Parallels in Themes to Other Literary Works

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2108

In his evocation of the naturalness of life in Tahiti as contrasted with the seemingly artificial, pointless life led by many in Chicago, Maugham takes the side of his character Edward. Any doubt about this can be eliminated by consulting Maugham’s reflections on his life and career, The Summing Up ...

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In his evocation of the naturalness of life in Tahiti as contrasted with the seemingly artificial, pointless life led by many in Chicago, Maugham takes the side of his character Edward. Any doubt about this can be eliminated by consulting Maugham’s reflections on his life and career, The Summing Up (1938). In section fifty-three, Maugham writes of his experience in the South Seas, saying that his encounter with the East supplied him with ‘‘a new self.’’ He had been accustomed to thinking that the most important things in life were art and culture (rather like Isabel in the story). But in the South Seas, he entered a new world in which the people were unlike any he had known before. Few of them had any culture, but they had more vitality than people in the West. They lived a more elemental life and did not disguise themselves with the masks of culture:

They had learnt life in a different school from mine and had come to different conclusions. They led it on a different plane; I could not . . . go on thinking mine a higher one. It was different. Their lives too formed themselves to the discerning eye into a pattern that had order and finally coherence.

This could almost be Edward in the story, trying to explain himself to an uncomprehending Bateman.

In the opposition between nature (Tahiti) and culture (Chicago) that drives the story, ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard’’ has many literary echoes. This can be seen not only in the work of other writers of the period who tackled the meeting of East and West (Kipling and Conrad, for example) but also in the themes of the romantic movement in the early nineteenth century. Maugham’s back to nature theme might, for example, be illustrated by William Wordsworth’s two poems ‘‘Expostulation and Reply’’ and ‘‘The Tables Turned’’ from Lyrical Ballads (1798). These poems, like ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard,’’ contain a dialogue between two men with opposing opinions. One values culture as preserved in books and counsels hard work. The other, who speaks for Wordsworth, finds his fulfillment not in books but in silent communion with nature. He tells his friend to ‘‘Come forth into the light of things, / Let Nature be your teacher.’’

The debate is couched in different terms by Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his two poems ‘‘Ulysses’’ and ‘‘The Lotos Eaters,’’ which were inspired by Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. In ‘‘Ulysses,’’ the great virtue is active endeavor. Having returned to his home on Ithaca, Ulysses cannot bear to remain idle. Like the ever-questing, ever-expanding, and progressing Western civilization, he longs to seek out new knowledge and adventures. In ‘‘The Lotos Eaters,’’ on the other hand, the people drug themselves into a state of passivity with the fruit of the lotos. They forget their homeland, their own civilization, and are content to rest forever in their calm, dreamy paradise. The two poems illustrate two modes of being, the active and the passive, and in that they resemble the Chicago and Tahiti of ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard.’’ Interestingly, this is exactly the position Bateman takes when he tells Edward that his infatuation with the island is like that of a ‘‘dope-fiend.’’ He tries to convince Edward that when he gets back to Chicago and pursues an active life again, he will feel relieved to have weaned himself from the drug.

In his use of a framing device to tell his story, Maugham creates yet another literary echo, this time of a common pattern in Shakespearean comedy. In a number of these comedies, the action begins in the real world of the city or court (the equivalent of Chicago in the story) and then moves quickly to a ‘‘green world’’ in which life is lived in a purer way (the equivalent of Tahiti). Finally, the action moves back to the city. This is the pattern found in As You Like It, for example. The green world of the Forest of Arden is a place where the characters are freed from their normal social selves and are able to discover deeper values of life, just as Edward and Arnold Jackson do in the ‘‘green world’’ of Tahiti.

The literary echoes in the story are not confined to earlier themes in English literature. The other stories in The Trembling of a Leaf (the collection of stories in which ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard’’ appears) also provide valuable commentary, pointing up certain themes in the story, modifying our perception of others. For example, ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard’’ is the most optimistic story in the collection, and a reader might well suppose that Edward is set for a happy life with his native bride in his South Sea paradise. But reading ‘‘Red’’ and ‘‘The Pool’’ might lessen the reader’s belief that such an intercultural marriage can work. In Maugham’s stories, fate does not treat lovers with much kindness, and the ultimate results of the encounters between Western men and Eastern women are rarely happy.

In ‘‘Red,’’ a young American sailor named Red deserts from his warship and ends up on one of the islands of American Samoa. Like Edward Barnard in Tahiti, Red is enamored of the island, falls in love with a young native girl, and decides to stay. He and the girl live happily for a while, but when a British whaling ship arrives on the island, Red feels a longing for tobacco. Going onto the ship to obtain some, he is kidnapped by the captain who needs an extra hand on board. Many years later, Red, now ugly and fat, returns to the island for one nostalgic visit to the place where he and his girl used to live. The girl is still there but is now an old woman who does not even recognize him.

‘‘The Pool’’ has an even more negative outcome. Lawson, a young Scotsman in Samoa, falls in love with the island and with a half-caste girl named Ethel. They marry and like Red, are happy for a year or so. But when Ethel gives birth to a son who is dark and looks like a native child, Lawson realizes that the boy will be discriminated against by the whites on the island, so he persuades Ethel to accompany him back to Scotland. But Ethel cannot settle down in the cold climate of Scotland, and as soon as she can, she returns to Samoa with her son. Lawson follows, but he cannot find work on the island and becomes an alcoholic. When he discovers that Ethel is having an affair with another man, he drowns himself in the pool where they first met.

In ‘‘Rain,’’ one of Maugham’s most famous stories, he develops a theme that is also apparent in ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard:’’ a dislike of conventional morality. In the latter story, Arnold Jackson is a man condemned by his society as a cheat and a felon. But Maugham refuses to go along with this judgment. He presents Jackson as a sympathetic figure: kind, generous, and wise. It is the more conventional characters, Bateman and Isabel, who are the object of Maugham’s satire.

Maugham’s target in ‘‘Rain’’ is the conventional Christian morality of the Davidsons, a missionary couple who are temporarily stranded at Pago-Pago, the capital of American Samoa, on the island of Tutuila. The Davidsons are a dreadful pair. Mrs. Davidson is disgusted by the ‘‘natives.’’ She thinks their dancing is immoral, and she and her husband agree that the native dress, a loincloth called a lava-lava, is indecent. That too, according to Mrs. Davidson, encourages immorality, and her husband believes that the island will not be Christianized until every boy over ten years old is made to wear trousers. Eventually he cooks up a scheme whereby the natives are fined every time they ‘‘sin,’’ and one thing deemed a sin is not wearing trousers. Maugham’s biting irony is in fine form here. Interestingly, the same subject comes up in ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard.’’ Edward and Arnold Jackson feel comfortable wearing the pareo, a loincloth, which is the native costume. But Bateman is embarrassed by the pareo and insists on wearing his high-collared blue serge suit, which seems inappropriate given the local climate. The contrast is part of the nature versus nurture theme. In the more ‘‘primitive’’ society, there is no shame or embarrassment at showing the body, whereas in ‘‘civilized’’ society the body is always covered.

In ‘‘Rain,’’ the racism of Mrs. Davidson, who does not trust the natives to do anything right, draws attention to an element that also appears in ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard,’’ although it is not given great prominence. That element is the disparaging remarks Bateman makes about the native inhabitants of Tahiti. When he notices that the young man who shows him to his hotel has ‘‘a good deal of native blood,’’ he involuntarily adopts a haughty manner toward him. Then he refers to one of the customers at the store where Edward works as a ‘‘greasy nigger.’’ The racism creeps into little remarks made by Bateman with no ill intent, as when he seeks to reassure Isabel that Edward is a fine fellow: ‘‘He’s white, through and through.’’ Bateman’s racism is unconscious; he has probably never thought much about it. He simply reflects the attitudes that many white people of his time and place shared. They would no more question their belief in white superiority than they would question whether the sun would rise in the morning.

The Davidsons in ‘‘Rain’’ believe in the superiority not only of their race but also of their religion. They also believe in the absolute rightness of their moral principles. But Maugham shows what happens when people get too high and mighty about their own righteousness. The zealous Reverend Davidson is appalled about the presence of a prostitute in the same house where they are staying; he harries and bullies her and cruelly insists that she be put on a ship for San Francisco, even when he knows that she faces a three-year prison term there. He also indulges in long drawn-out prayer sessions with her in order to convert her. But then, one morning, Davidson commits suicide by cutting his own throat. It transpires that in one of his sessions with the prostitute he had himself fallen prey to lust. Afterwards, he could not live with the knowledge that he had betrayed his own code of behavior.

The moral is that often, underneath the veneer of virtue, lie darker forces that will eventually, when circumstances dictate, rise to the surface. A similar truth emerges in ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard,’’ although it manifests the other way around. Behind the appearance of vice in Arnold Jackson is a more virtuous self, which life in Tahiti brings to light. Appearances, Maugham seems to be saying, are one thing; reality is another.

On balance, the South Sea stories in The Trembling of a Leaf reveal more of the perils than the pleasures that lie in wait for the white man who ventures into one of these apparent tropical paradises. The final example is ‘‘Mackintosh.’’ Unlike Edward Barnard, Red, and initially Lawson, Mackintosh hates the Samoan island on which he is an assistant administrator. He does not like the heat, which he would willingly exchange for some cold winds in his native Aberdeen, Scotland, and he is tormented by mosquitoes. (How different this is from the idyllic setting of Tahiti.) He feels like a prisoner on the island. When his boss is killed by the natives whom he regarded as his children, Mackintosh cannot bear the guilt he feels, since he allowed the killer to steal his gun, and he shoots himself.

Maugham never forgot his travels to the East which continued to provide material for his fiction. As late as 1944, in his novel The Razor’s Edge, he returned to the same theme. Larry, an American from Chicago, travels to India in order to find greater meaning in his life. Like Edward Barnard, he rejects materialism and seeks a more spiritual life. But over the long-term, he does not fare well. Perhaps the reader who enjoyed ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard’’ and sympathized with its protagonist can be glad that Maugham chose to pursue Edward’s story no further than his early dreams of happiness in the South Seas.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2003. Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature.

Between the Wars: Far East

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2305

In the notebooks Maugham brought back from his wartime voyaging in the South Seas were entries relating to other places besides Tahiti, in particular Honolulu and islands in the Samoan group, and these he came to recognize as providing raw material for short stories, a genre he had abandoned along with the novel ten years previously on making his breakthrough in the theatre. But the stories suggested by this material would be of a different kind and on an ampler scale than any he had previously attempted. There were eventually six of them, each of between 12,000 and 15,000 words in length, which together made a book about the size of the average novel. The Trembling of a Leaf was the first of five volumes published between 1921 and 1932, each containing six short stories of roughly that length. All thirty were issued in one volume in 1934 as Maugham’s collected short stories, and they have been included in his subsequent collections; but it is worth stressing at this point how much the reader gains by reading the stories in their original volumes. The six stories in each by supplementing and illuminating one another form a distinct artistic whole, giving a unity of effect which is lost when a particular story is read out of context. In the case of The Trembling of a Leaf this effect is enhanced by the stories being prefaced by a sketch of the Pacific and rounded off by an ‘Envoi’, which do not appear in any of the collected editions. The irony in its sub-title ‘Little Stories of the South Sea Islands’, which suggests a series of improving tales issued by some missionary society, is only fully borne in on the reader when he has finished the last story.

For Maugham’s purpose in these six stories (as well as in those which were to follow) was to explore the extremes of human emotion and behaviour, so that as a matter of course they deal with sex in its less domestic aspects, suicide, and murder. Each has for its skeleton an anecdote with— as Maugham so often insisted—a beginning, a middle and an end; and these bony structures he fleshed out by presenting his main characters in the round against authentically described backgrounds. For equally with Hardy’s Wessex fiction they may properly be termed stories of character and environment. There is a further preliminary point to be made. The very readability of Maugham’s stories carries with it the inherent risk that the reader will rest content with the superficial pleasures they offer and fail to appreciate their wider points of reference and deeper resonances. ‘Mackintosh’, the first story in The Trembling of a Leaf, furnishes a convenient example of this.

It is set in the fictitious island of Talua in the western part of the Samoan group which, having fallen to Germany’s share when Germany and America divided the islands between themselves, was occupied by the British in 1914. It can be inferred that the events described took place two years later, about the time of Maugham’s visit to the islands. Despite the story’s title its central character is Walker, the 60-year-old, self-made administrator who for a quarter of a century has administered the island with a rough but benevolent paternalism. Under his coarse banter his assistant Mackintosh, a dour Aberdeen Scot, comes to hate him to such an extent that, though he manages to keep himself under control, his hatred grows into monomania. Walker overreaches himself by his high-handed response to the natives’ demand for a fair wage for carrying out a road-making scheme dear to his heart, thereby incurring their enmity as well. Mackintosh, appalled at what he is doing, connives at the theft of his revolver by the chief’s son who had instigated the natives’ demand and is horrified when Walker is later brought in, dying from bullet wounds. Lying on his bed, Walker calls for whisky and tells Mackintosh he has advised the government in Apia that he is the right man to succeed him in the job of administrator. He asks him to treat the natives fairly: they are children, he says; be firm, kind and just to them. He will not have the crowd round his bed turned out and will not allow anyone to be punished for shooting him; Mackintosh is to say it was an accident.

‘You’re a religious chap, Mac. What’s that about forgiving them? You know.’

‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

‘That’s right. Forgive them . . . ’

When Walker dies Mackintosh goes out, gets his revolver (which has been silently returned to him), walks down to the sea and, wading out into the lagoon where he had been swimming when the story begins, shoots himself.

The authenticity of background, on which the effectiveness of this and later Eastern stories depends, is achieved by the process of restraint Maugham imposed on himself. He did not attempt to give more than an intelligent traveller’s account of the places in which they are set, nor give the natives parts to play in them that would have demanded a greater knowledge of their customs and language than he possessed—in this avoiding the blunder that falsifies much of Conrad’s early work. Maugham’s principal characters are European or white American about whom he could write with the authority conferred by sharing a common culture with them; and during his travels he learnt just enough about the places where his stories are located and of their inhabitants to provide the exotic context in which the principal characters could give rein to their idiosyncrasies. As to wider points of reference and deeper resonances, the analogy of the theme of ‘Mackintosh’, of which sufficient hints are given and which underpins the drama enacted on the island of Talua, is Christ’s betrayal by Judas Iscariot. Much of the story’s impact is missed if the reader fails to detect this.

No sacred parallel need be sought to the theme of ‘The Fall of Edward Barnard’ which, in strong contrast to the previous story, is pure comedy. It tells how the beautiful Isabel Longstaffe, a member of a Chicago brahmin family, finding herself rejected by her fiancé Barnard who opts for a lotus life in Tahiti with Eva a half-caste girl—a goddess of the Polynesian spring, expert in mixing cocktails— settles for his best friend Bateman Hunter, a substantial dollar-bringing male virgin. The story with its edge of good-humoured satire is deftly constructed by means of unobtrusive flashbacks and has the additional interest that, twenty years after it was written, its three principal characters were to be reincarnated in Isobel Bradley, Larry Darrell and Gray Maturin in Maugham’s last major novel The Razor’s Edge. It is not until the reader has read a later story in The Trembling of a Leaf called ‘The Pool’ that a doubt as to the permanence of Barnard’s idyll with Eva enters his mind, as it is likely Maugham intended it should.

The third story in the volume ‘Red’ is put together like a Chinese nest of boxes. All that ‘happens’ in it—the outer box—is that on the arrival of a shabby schooner smelling of paraffin and copra at an unnamed island in the Samoan group, off its usual run between Apia and Pago-Pago, the skipper, elderly and gross, goes ashore and calls on Neilson, a Swede living in a bungalow there, who tells him the story of the people who had lived there before. The skipper leaves to go about his business, and Neilson decides to return to Europe. The next box enclosed by the outer one is an account of Neilson’s earlier history, how he had come to the island twenty-five years before for the sake of his health, having been told he had only a year to live, and been so overwhelmed by the beauty of the island that he determined to spend it there. Eying the repellent obesity of the skipper, he asks him if he had known a man called Red but gives him no chance to reply. The third box inside the other two is the story Neilson tells him of Red, 22 years old and a deserter from an American man-of-war, a comely youth who arrives on the island in a dugout from the native cutter in which he had escaped from Apia and is sheltered by Sally, a beautiful native girl. They fall in love and go to live in a hut on the creek where Neilson’s bungalow stands. After an idyllic year together Red is shanghai’d aboard a British whaling- ship. Broken-hearted, Sally waits month after month for his return and four months after his disappearance bears his stillborn child. Neilson’s thoughts wander back to his own part in the story— the next in smallness of the boxes—for two years afterwards he had fallen in love with Sally and married her, only to learn with anguish that she was still in love with Red and waited only for his return. For many years now they had lived in mutual indifference, she having aged prematurely as native women do. Red should be grateful, he tells the skipper, that fate had separated him from Sally while their love was still at its height. Suddenly suspicious, he asks him his name, and just as the skipper has admitted that for thirty years he has been known in the islands as Red, a stout, grey-haired native woman comes in, makes a commonplace remark to Neilson, glances indifferently at the skipper and goes out. The smallest box at the centre of the story is this moment of truth when Red and Sally are brought face to face and do not know each other.

‘The Pool’ is Maugham’s first attempt to describe what happens when a European—in this case Lawson the manager of an English bank in Apia— marries a half-caste girl. Ethel, one of several children by native women begotten by a Norwegian adventurer, though able to wear European clothes with elegance prefers putting on a mother hubbard and swimming in a pool of the river a mile or two out of town. When Lawson takes her and their dismayingly dark-coloured son to Scotland she soon begins to pine and unable to bear it returns home with the child. Lawson follows, and while Ethel relapses more and more into her native background, he takes to drink, descending from job to job until he is glad to work for a half-caste store-keeper. On hearing she has taken a fat, elderly German American as her lover, he drowns himself in the pool where she is accustomed to swim. In writing the story Maugham moved from first-person-singular to third-person-singular narration and back again, a proceeding so unobtrusively accomplished that it is not until he has reached the end that the reader finds himself wondering how certain incidents could have been known to the narrator.

Maugham took a chance of a different kind when constructing ‘Honolulu’, about the bewitching of the English skipper of a small Chinese-owned schooner plying between Honolulu and the islands. It is the first of his stories to open with a leisurely introduction written in the first person singular as if he were embarking on an essay. There follows an account of his being taken on a tour of the city by an American friend who in the Union Saloon (where Stevenson used to drink with King Kalakaua) introduces him to Captain Butler. Having been presented at length with what amounts to a factual travelogue, the reader is the more ready to swallow the tall story of black magic told to the narrator by Butler after dinner that evening aboard his schooner. The story has an effective surprise ending, though the reader who cares to look back to see how Maugham laid the trap will find that he permitted himself to play a trick which in a detective story would be considered against the rules.

The last of the six stories in The Trembling of a Leaf (though the first to be written) is ‘Rain’, which by way of stage and four film adaptations has become one of the best known of all Maugham’s stories. In wartime a ship bound for Apia is detained at Pago-Pago because a crew member had contracted measles, a disease often fatal to Kanakas. Among the passengers are Sadie Thompson an American prostitute, who had joined the ship at Honolulu where she had been plying her trade in Iwelei, its Red Light district, and the high-minded missionary Davidson and his wife. Putting up in inadequately furnished rooms in a two-story frame house belonging to a half-caste, the respectable passengers—their nerves already frayed by the incessant rattling of the rain on the iron roof—are outraged by the wheezy strains of a gramophone playing ragtime and the sounds of dancing and popping corks coming from Miss Thompson’s room, indicating that she is in business again. The story moves to its climax as Davidson attempts to bring her to repentance, using as his ultimate weapon the threat of having her deported to San Francisco where a three-year gaol sentence awaits her. The last stage of their duel so strongly resembles the inquisitor’s struggle for the soul of the Maid in St. Joan (written in 1923) that it is difficult to resist the inference either that Shaw was influenced by Maugham’s story or that Maugham had some earlier account of St. Joan’s trial in mind when he devised ‘Rain’. However that may be, an awareness of the parallel gives the story an added depth.

Source: John Whitehead, ‘‘Between the Wars: Far East,’’ in Maugham: A Reappraisal, Vision Press Ltd., 1987, pp. 80–114.

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