Themes and Meanings

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Like other comedies of manners, The Circle presents characters of upper-class society living according to social norms. For Elizabeth, the conflict between love and duty is resolved in favor of love, and Kitty and Porteous, despite their own uneven relationship, are pleased. For W. Somerset Maugham, however, romantic love represents a form of bondage, exerting such force over individuals that it can overcome all obstacles. It is its own justification, but it does not last.

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The theme is deftly handled by the two triangles separated by a generation, Clive-Kitty-Porteous and Arnold-Elizabeth-Teddie. Elizabeth is about the same age as Kitty was when she left Clive, and she resembles Kitty as well. The older generation mirrors the future of the younger, and one assumes that each will follow in the path of his or her counterpart. The mirroring, however, is inexact. Although Kitty regrets having left her husband for exile in Florence and Porteous regrets having lost his chance at being prime minister, the audience cannot be certain that Elizabeth and Teddie will experience similar regrets. Porteous optimistically hopes that Elizabeth and Teddie can escape unhappiness, for “if we made rather a hash of things perhaps it was because we were rather trivial people. You can do anything in this world if you’re prepared to take the consequences, and consequences depend on character.” On the other hand, Kitty expresses Maugham’s more consistent attitude about love, echoing the inevitability implicit in the title, “The tragedy of love isn’t death or separation. . . . The tragedy of love is indifference.” After thirty years, the younger generation will have come full circle.

Almost all Maugham’s characters are adults living in upper-class society or connected with it. In this society, adultery, usually initiated by the woman, is a commonplace occurrence, and this theme invites satire on English divorce laws. In The Circle, Elizabeth and Teddie maintain strict propriety before they elope. Under these circumstances, a generous husband such as Arnold will make it appear that he has committed adultery so that his wife may easily obtain a divorce. Maugham finds the hypocrisy of the custom amusing, not a cause for outrage.

A further theme has to do with Maugham’s assumption that women find brusque, virile men more pleasing than polished, prim ones. Arnold and his father, who hold a secure place in the upper class, are refined gentlemen. However, Elizabeth prefers the colonial Teddie, who has no wealth or social position and, like Porteous, is clumsy and inarticulate, yet definite in his views.

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