Cakes and Ale is a characteristic Somerset Maugham novel, a combination of social satire, autobiography, and roman à clef. It is a masterfully structured story, told largely in retrospect, with the Maugham touch of the unanticipated ending. Like many of the author’s plays, novels, and stories, it underscores his conviction that human morals are relative, rather than absolute.
The title is taken from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will (pr. c. 1600-1602, pb. 1623), in which the happy libertine, Sir Toby Belch, upbraids the priggish, hypocritical Malvolio with the pronouncement: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no cakes and ale?” Sir Toby’s question applies to all who would shape the world around them to fit a preconceived, narrow code of conduct and behavior in which joy and earthy pleasure play little or no part. Maugham’s Cakes and Ale offers a response to Sir Toby’s question. The novel is about the self-discovery that comes through a young man’s awareness of joy and carnal passion. Maugham sees these elements of life as vitally important. To those for whom human nature is more a failing than a triumph, joy and passion are subsumed by respectability and conformity to arbitrary standards of social conduct. Initially, young Ashenden, the narrator and Maugham’s persona, is a petty snob, one who without thought or consideration embraces the strictures and prejudices of class-obsessed Victorian England. To Ashenden and to those with whom he shares a certain stratum of society, outspoken and uninhibitedly good-natured working-class people are considered beneath any social interaction beyond the most rudimentary formal politeness—men such as George Kemp, the coal merchant, for example, whose friendly camaraderie serves only to demonstrate to young Ashenden that Kemp is a man “who doesn’t seem to know his place.” Rosie’s intrinsic goodness and the love she offers—of a nature entirely different from anything Ashenden has previously experienced—break through his barriers and teach him how shallow his preconceptions of human nature are.
Maugham’s social satire in the novel centers on the contemporary literary society of the late 1920’s, taking to task, in particular, its often shallow and self-serving pretensions, as well as its subservience to contemporary trends of fashionable...
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