Historical Context

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Tahiti Tahiti was first discovered by Europeans in 1767, in the expedition of the English Captain Samuel Wallis. Louis-Antoine de Bouganville fol lowed in 1768, claiming the island for France. England’s Captain James Cook followed in 1769. The island is actually two islands that are joined together by a small...

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Tahiti
Tahiti was first discovered by Europeans in 1767, in the expedition of the English Captain Samuel Wallis. Louis-Antoine de Bouganville fol lowed in 1768, claiming the island for France. England’s Captain James Cook followed in 1769. The island is actually two islands that are joined together by a small isthmus. Papeete, where much of ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard’’ takes place, lies on the northwestern coast. It is the biggest town on the island. The island of Moorea (Murea in the story) lies about twelve miles northwest of Tahiti.

Tahiti was ruled by the local Pomare dynasty until 1880, when the French assumed control. (The French influence can be detected in the name of the hotel de la Fleur in the story.) In 1891, the French artist Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) visited Tahiti, and the exotic location gave him inspiration for his art. He remained there for two years and returned in 1895.

Maugham had long read about the South Sea islands and formed a romantic notion of them before his trip there in 1916. When he arrived in Papeete, he noted a strong English and American influence, although there was also a decidedly French flavor, since the island was a French colony. French, as well as English and Tahitian, was spoken by the native people. Maugham noted that the roads were as well kept up as many roads in France and that the marketplace might have been in any French village.

Maugham and his traveling companion, Gerald Haxton, were shown several paintings by Gauguin at a house thirty-five miles from Papeete, one of which Maugham purchased and took back to France. Maugham’s novel, The Moon and Sixpence (1919) was set largely in Tahiti, with a protagonist modeled on Gauguin.

Maugham also took a boat trip to the island of Murea. This is his description of a native dwelling:

The native houses are oblong, covered with a rough thatch of great leaves, and made of thin bamboos placed close together which let in light and air. There are no windows, but generally two or three doors.

The Short Story
Maugham was influenced by the short stories of the French writer Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893), whom he read when he was young. Maugham admired de Maupassant because the French author knew how to tell an interesting anecdote and all of his stories had a beginning, a middle and an end, and they did not wander—qualities that Maugham’s stories also possess. Maugham did, however, fault de Maupassant for being weak on character development.

Maugham points out in his writings about his own craft how his work differs from that of the Russian writer Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), one of the acknowledged masters of the short story genre. Chekhov was very influential on many writers at about the time Maugham was writing his South Sea stories. Although Maugham admired Chekhov, he thought he was not a good storyteller, since he wrote mostly about character and atmosphere and so his stories do not have well-developed plots.

Maugham himself was not an innovator, and he did not develop the short story in the way that some of his contemporaries, such as Virginia Woolf or D. H. Lawrence, did. In terms of their form, his stories belong more to the nineteenth century.

Literature of Colonialism
In his South Sea stories and others set in the East, Maugham stands in the tradition of the literature of colonialism. The major writers in this mode before Maugham were Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) and Joseph Conrad (1857–1924). Kipling was a master of the short story, who lived for seven years in India when it was under British rule. He wrote of the problems encountered by the English colonials who lived in India amongst a subject people. Conrad made effective use of his experiences in Malaya and Africa.

Contemporary with Maugham were writers such as George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene, all of whom wrote of the colonial experience from a British point of view. E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India (1924) also deals with similar issues.

Literary Style

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Irony
The title of the story ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard,’’ is ironic. A statement is ironic if its real meaning is different from the one that is asserted on the surface. In this story, the irony unfolds gradually. When the name of Edward Barnard is first mentioned on Bateman’s return to Chicago, Bateman’s face darkens, and he says to his father, ‘‘I’d sooner not speak about him, Dad.’’ At this point the reader has every reason to suppose that something bad has indeed befallen Edward Barnard. But as the hints unfold in Edward’s letters, the reader begins to question whether something else may be the case.

At the same time, Maugham sets up another thread of irony in the story, with the introduction of Arnold Jackson. Jackson is another man who has supposedly fallen. Formerly a respected figure in Chicago society, he served time in prison for financial fraud. So when Bateman travels to Tahiti, he is expecting to find a rogue and a scoundrel, someone beyond the pale of civilized society. But the man he encounters does not fit this expectation. Nor does Edward fit into Bateman’s expectations of meeting a man who has failed at his profession and been branded lazy and incompetent.

At this point, the irony becomes so pervasive that it amounts to what is sometimes called structural irony. This is where the irony occurs in more than the odd statement or two; it is central to the author’s strategy. In this respect, Bateman functions as what is called a naïve hero, because he fails to see what is obvious to the reader. For example, he insists on interpreting Jackson’s character from his own previous expectations. He cannot accurately perceive the man who is in front of his face and so is confused by what he sees and hears. He cannot make the mental leap required to reassess the situation. Here, for example, is the description of Jackson and Bateman’s reaction: ‘‘His voice was deep and resonant. He seemed to breathe forth the purest idealism, and Bateman had to urge himself to remember that the man who spoke was a criminal and a cruel cheat.’’ The reader immediately appreciates the irony of Bateman’s obtuseness.

The same is true for Bateman’s perceptions of Edward. He cannot see what is obvious to the reader. When he first sees Edward in Tahiti, for example, he notices something is different about him, but he cannot put two and two together and reach the conclusion that Edward is happy in Tahiti: ‘‘He [Edward] walked with a new jauntiness; there was a carelessness in his demeanor, a gaiety about nothing in particular, which Bateman could not entirely blame, but which exceedingly puzzled him.’’

The irony brings into focus Bateman’s basic assumptions (and perhaps the reader’s) about what is valuable in life, what success might consist of and what the purpose of life might be.

The final irony in the story turns on Bateman himself. As Bateman clasps Isabel in his arms, Maugham clearly intends the reader to see a superfi- cial couple dreaming empty, materialistic dreams about the future. The surface meaning of the words does not necessarily suggest this, but when taken in the context of the story as a whole, the ironic intention is clear. And the final words of the story, ‘‘Poor Edward,’’ uttered by Isabel, also have a different, ironic meaning for the reader than they do for Isabel.

Narrative Technique
Maugham utilizes the technique of the frame story. This occurs when there is a story within a story. The frame in this story is the Chicago setting with which the narrative begins and ends. It is largely concerned with Bateman’s interactions with Isabel. In between is the story of Edward and his Tahitian adventure. The frame story is a common technique in both ancient and modern literature. The best known example is probably Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Point of View
Maugham adopted, for part of the story, the form of the omniscient third-person narrator, who can see into the minds and emotions of all the characters. However, much of the story is told only through Bateman’s point of view. This is known as a limited third-person narrator. The reader only knows events and people as they are seen through the eyes of the viewpoint character. During the part of the narrative set in Tahiti, for example, Edward and Jackson are seen entirely through Bateman’s eyes, which adds to their mystery and enables Maugham to deepen the irony on which the meaning of the story rests.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Archer, Stanley, W. Somerset Maugham: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1993, p. 26.

Burt, Forrest D., W. Somerset Maugham, Twayne’s United States Author Series, No. 399, Twayne Publishers, 1993, p. 106.

Field, Louise Maunsell, Review of The Trembling of a Leaf, in W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, edited by Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987, pp. 148–51; originally published in the New York Times, November 20, 1921.

Loss, Archie K., ‘‘W. Somerset Maugham,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 162: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1915–1945, edited by John H. Rogers, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 227–39.

———, W. Somerset Maugham, Ungar, 1987, p. 78.

Maugham, W. Somerset, The Summing Up, in The Maugham Reader, Doubleday, 1950, p. 608.

———, The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands, Replica Books, 2002.

———, A Writer’s Notebook, Heinemann, 1949, p. 138.

West, Rebecca, Review of The Trembling of a Leaf, in W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, edited by Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987, pp. 153–54; originally published in New Republic, November 5, 1921.

Wordsworth, William, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, edited by R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, Methuen, 1965, p. 105.

Further Reading
Brander, L. Somerset Maugham: A Guide, Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1963. This concise guide to the whole of Maugham’s work includes a chapter on the short stories. In his comments on ‘‘The Fall of Edward Barnard,’’ Brander emphasizes the return to nature theme.

Curtis, Anthony, Somerset Maugham, Macmillan, 1977. This well-illustrated book attempts to give a broadbrush portrait of the writer and his world.

Morgan, Ted, Maugham: A Biography, Simon and Schuster, 1980. This is the most reliable and complete biography of Maugham. Morgan discusses Maugham’s fiction and plays in detail and shows how the events of Maugham’s life are reflected in his work.

Raphael, Frederic, W. Somerset Maugham and His World, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977. This overview of Maugham’s life and work contains 110 illustrations.

Whitehead, John, Maugham: A Reappraisal, Barnes and Noble, 1987. Whitehead attempts a close scrutiny of all of Maugham’s works, declaring that although many of them are ephemeral, Maugham at his best ranks with the great novelists of the early twentieth century. Whitehead also regards Maugham’s Eastern stories as his finest and rates them as highly as Kipling’s Indian stories.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: Because of its excellent harbor, Papeete, the largest town in Tahiti, has been a center of trade since the nineteenth century. Products shipped from Papeete include copra, sugarcane, vanilla, and coffee. The port is also used often by whaling ships, and it is the seat of the French governor.

Today: With its modern harbor and airport, Papeete is a major tourist destination and a center of transpacific trade. It is also the seat of the Territorial Assembly, which is the legislative body of French Polynesia. The Assembly consists of forty-one members elected by popular vote. French Polynesia is made up of 130 South Pacific islands, which together constitute a French Overseas Territory. Tahiti, the largest island, has been fully in charge of its internal affairs since 1984. The Territory as a whole has benefited from a five-year development agreement with France that from 1994 to 1998 created many new jobs.

1920s: Chicago is a rapidly growing city. In 1920, the population is 2,701,705; by 1930, this figure climbs to 3,376,438. Chicago also gains a reputation as a lawless city, typified by the activities of the gangster Al Capone. During the 1920s, Capone controls the gambling industry, brothels, nightclubs, distilleries, and breweries. His income is reported to be $100 million.

Today: In 2000, the population of Chicago is 2,896,016. The population had been falling steadily since the 1950s, but it stabilized in the 1990s. The Sears Tower, built in 1973, is the tallest building in North America and the third tallest in the world. It is 1,450 feet tall (a quarter of a mile), with 110 stories. Chicago has three of the fifteen tallest buildings in the world. In addition to the Sears Tower, these are the Aon Center and the John Hancock Center.

1920s: Colonization by European countries of much of Asia and Africa continues to produce literature written by members of the colonizing nations in which they report and reflect on the colonial experience. Writers such as Maugham, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, and E. M. Forster make their mark in this field.

Today: The age of colonialism is over, and a new genre of literature, known as postcolonial literature, has sprung up. The term refers to literature written mostly by African and Asian authors in the period following their nations’ independence from the colonizing European powers. Examples of postcolonial literature include Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India, V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, and Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain.

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