Servants of the Map Summary
by Andrea Barrett

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Servants of the Map Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Servants of the Map” consists mostly of letters that Max Vigne, a young surveyor with a British mapping party in the Himalayan Mountains, writes to his wife, Clara, in England. However, there are many things that he does not describe to her—the hardships, the physical discomfort, the exhaustion, and the loneliness. Nor does he tell of his being mocked by the older, more experienced men, who laugh at his pale blond appearance, his books, and a trunk of letters that his wife has written and given to him before he left, each of which are to be opened on certain dates and special anniversaries. He does not tell Clara about finding the head of a man sticking out of a snow pack or about falling into a fissure himself, out of which he managed to dig with great effort. Other things he does not tell Clara are the stories he hears of massacres of women and children and other horrors of local tribal wars.

Bored and lonely, Max spends much of his time reading Joseph Hooker’s Himalayan Journals (1854), Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), and Asa Gray’s First Lessons in Botany and Vegetable Physiology (1857). Max tells Clara that he increasingly gets confused by the many new experiences he is having and can make sense of them only by describing them to her. He also tells her that trying to maintain connection with her without touch changes him. Throughout Max’s correspondence to Clara, he finds himself becoming a different person but unable to communicate the nature of that change to Clara.

Max writes to Clara about his encounter with a Doctor Chouteau, a French physician, who has traveled in the area widely, but to whom maps mean nothing. He also tells her about a correspondence he has had with Dr. Hooker, the author of Himalayan Journals. During the coldest part of the winter, when Max must stay in a village, he meets a woman named Dima, with whom he begins a sexual affair. For a long period he does not write to Clara or answer the letters that he receives from her. Finally he decides that he wants to stay on longer in Tibet after the survey ends, but he cannot write any of this to Clara. Instead he writes that he would like to start over again with her, in some new place where he can be his new self and live his new life.