How does the oleander tree outside Wilson's house figure in "The Lotus Eater"? It is mentioned twice. The Oleander flower is poisonous; I think Wilson ate it after his first attempt of suicide...

How does the oleander tree outside Wilson's house figure in "The Lotus Eater"? It is mentioned twice. The Oleander flower is poisonous; I think Wilson ate it after his first attempt of suicide (charcoal fumes) failed and he died of its posion. He was found in the hillside where he went to die.

 

This would tie into the title "The Lotus Eater." If not, why is the title significant?

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Asked on by katiekeene

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

In my text of Maugham's story "The Lotus Eater" I find no mention of the word "oleander." Maugham's description of Wilson's cottage includes the following sentences:

There was a huge flowering tree beside the door of the cottage. The tree was covered with large, brightly coloured flowers. It looked beautiful.

Most oleanders do not grow into huge trees unless they are pruned and shaped into trees. Otherwise they are more like tall bushes and are often grown as hedges. They have flowers, but the flowers are not especially large or especially bright. I only find one mention of this tree in the story. There is nothing in the story about poison, although it is an interesting suggestion of yours that Wilson might have committed suicide after all and might have done so by self-poisoning.

The title "The Lotus Eater" is significant mainly because it alludes to the episode in Homer's Odyssey in which Odysseus' men became addicted to eating a kind of lotus plant growing on one of the islands where they had stopped for a layover. The lotus acted like opium, depriving them of all energy and will power. Thomas Wilson, like Homer's lotus eaters, was figuratively marooned on an island in Homer's Mediterranean Sea and became entranced by its insidious hypnotic spell. When his twenty-five-year annuity ran out he tried once to kill himself but failed. He lacked the will-power to try again. As Maugham explains to his friend:

"It's not so easy to kill yourself. . . . For a very long time, Wilson had lived an easy life. He had not had to make any decisions. When the time came to make a decision, he was unable to do anything."

This is how Wilson resembles the lethargic men in Homer's Odyssey. They just wanted to relax and dream their lives away.

It did not occur to me that Wilson might have committed suicide in the end. Maugham specifies that his annuity ran out when he was sixty years old and that he lived in the woodshed for another six years. He apparently had also managed to stay in his cottage for a year or more on borrowed money and promises for an additional year or so before the landlord evicted him. So Wilson would have been sixty-seven or a little older when they found his body. The average life expectancy for a man in the days Maugham was writing about, which would have been in the early 1930s, was right around sixty-seven. So Wilson could have died of old age, and this would have been especially plausible considering that he was living on poor food in a woodshed and for the last years of his life, in Maugham's words:

He was like a wild animal.

The oleander is noted for being poisonous, but I don't think it is the flowers that are especially poisonous. I think the poison is in the leaves, but I could be wrong.

 

Sources:
katiekeene's profile pic

katiekeene | High School Teacher | (Level 1) eNoter

Posted on

Dear billdelaney,

Thank you for answering my question: "The Lotus Eater" refers to Odysseus' men in the title. I have Homer's Iliad (illustrated, even) but, alas, have not read it or would have known Maugham's reason for the title. 

However, I did find it curious that your text does not have 'oleander' in it because mine does:

" In my text of Maugham's story "The Lotus Eater" I find no mention of the word "oleander." Maugham's description of Wilson's cottage includes the following sentences:

There was a huge flowering tree beside the door of the cottage. The tree was covered with large, brightly coloured flowers. It looked beautiful."

The text from "The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Maugham II" (Doubleday) reads:

"By the side of the door grew a great oleander in full flower."

In another anthology the story mentions 'oleander' twice but I cannot find it now. I think you're correct that oleander leaves are poisonous. ( In the novel "White Oleander" the mother uses it to poison her husband.) 

Thank you very much for enlightening me.

katie keene

p.s. I graduated from UCLA too.

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