. Warburton experiences a deepening of his character. While retaining his reserve, dignity, and ties with civilization, he develops affection and respect for the Malays. Intuitively, he knows how to treat them so as to assure their cooperation. Ironically, the English snob fares much better in a primitive, exotic setting than does Cooper, a capable worker inept in human relationships.

A second general theme, colonialism, emerges through the characters. Mr. Warburton’s view of colonial matters is not tinged with idealism. Tolerant of the Malays’ weaknesses, he wants their assistance and does not care to change them. His assumptions are commonsensical and pragmatic; he considers efficient work and management beneficial to both the Malays and the English. Colonialism, thus, is depicted as a system of getting things done, not an evil exploitation or an idealistic mission. This view contrasts sharply with the same theme in other English authors—Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, and George Orwell.