Setting is central to the effectiveness of “Rain.” Probably the most famous of W. Somerset Maugham’s numerous tales set in the tropics, “Rain,” like others of its kind, is an exploration of what happens when East meets West in a tropical setting. The clash between Pacific and European cultures informs every aspect of “Rain,” and for each Anglo-Saxon character, the tropics represent some different and alien reality. The Davidsons see the South Seas as a vast pagan chaos waiting to be colonized and Christianized. For Sadie Thompson, the islands represent an escape, a place to begin life anew, far away from the repression exercised by Davidson and his kind. Even the even-tempered Macphail is affected by the strange world of the tropics: Appalled by the squalor and disease of Pago-Pago, he is driven to distraction by the unremitting rain. Much like “The Letter” and “The Outstation,” two of Maugham’s other South Seas tales, “Rain” is a study of the bizarre behavior that results when a European temperament must face prolonged exposure to tropical climates and customs.
“Rain” is also a bitter indictment of intolerance, both political and religious. The Davidsons are self-righteous and authoritarian, accomplished destroyers of Samoan culture. Mrs. Davidson is a cold and prudish woman to whom even European-style dancing is immoral, and it is little wonder that Davidson seeks sexual satisfaction from a prostitute. Davidson himself is merciless in his cruel insistence that Sadie return to the United States; he is a single-minded bigot whose suicide is the product of an unbearable but self-imposed religious guilt. In that it criticizes and exposes the colonizers who would transform the tropics into a morally upright and repressive extension of the West, who seek to impose white culture and religion on the world at large, “Rain” is a powerful critique of American and Western European imperialism.