William Somerset Maugham had a long literary career, writing from 1897 to the early 1960s. His works include novels, short stories, plays, essays, an autobiography, and nonfiction pieces on travel.
There isn't a simple answer as far as themes in his works because he was so prolific, but Maugham is considered a Modernist. Modernists explored the disillusionment and disaffection people experienced as a result of the world wars. A sampling of Maugham's major novels and their themes are:
- Liza of Lambeth (1897) is a pre-war novel set in a working class slum; in it, Maugham unsentimentally examines alcoholism, domestic abuse, rape, and the difficult and sometimes short lives of the underclass.
- Of Human Bondage (1915) is often described as semi-autobiographical. The protagonist, Philip Carey, is orphaned as a boy, and the novel traces his search for love and for the meaning of his life.
- The Moon and Sixpence (1919) is a novel inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin, and like Of Human Bondage, it is concerned with the search for meaning and fulfillment in one's life choices and how that sometimes leads to the rejection of a conventional existence.
- The Razor's Edge (1944) traces the life of a WWI war veteran as he questions the meaning of his existence and searches for fulfillment in a quest that takes him all over the world and into Eastern spirituality.
Maugham frequently returns to the theme of man's quest to understand his place in the world and how to bring meaning to his life and find contentment, if not happiness.
First, let's discuss themes he avoided. Maugham would have avoided (to a fault) any sort of homosexual theme. He was scared of what happened in the Oscar Wilde trial and, thus, would not even consider discussing such themes.
His first theme "attempt" was to cover the idea of women escaping from the standards of Victorian England. However, people saw his work as gloomy and depressing, so he decided to try to make the social atmosphere around him seem light and humorous.
Stories with these themes were almost instant successes. By 1908 he had all the fame he desired from writing novels and switched to writing plays--by the end of that summer, he had four plays running on the main stages.
He then began to visit the Orient quite frequently. His visits resulted in some of his best work. He wrote a novel, some readable travel guides, and many short stories depicting his time overseas. Due to the European interest in the Orient and his fame--he was, again successful.