The Fall of Edward Barnard

by W. Somerset Maugham
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 979

‘‘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.

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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 Jackson left, Edward revealed his admiration and affection for Jackson, to Bateman’s further consternation. Bateman resolved to find out why his friend was so attached to a man Bateman regarded as reprehensible. He also noted that his friend’s values seemed to have changed.

Jackson’s house was on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and when Edward and Batman arrived, they went bathing. Jackson joined them, wearing a pareo, the native dress. As the three men walked back to the house, Edward was also dressed in a pareo, but Bateman insisted on wearing his own Western clothes. At the house, Jackson spoke with great idealism and spirituality, and Bateman had to remind himself of the man’s unsavory history. Jackson’s beautiful young daughter Eva mixed a cocktail for them, and Jackson spoke unself-consciously of his prison days. Bateman was embarrassed and angry. His discomfort increased when Eva placed on his head a garland of flowers that she had made.

After dinner the three men talked on the verandah. Jackson told romantic stories of the history of the island. After Jackson left them alone, Edward told his friend that he was happy in Tahiti and had no plans to return to Chicago. Bateman urged him to rethink, saying that he had succumbed to evil influences. Edward then explained how he had changed since he arrived in Tahiti two years before. At first he had been full of energy and had many ideas for how the island could be developed and modernized. But gradually he came to like life the way it was in Tahiti, with its ease and leisure and its good-natured people. He found he had time to think and read, and he realized that everything he had formerly thought to be important—the bustle and industry of a large city—seemed trivial. Now he valued beauty, truth, and goodness. He said he still admired Isabel and was prepared to marry her if she held him to his promise, but it was clear that this was not what Edward really wanted. Edward then said that Bateman should marry Isabel instead. Bateman was shocked, but he felt some exultation over the idea. Edward went on to say that he planned to marry Jackson’s daughter and move to a small island a thousand miles away. Jackson owned the island and had offered to give it to him. Bateman once more was bewildered and perplexed, thinking that his friend was wasting his life. But Edward looked forward with zest to his future. He believed he would live a peaceful and happy life.

After Bateman finishes telling Isabel his story, she realizes that the situation is hopeless. She knows she will not be able to persuade Edward to return, and she declares that Edward is his own worst enemy.

Bateman then blurts out his love for Isabel, and she says she loves him, too. As they embrace, it is clear that they will marry. Bateman thinks of his glowing future in business, and Isabel thinks of all the antique furniture she will be able to acquire and the cultured life they will lead together.

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