How can I analyze the symbols, narration, and themes in "Episode" by Somerset Maugham?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Somerset Maugham often appears to be telling his own stories from personal experience, but in "Episode" he uses a fictitious narrator he calls Ned Preston. Preston is a semi-invalid who does not have to work for a living. But in order to feel useful he volunteers to work as an unpaid "prison visitor." Evidently this type of volunteer work was common in England. As a prison visitor, Preston was supposed to help prisoners with their "problems, interest and future." In other words, he was like what Americans call a social worker. Maugham probably chose to have a minor-character-as-narrator form of narration because he did not want to represent himself as a prison visitor. In fact, he only appears to be retelling a story he actually heard from a real person like Ned Preston. Preston tells a story at a small dinner party which is intended to illustrate a thesis he is trying to prove to this group of upper-middle-class men and women.

"Because the working class doesn't read much," he said, "because he has no great gift for expressing himself, you think he has no imagination. You're wrong. He's extremely imaginative. Because he's a great husky brute you think he has no nerves. You're wrong again. He's a bundle of nerves." Then [according to Maugham] he told us a story which I shall tell as best I can in my own words.

The story is about a man named Fred Manson who works as a postman. He falls in love with a working-class girl named Grace Carter and starts stealing cash out of the letters he carries in order to spend freely on Gracie. Eventually she falls in love with him too. However, he gets caught stealing money out of the letters and is sentenced to two years at hard labor. 

All of this is narrated in a fairly straightforward fashion by Maugham, who claims to be simply retelling Ned Preston's story about Fred Manson as he remembers it. There is no symbolism in the story. It is just the sort of anecdote someone would tell at a dinner party.

The conclusion to Preston's story about Fred and Gracie is a surprise. When Fred is due for release after serving one and a half years with good behavior, he astonishes his prison visitor Preston by telling him he is not going to marry Gracie, although they had been deeply in love, and although she has waited for him faithfully and alienated both her parents by insisting on marrying a convict.

"But why, why, why?" Ned was flabbergasted. 

"I'll tell you. I've thought about her night and day for eighteen months and now I'm sick to death of her."

Somerset Maugham was a cynical man and his stories often have ironic endings. He did not believe in marriage and did not like women. The point of his story is that love does not last, even when the relationship was never consummated with marriage or any sexual intimacy. To add to the cynical ending of his tale, Maugham has Preston end by telling about Gracie's fate.

"There's nothing for me to do now but put my head in the gas-oven," she said. "And she did." 

In Act 4, Scene 7 of Hamlet, Claudius tells Laertes:

But that I know love is begun by time,
And that I see, in passages of proof,
Time qualifies the spark and fire of it.
There lives within the very flame of love
A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it;

It is a sad truth of life that love does not always last. Even couples who appear to be happily married have often had to make readjustments to their relationship after the "honeymoon period" was over. Romeo and Juliet were madly in love, but if they had both lived and somehow settled their problems with their respective parents, they might have found that "There lives within the very flame of love a kind of wick or snuff that will abate it." Love burns itself out in its own flame. Somerset Maugham would have agreed with Claudius wholeheartedly. These lines from Hamlet could be offered as the theme of "Episode." 

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petite27 | eNotes Newbie

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Thank you! If you had to choose a color to represent this story, which one would you choose? 

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I never think much in terms of colors, but in answer to your question I guess I would choose the color gray because I associate gray with prison walls, prison bars, and even the prisoners' uniforms and the guards' uniforms. The whole story concerns a man who is prison from beginning to end. That is, he is telling his story to the "prison visitor." Ned Preston, Maugham's narrator, meets Fred Manson while Manson is serving time in jail. When the story ends, Manson is still in jail, although he is due to be released soon. The feeling of a jail seems to hover over the so-called "episode." It is a sombre story and a bit surprising that Preston would tell it at a dinner party.

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