Maugham, W(illiam) Somerset (Vol. 15)
Maugham, W(illiam) Somerset 1874–1965
A British playwright, short story writer, and novelist, Maugham was born in Paris and educated in England. He qualified as a doctor in London before he published his first work in 1897. Maugham's style was always rather Edwardian in its elegance. A skilled satirist, "his effectiveness as a critic of life," according to A. C. Ward, "is in inverse proportion to his solemnity." Best known for his autobiographical novel, Of Human Bondage, Maugham also achieved popular success with such plays as Caesar's Wife, The Breadwinner, and Our Betters. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
[Maugham wrote] novels about the kind of English society he knew best, doctors, the clergy, the military, the lawyers, and the formidable womenfolk who ruled their servants and their husbands with rods of iron: the good people who were the traditional fodder of the English novelist. (p. 35)
The main novels in which we find Maugham's anatomy of Edwardian England and its values are The Hero (1901), Mrs. Craddock (1902), The Merry-Go-Round (1904) and The Explorer (1909). All of them have at their centres situations in which the English gentleman finds his code of conduct woefully inadequate in dealing with the realities of life and in which he arrives through crisis at a painful maturity. (pp. 35-6)
The Hero (1901) is an early landmark in Maugham. It is his first sustained attack on contemporary middle-class values from within the framework of English society and it shows his remarkable ability among his countrymen to mount the attack in a spirit of truly Gallic concentration. (p. 39)
At this stage in his career Maugham did not have the self-confidence to appear in his own books in person; when he needed a reasoner to enunciate the truths of which the antagonists seemed unaware he used Miss Ley. She became the axle of his next book The Merry-Go-Round (1904) in which he tried the experiment of linking together dramas involving separate sets of people. (p. 42)...
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The most mature fiction about the South Pacific is symbolic in nature. Works of Melville, Conrad, and Maugham … move beyond the superficial and the ephemeral into the realm of mythology. However, what these writers have in common is that they all make strong instinctive responses to the South Seas. (pp. 165-66)
[Those works of] Maugham which are related to the South Seas follow the design of the adventure of the mythological hero described by Joseph Campbell: 'A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into the region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow men.' This archetypal quest is the organising principle, and archetypes are the primary images which form the narrative of … The Moon and Sixpence. [Strickland divorces himself] from the common world and [descends] into the depth of the mystical South Seas…. [Here, he] finds the source of creative energy within himself. (pp. 167-68)
[Strickland] sends forth from the South Seas disconcerting works of art. The legend he creates attracts others like the Maugham-narrator to the South Seas. (p. 168)
[Maugham] is overcome by a divine nostalgia when he is faced with the vast and empty ocean, and the low-lying heaven. He perceives the strange affinity of sea and man, nature and universe,...
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Robert L. Calder
[The] charge that Maugham was merely a commercial hack pandering to the tastes of a middlebrow audience is unjustified. A young author at the end of the Victorian era wanting to achieve popular success does not write a realistic and pessimistic slum novel (Liza of Lambeth, 1897), an iconoclastic story of a young man's suicide (The Hero, 1901), an account of a failed marriage, from which the wife is freed by her husband's timely death (Mrs. Craddock, 1902), or a bitterly cynical novel of a self-destructive concept of "honour" (The Merry-Go-Round, 1904). Furthermore, neither the philosophical core in Of Human Bondage (1915)—the meaninglessness of life—nor the amorality of the hero of The Moon and Sixpence (1919) are the ingredients to capture a mass audience. And many of the short stories, perhaps Maugham's finest writing, treat murder, suicide, and adultery with a kind of ironic detachment which is not the stuff of commercial authorship.
Those critics looking for signs of superficiality in Maugham have pointed to the number of adaptations of his writing for other media: the stage, radio, television, and film. Indeed, considering that his books have been made into forty films and hundreds of radio and television plays, it would be fair to say that no other serious writer's work has been so often presented in other media. Whether it follows that Maugham's stories are adaptable because they are...
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