W. Somerset Maugham’s short story ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard’’ was published in The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands in 1921 (available from Replica Books). The story is principally about two young men from Chicago, Bateman Hunter and Edward Barnard, who have been friends since their college days. They are in love with the same woman, a Chicago socialite named Isabel Longstaffe. For reasons of business, Edward travels to the South Sea island of Tahiti. He is expected to return in two years and marry Isabel. But after a while, Edward discovers that he likes living on the island, and he has no plans to return. Bateman travels to Tahiti and tries to persuade Edward, whom he believes to be wasting his life, to return to Chicago. But Edward, who has discovered a new set of values in Tahiti, refuses to change his mind. He plans to marry a Tahitian girl and spend the rest of his life in this tropical paradise.
Thematically, ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard’’ deals with a clash of cultures between East and West. Maugham uses much irony to ensure that the East, where life is lived closer to nature, is seen in a better light than the materialistic West, as represented by Bateman and Isabel. The story also presents ideas about the role the social and cultural environment plays in shaping human character, and it illustrates Maugham’s dislike of conventional morality.
‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard’’ begins as Bateman Hunter is returning home to Chicago after a trip to Tahiti. He has some vital news to tell Isabel Longstaffe, a young woman he greatly admires, but he is unsure of how to convey it.
Bateman’s father meets him at the train station. He asks about Edward Barnard, but Bateman says he would rather not talk about him. When they get home, Bateman calls Isabel, and she invites him to dinner that night. After dinner with her parents, Bateman and Isabel talk alone. She asks whether Edward Barnard is coming back, and he says no.
Then Bateman tells her his long story, and the narrator also gives the reader the background to what happened. Bateman and Edward are old friends, and they were both in love with Isabel. But Isabel chose Edward, and they were engaged to be married. But then Edward’s father met with financial disaster, and Edward, who no longer had any money or prospects, arranged to join the business of a family friend named Braunschmidt. Braunschmidt is a South Sea merchant who owns a branch agency in Tahiti. The plan was for Edward to work in Tahiti for one or two years, learning the business, and then return to take up a position in Chicago. Isabel agreed to wait for him.
Before Edward’s departure, his father warned him to stay clear of Arnold Jackson, his brother-in law, who was the black sheep of the family, having served time in prison for financial fraud. Jackson was living now in Tahiti.
In Tahiti, Edward regularly wrote to Isabel. All seemed well, except for the fact that after a while Edward made no mention of returning to Chicago. Isabel was puzzled but not alarmed. Then Bateman heard that Edward no longer worked for Braunschmidt, having been fired for laziness and incompetence. Bateman decided to go on a business trip to Honolulu and return via Tahiti, to find out what was going on with Edward.
When Bateman reached Papeete, Tahiti, he was surprised to find that Edward was known to the locals as Arnold Jackson’s nephew. He eventually found Edward, who was working as a salesman at a trading store. Bateman was surprised to find him in such a humble position, but Edward appeared to be perfectly content, happy, and relaxed.
They returned to Bateman’s hotel, where they drank cocktails on the terrace. They were soon joined, to Bateman’s confusion and alarm, by Arnold Jackson. Jackson invited them both to dinner that night at his house. He said his wife was a good cook, which puzzled Bateman who knew that Jackson had a wife in Geneva. In the conversation that ensued after...
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