W. Somerset Maugham

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W. Somerset Maugham World Literature Analysis

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Somerset Maugham never claimed to be a deep intellectual, a writer in whose work future generations of critics would reveal deep, arcane meaning. Rather, he considered himself a storyteller whose stated objective was to entertain. Perhaps in billing himself thus, Maugham sold himself short. Although a few academic critics—most notably Richard A. Cordell, who wrote seriously about Maugham’s work produced from the 1930’s until after Maugham’s death—paid him more than condescending attention, most have scored his work. Some, like Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne, wrote viciously about him, saying in Fifty Works of English and American Literature We Could Do Without (1968) that Maugham worked always “at the frontiers of his meager imagination” and contending that the talent he possessed was not enough “to sustain one’s interest in his narrative.” Despite such vitriolic expressions of derision from various quarters, Maugham’s writing delighted an enthusiastic reading public for half a century.

That Maugham wrote with a conscious artistry and with remarkably even craftsmanship is undeniable. His reputation suffered in his time from various accusations that had little to do with his artistic achievement, notably his homosexual lifestyle, his seeming indifference to his daughter, his seeming misogyny, and his supposed anti-Semitism. Ted Morgan, one of his posthumous biographers, fueled anti-Maugham sentiments in his biography, Maugham (1980). Morgan demonstrates homophobia and a self-righteous misunderstanding of the role that homosexuality and male friendships played in the author’s life. Robert Calder’s Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham (1989) sets right many of the misapprehensions set forth in Morgan’s book, which, although thoroughly researched and well written, proceeds from such a biased point of view as to be frequently misleading.

Maugham is at his best when he writes from his own experience. His most celebrated work, Of Human Bondage, is consistently autobiographical. Liza of Lambeth grew out of situations Maugham encountered as a medical student. Much of his work focuses on the role of artists in society and on the sacrifices they make for the sake of art. In The Moon and Sixpence, for example, Maugham writes about Charles Strickland, a stolid, socially correct British businessman with the requisite wife and children. He secretly yearns to be a painter. Strickland finally leaves his secure life, goes to Paris, and paints. His wife, thinking that he has left her for another woman, follows him, believing she can win him back. When she learns, however, that the mistress with whom she is competing is art, she has to admit defeat. She returns to England and Strickland goes off to the South Seas, much as the painter Paul Gaugin had done, where he lives the remainder of his life painting the lustrous scenes of his land of heart’s desire.

Maugham certainly had experienced the emotions he attributes to Strickland. In his mid-forties, he was married to a woman with whom he had a child out of wedlock. He also had a homosexual lover and was obsessed by a burning desire to travel as much as he could. He was a successful writer who had a distinct plan for the remainder of his creative life, but that plan was not really consistent with the life he found himself living.

Maugham knew that the life of an artist, no matter how successful, is always a precarious one. He had lived through Oscar Wilde’s disgrace and had seen this notable playwright and salon dandy ruined both personally and financially by his conviction for committing homosexual acts. Over and above this, Maugham was never sure of the love of other people. Had not his mother, who loved him dearly, abandoned him by dying when he was eight years old?

Maugham’s stories often focus on artists struggling to be artists, as in his notable short story “The Alien Corn,” in which the protagonist, George, refuses to stand for Parliament because he wants to be a pianist. Philip Carey, the protagonist in Of Human Bondage, faces the struggle of justifying himself as the artist he needs to be.

Perhaps Maugham’s incredible and steady productivity was part of his daily struggle to justify himself. Nuances in much of his writing suggest this, and a letter from Maugham to the French scholar Paul Dottin written on October 23, 1927, clearly outlines what Maugham hoped to accomplish artistically in the next decade. He was beginning to have a sense of his own mortality—he would turn sixty-five in 1939—and he outlined for Dottin his literary plans for the years before he reached that age.

He told Dottin that he hoped to write three short stories to accompany the three others that came to constitute Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (1931); a novel set in the Malay, which became The Narrow Corner (1932); another book of short stories that did not materialize; a book set in Spain, which became Don Fernando (1935); a book of Malay stories, resulting in Ah King: Six Stories (1933); a picaresque English novel, Cakes and Ale (1930); and a final volume written to assess his work and life, The Summing Up (1938). Few authors have made such long-range, systematic plans, and the few who have did not adhere to them as doggedly as Maugham did.

Maugham did not foresee, apparently, that by 1938 he would write four more books other than those on his outline: Ashenden: Or, The British Agent (1928), The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong (1930), Cosmopolitans (1936), and Theatre (1937). He also failed to realize that he would live for twenty-seven years after the publication of The Summing Up and would produce a score of books in those years.

Maugham surmises in The Summing Up that his position in literary history is not likely to be a secure one. He notes that few serious critics have analyzed his work and that “clever young men who write about fiction” do not include him in their considerations. Despite such expressions, Maugham’s stock rose considerably in his later years and has gained even more ground since his death. Two major bibliographies, one of his writing and one of Maugham criticism, appeared in the early 1970’s. At least ten scholarly books about him have been published since 1970, and scholarly articles about him continue to appear in recognized journals.

Of Human Bondage

First published: 1915

Type of work: Novel

Philip Carey, after the loss of his mother, undergoes a difficult education that leads to his accepting life as a compromise.

Of Human Bondage, published when Maugham had just ended his fourth decade, was a highly polished, considerably more mature book than its unpublished antecedent, “The Artistic Temperament of Steven Carey,” written during a sojourn in Spain and unpublished first because Maugham did not want it published at once, and later because no publisher would accept it. Any disappointment that ensued from that book’s rejection was well assuaged over succeeding years when Maugham—now a mature writer with considerable experience in writing plays, short stories, and novels—returned to the manuscript around 1911 and began to rewrite it, this time renaming the protagonist Philip Carey. The result was Of Human Bondage, probably Maugham’s best-known novel and certainly among his two or three most artistically successful ones. The philosophical scope of this book far exceeds that of the earlier version, presumably because Maugham had now matured into middle age.

By this time he realized that he did his best writing when he wrote about his own experience. Also by this time he had experienced considerable success as a playwright and was able to apply to his prose writing some of the techniques he had learned as a dramatist, thereby bringing greater dramatic tension into his fiction.

Philip Carey’s story, with certain artistic alterations, is Maugham’s own story. The novel opens when the young Philip is informed of his mother’s death. The boy went to his mother’s closet, just as young Willie did, and wrapped his arms around as many of her dresses as possible, burying his face in them, inhaling the lingering vestiges of his mother’s perfume. Like Maugham, Philip is soon sent to England to live with his uncle, a vicar, and his Aunt Louisa. Philip differs from Willie in that he has a club foot, but this touch is simply a substitution for Willie’s affliction: stuttering. The young Maugham stuttered badly, particularly after the death of his parents, and suffered from this problem throughout his life. As Philip was abused by the students and masters of the school he attended at Tercanberry, so was Maugham ridiculed for his stuttering by his masters and fellow students at King’s School.

Through Philip, Maugham broaches the question of his own loss of religious faith. Young Philip hears that if one prays fervently enough, all one’s prayers will be answered. When he puts this guarantee to the test by praying as fervently as he can that his club foot will be made whole, his prayers are not answered. This disappointment unleashes a doubt that finally causes Philip to reject the religion in which he has been reared.

Now, no longer willing to tolerate the brutality of his schoolmasters, Philip goes to Heidelberg to study. It is there, in his close association with two intelligent friends and his immersion in the study of philosophy, that Philip disabuses himself of the notion that there is a God. He finds this revelation liberating. On his return to England, he meets Gertrude, his aunt’s German friend, and with her has his first sexual experience.

Philip is expected to be practical and to become self-supporting. He tries accounting but finds it unbearable. Reminiscent of Strickland in The Moon and Sixpence, Philip flees to Paris, where he studies art for two years, only to conclude that his talent is insufficient to justify further study.

Needing to find a way to support himself, Philip returns to England and, although his uncle opposes it, becomes a medical student at St. Thomas’s Hospital, there meeting Mildred Rogers, a waitress at a nearby restaurant. He has an affair with her, but it ends when Mildred runs off with someone else. Then Mildred returns and announces that she is pregnant. Philip takes her in, imposing upon himself one of the bondages referred to in the book’s title. Mildred, like Sue Jones in Maugham’s own life, is less interested in him than he is in her.

When Mildred returns to stay with Philip, however, he has just met Norah Nesbitt, who is more interested in him than he is in her. As soon as Mildred leaves again, Philip seeks out Norah only to find that she has now made plans to marry someone else. Mildred, now a streetwalker, returns yet again, and Philip takes her in, but they obviously have no future together, and Mildred finally leaves for good.

When Philip’s old Parisian friend, Cronshaw, dies, Philip recalls Cronshaw’s comment that the meaning of life can be found in a Persian rug. He muses that life has no inherent pattern, that it is up to each individual to find a pattern and impose it upon life.

Finally, almost by default, Philip falls into an affair with Sally, the daughter of his friends, the Athelnys. After a scare that Sally might be pregnant proves to be groundless, Philip decides that he wants to marry her even though he does not love her. He needs the pattern that such a marriage will provide, just as Maugham apparently sought a similar pattern in his abortive marriage to Syrie Wellcome.

A major theme that emerges from Of Human Bondage is the futility of human relationships. Humans, having only themselves to depend upon, make compromise after compromise searching for the patterns that give order to their lives. Maugham’s agnosticism and some of his cynicism about humanity are important elements in this novel.

The Razor’s Edge

First published: 1944

Type of work: Novel

Larry Darrell, an enigmatic young man, is involved in a spiritual quest that intrigues and mystifies those around him.

The Razor’s Edge is quite similar to T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party (pr. 1949, pb. 1950). Celia Copplestone is a uniquely spiritual person surrounded by a group of people who have no notion of what she is about. Larry Darrell is the fiancé of Isabel, the niece of Elliott Templeton, who invites Mr. Maugham (referred to hereafter as Mr. Maugham to distinguish the character from author W. Somerset Maugham), who is visiting in Chicago, to dinner. Templeton is an old friend of Mr. Maugham, who that evening meets Templeton’s niece Isabel, her mother Sophie (a friend of the family), and Gray, who eventually will marry Isabel.

Darrell, having just returned from the war, lives very much in his own world, surrounding himself with an invisible carapace that outsiders quickly realize they cannot penetrate. The air of mystery that surrounds Larry intrigues Mr. Maugham, who is impressed and curious to know more about him.

Soon Mr. Maugham learns that Larry has postponed his impending marriage to Isabel to go abroad, first to Paris and then to the East in an attempt to find the meaning of life, much as Celia Copplestone goes off to Kinkanja to seek her destiny. Further into the novel, Mr. Maugham also learns that Larry has come face-to-face with death in the war and that one of his close friends died saving him. A sensitive person, Larry has to find answers before he can get on with his life.

Throughout the rest of the novel, Maugham carries his readers with him, involving them intimately in Larry’s quest but sharing with them, both as the author and as a character in his own novel, an inability to reach the spiritual pinnacle that Larry finally achieves. Although the novel is about Larry Darrell, readers learn little about him. He reveals little of himself and, in chapter 6, when the author records a conversation that Mr. Maugham had with Larry, he begins the chapter by telling his readers that they can skip it without losing the thread of the story. He goes on to say that had he not had this conversation, he would not have written The Razor’s Edge.

It is a novel of spiritual quest, much as The Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale were. The Razor’s Edge, however, is more mystical than those novels. When he was working on this book, Maugham himself was on a quest that led him to consult his friend, Christopher Isherwood, and Isherwood’s guru, Swami Prabhavananda, to find the precise meaning of a passage in the Katha Upanishad (c. 1000 b.c.e.), that was, indeed, rendered “the razor’s edge” or “the edge of the razor.” The razor, in this Upanishad, represents a narrow, painful path. Swami Prabhavananda equated it with enlightenment. He pointed out that some translations suggest that the path is difficult to cross, whereas the real problem is that of discovering how to walk upon the razor’s edge. The Eastern mysticism in this novel represents a turning for Maugham and reminds one of The Cocktail Party and of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), a book Maugham did not particularly admire.

The particular skill Maugham demonstrates in this book is his ability to engage his readers in a mysterious quest in which he and his readers are both participants, all of them functioning on an equal basis. This device of engagement is unique and, in this case, highly successful, although it is a device that puts an author at risk because it could easily veer out of control. That Maugham could control it masterfully is evidence of an artistic advancement in a writer who was entering the eighth decade of his life. The amazing thing about Larry is that, once having achieved his spiritual quest, he can return to New York City—perhaps to support himself as a taxicab driver—and rise above the materialism and corruption in what was then the world’s largest city. Maugham allows Larry to shape the pattern in his Persian rug much as Maugham had been trying to do.


First published: 1921 (collected in The Trembling of a Leaf: Stories of the South Sea Islands, 1921)

Type of work: Short story

The Reverend Mr. Davidson sets out to reform the beautiful prostitute Sadie Thompson, but, overcome by his repressed desires, finally rapes her.

Originally titled “Sadie Thompson,” “Rain” was the second story in Maugham’s collection, The Trembling of a Leaf: Stories of the South Sea Islands (1921). Clearly his most famous short story, in 1925 it was turned into a highly successful drama, adapted by John Colton and Clarence Randolph, that ran for 648 performances on Broadway. The story is a finely tuned satire in which Maugham depicts the hypocrisy of conventional morality in devastating terms. He found his material for “Rain” on a trip he took with Gerald Haxton in 1916. The two sailed from San Francisco, first to Hawaii, then, aboard the Sonoma, to Pago Pago in Samoa. Among the passengers on board was a Miss Thompson, a prostitute from Honolulu who had, as it turned out, fled Hawaii after a police raid on the establishment in which she worked. She hoped that she could ply her trade in Western Samoa.

Using Miss Thompson’s actual last name and giving her the first name “Sadie,” Maugham wove an exceptionally well-balanced story involving two couples, Dr. and Mrs. McPhail and the Reverend Mr. and Mrs. Davidson, who became fast friends on a long, transpacific journey. They share a condescending attitude toward their fellow passengers, particularly those not traveling in first class. Dr. McPhail, a medical doctor, is about forty.

When the Sonoma is quarantined in Pago Pago, the McPhails and the Davidsons are housed, with their fellow passengers, in a hotel. They soon become aware of Sadie Thompson’s presence because boisterous laughing and loud music come from her room. Davidson decides that it is his duty to reform the unregenerate Sadie, and he goes about his task with a missionary zeal of which the two women approve but that Dr. McPhail views with some suspicion, despite his admiration for the clergyman, who, unlike the retiring and timid doctor, is stouthearted, self-assured, and stalwart.

Throwing himself fully into the moral challenge before him, Davidson, a trembling mass of repressed desire, finally rapes Sadie. The aftermath of this assault is an uncontrollable guilt that results in the clergyman’s committing suicide. As the story ends, music and laughter drift in from Sadie’s room. Sadie can be heard complaining that all men are beasts.

In this story, Maugham is in total control, balancing his characters against each other with an admirable precision. McPhail is the moderate. His wife is in the Davidsons’ camp, and the Davidsons, of course, know what righteousness is and are determined to make everyone righteous whether they desire salvation or not. The ironies in the story contribute to a tightly constructed plot that, on a philosophical level, turns out to be quite profound.

This story, more than anything else Maugham wrote, is an encomium to those who hover around the bottom of the social ladder, people such as Liza in Liza of Lambeth or Mildred in Of Human Bondage. Perhaps as he developed the character of Davidson, Maugham thought back to the days when he lived with his cleric uncle in Whitstable or when he bore the taunts of his self-righteous masters at King’s School.

“The Alien Corn”

First published: 1931 (collected in Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular, 1931)

Type of work: Short story

A Jewish youth rejoices in his ethnicity. Refusing to stand for Parliament, he goes to Germany to study music, then, realizing his mediocrity, commits suicide.

“The Alien Corn” is included in Maugham’s short-story collection, Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (1931), and is a telling story in terms of what it reveals about the author’s values and concerns. The story was adapted for film in 1949 as one of the four parts of Quartet (1949).

The story has to do with a Jewish family trying hard not to appear Jewish. Sir Adolphus Bland, who calls himself Freddy and whose name was originally Alphonse Bleikogel, is the nephew of Ferdy Rabenstein, a flamboyant patron of the arts. Ferdy owns a period mansion in Sussex and has acquired the trappings of elegance. His son, George, is the apple of his eye.

George, unlike his younger brother, does not look Jewish, but ironically, he does not want to pass as a Gentile and cherishes his Jewish heritage. His brother, who does not want to appear Jewish, looks Jewish. George has just finished his studies at Oxford, and it is assumed that he will return to Sussex and live the life of a gentleman, standing for election to Parliament in a race he would likely win.

George, however, wants to be a concert pianist and announces that he plans to go to Munich to study music. He quarrels animatedly with his father over dinner and finally, breaking down in tears, moves the rest of the family to tears.

George’s grandmother, the sister of Ferdy, volunteers to give George five pounds a week to enable him to study music as he wishes. She will finance him for two years, but if at the end of that period he is not judged excellent, he will return to Sussex and, in accordance with his father’s wishes, stand for Parliament. Thus subsidized, George goes to Germany and studies for the agreed-upon period. When his time there expires, he is judged not to have exceptional ability, and it is evident that he will have to return home. Rather than do that, he kills himself.

The theme of this story—the struggling artist—is one to which Maugham returned several times during his lifetime. In Of Human Bondage, Philip Carey goes to Paris to study art and is, like George, found wanting. He lives with this defeat and accepts compromises that enable him to live. In The Moon and Sixpence, Charles Strickland goes to Paris to study art and succeeds, but the price he pays is exile and the loss of his family. Maugham, who long feared that he was a mediocre writer, as many statements in The Summing Up reveal, had only one desire in life: to write. He was certainly familiar with the uncertainties and insecurities he wrote about in “The Alien Corn.”

Some critics have accused Maugham of anti-Semitism and have read such a bias into “The Alien Corn.” This story obviously considers the problems of Jews who try to fit into mainstream society and who, in doing so, deny their heritage. Maugham, however, is reporting a common social phenomenon and, in this story does so objectively and amiably.

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