Themes

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This novel was Maugham's favorite, partly because of the person upon whom he fashioned Rosie, but also because of the opportunity to set forth his belief that honest emotions and good will are more important than good manners and "playing by the rules" of society. As Maugham once wrote, "I prefer a loose woman to a selfish one and a wanton to a fool." Rosie is certainly loose and wanton, but she is unselfish and no fool. Indeed, her sexual generosity causes much of the criticism that is leveled at her by "society" people. As the second Mrs. Driffield says of her, "I don't wish to seem spiteful, but I'm afraid I don't think that she can have been a very nice person." This statement elicits from the narrator a clear thematic comment:

That's where you make a mistake . . . She was a very nice woman. I never saw her in a bad temper. You only had to say you wanted something for her to give it to you. I never heard her say a disagreeable thing about anyone. She had a heart of gold.

One must admit that some of Ashenden's warm feeling for Rosie stems from his own love affair with her. The scene in which they commence the romance suggests the tenderness of Rosie's nature. As the inexperienced and sensitive young narrator begins to weep while Rosie is stroking his face, Rosie responds typically: '"Oh, honey, what is it? What's the matter? Don't. Don't!' She put her arms round my neck and began to cry too, and she kissed my lips and eyes and my wet cheeks. She undid her bodice and lowered my head till it rested on her bosom." The affair plays a large role in Willie's growing up and his learning to appreciate warmth of feeling and honest emotion.

The disappointment that he experiences when he finds that Rosie has also, during their romance, slept with another man moves him deeply. However, Rosie's reaction to his complaints about her actions, including accepting a fur cape from the man and other affairs that the narrator has learned of, typifies her vision of the way she wants to live her life. She smiles and gently says, "Oh, my dear, why d'you bother your head about any others? What harm does it do you? Don't I give you a good time! Aren't you happy when you're with me?" The key words here are "give" and "happy." Rosie likes to make people happy, and sexual favors are an effective way for her to do so. So, her hedonism emerges when she declares a moment later, "Let's have a good time while we can." As Willie's ire abates, Rosie closes the scene by whispering, "You must take me as I am, you know."

Doing this is primarily what Ashenden recognizes as the sensible way to proceed. And, the "taking" of Rosie extends to her later behavior, when she leaves Edward Driffield and goes to America with the man from Blackstable with whom she had an early affair: "Lord" George Kemp. The morality of this action reminds one of her earlier departure with Edward from Blackstable, leaving unpaid debts— only, this time Kemp not only owes money but also is the subject of an arrest warrant. Driffield seems crushed by her defection, but he marries his nurse a while later and seems to survive the "betrayal" well.

Near the close of the story, the narrator attempts to explain why Driffield had put up with Rosie's affairs with other men. In doing so, he partly restates other thematic remarks...

(This entire section contains 1024 words.)

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and also refines his view of Rosie's most important qualities:

You see, she wasn't a woman who ever inspired love. Only affection. It was absurd to be jealous over her. She was like a clear, deep pool in a forest glade, into which it's heavenly to plunge, but it is neither less cool nor less crystalline because a tramp and a gypsy and a gamekeeper have plunged into it before you.

While Alroy Kear accuses Ashenden of being "lyrical," Willie has, in this extended simile, presented his final estimate of the salient aspects of Rosie's nature.

A secondary (and perhaps, to some readers, distracting) theme has to do with the profession of writing and the practice of gaining and maintaining a literary reputation. Maugham had firm opinions about authors and authorship. His review of them, ranging from Keats to Carlyle, reveals his changing literary tastes (perhaps to excess), including his belief that Driffield's books are somewhat tedious and that some writers gain a lofty reputation merely by dint of remaining alive until critics and the public develop a sort of reverence for an icon.

This is what has happened with Driffield, and Ashenden deplores the phenomenon, which is perpetrated largely by biographers like Alroy Kear and lionizers such as Mrs. Barton Trafford. The moral imperfection of the latter can be seen in this comment by the narrator on her reaction to Driffield's marrying a second time without consulting her: "I think it may be not unjustly said that Mrs. Barton Trafford fairly ran over with the milk of human kindness, but all the same I have an inkling that if ever the milk of human kindness was charged with vitriol, here was a case in point." So, it is the hypocrisy and falsity of the whole literary "system" to which Ashenden objects.

A striking example of this literary evil can be seen in the introduction of Allgood Newton: "in those days he was the best-known critic in England." This highly influential person is a grim illustration of the sort of negative vision held by the narrator of such power in the hands of such hypocrisy: "He was very amiable to the authors he met at Driffield's, and said charming and flattering things to them, but when they were gone he was very amusing at their expense." The whole literary scene appalls Ashenden, since it is not peopled by those who would fit into Rosie's explanation of why she left with George Kemp (the last words in the text): "He was always such a perfect gentleman."

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