W. Somerset Maugham Short Fiction Analysis
W. Somerset Maugham first claimed fame as a playwright and novelist, but he became best known in the 1920’s and 1930’s the world over as an international traveler and short-story writer. Appearing in popular magazines such as Nash’s, Collier’s, Hearst’s International, The Smart Set, and Cosmopolitan, his stories reached hundreds of thousands of readers who had never attended a play and had seldom read a novel. This new public demanded simple, lucid, fast-moving prose, and Maugham’s realistic, well-defined narratives, often set amid the exotic flora of Oceania or Indochina, were among the most popular of the day.
The Trembling of a Leaf
The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands collected six of these first “exotic stories” and assured Maugham fame as a short-story writer on equal footing with his established renown as novelist and dramatist. It was actually his second collection, coming twenty years after Orientations, whose title clearly bespeaks its purposes. Apparently, Maugham had found no suitable possibilities for short fiction in the meantime until, recuperating from a lung infection between World War I assignments for the British Secret Service, he took a vacation to Samoa and Hawaii:I had always had a romantic notion of the South Seas. I had read of those magic islands in the books of Herman Melville, Pierre Loti, and Robert Louis Stevenson, but what I saw was very different from what I had read.
Although Maugham clearly differentiates life as he saw it in the South Seas from life as he had read about it in the writings of his “romantic” predecessors, his stories of British Colonials, of natives and half-castes in exotic environments, are reminiscent of these authors and also of Rudyard Kipling. Maugham’s assessment of Kipling, the only British short-story writer he thought comparable to such greats as Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov, neatly clarifies their similar subject, as well as their ultimate stylistic differences. Kipling, Maugham writes,opened a new and fruitful field to writers. This is the story, the scene of which is set in some country little known to the majority of readers, and which deals with the reactions upon the white man of his sojourn in an alien land and the effect which contact with peoples of another race has upon him. Subsequent writers have treated this subject in their different ways, but no one has invested it with more romantic glamour, no one has made it more exciting and no one has presented it so vividly and with such a wealth of colour.
Maugham’s first South Sea stories are essentially criticisms of the “romantic glamour” of Kipling and his predecessors, especially Stevenson, his most immediate literary forefather in terms of location. Rather than repeat their illusions, Maugham tries to see the “alien land” as it really is, without poetic frills. “Red,” which Maugham once chose as his best story, is a clear example of this process.
A worldly, gruff, and overweight skipper of a bedraggled seventy-ton schooner anchors off one of the Samoan Islands in order to trade with the local storekeeper. After rowing ashore to a small cove, the captain follows a tortuous path, eventually arriving at “a white man’s house” where he meets Neilson. Neilson seems a typical character out of Robert Louis Stevenson, a life deserter unable either to return to his homeland or to accommodate himself completely to his present situation. Twenty-five years ago he came to the island with tuberculosis, expecting to live only a year, but the mild climate has arrested his disease. He has married a native woman called Sally and built a European bungalow on the beautiful spot where a grass hut once stood. His walls are lined with books, which makes the skipper nervous but to which Neilson constantly and condescendingly alludes. Offering him whiskey and a cigar, Neilson decides to tell the skipper the story of Red.
Red was Neilson’s romantic predecessor, Sally’s previous lover, an ingenuous Apollo whom Neilson likes to imagine “had no more soul than the creatures of the woods and forests who made pipes from reeds and bathed in the mountain streams when the world was young.” It was Red who had lived with Sally in the native hut, “with its beehive roof and its pillars, overshadowed by a great tree with red flowers.” Glamorizing the young couple and the lush habitat, Neilson imagines them living on “delicious messes from coconuts,” by a sea “deep blue, wine-coloured at sundown, like the sea of Homeric Greece,” where “the hurrying fish were like butterflies,” and the “dawn crept in among the wooden pillars of the hut” so that the lovers woke each morning and “smiled to welcome another day.”
After a year of bliss, Red was shanghaied by a British whaler while trying to trade green oranges for tobacco. Sally was crestfallen and mourned him for three years, but finally, somewhat reluctantly, she acceded to the amorous overtures of the newcomer Neilson:And so the little wooden house was built in which he had now lived for many years, and Sally became his wife. But after the first few weeks of rapture, during which he was satisfied with what she gave him, he had known little happiness. She had yielded to him, through weariness, but she had only yielded what she set no store on. The soul which he had dimly glimpsed escaped him. He knew that she cared nothing for him. She still loved Red.
Neilson, admittedly “a sentimentalist,” is imprisoned by history. His books, a source of anxiety to the skipper, are a symbol of what Maugham believes he must himself avoid: useless repetition of and bondage to his forebears. As creation, Neilson does repeat Stevenson, but as character, he shows the absolute futility of this repetition. The dead romance assumes priority from the living one, and priority is everything. For the sentimentalist Neilson, tropical paradise has become living hell and the greatest obstacle preventing his own present happiness, the fulfillment of his own history, is his creation of an insurmountable predecessor, one whose “romantic glamour” is purer and simpler than his own reality.
The final irony, that the skipper, now...
(The entire section is 2576 words.)