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Analysis of W. Somerset Maugham’s Novels

W. Somerset Maugham’s (25 January 1874 – 16 December 1965) twenty novels are exceptionally uneven; the first eight, though interesting, suggest the efforts of a young novelist to discover where his talent lies. From the publication of Of Human Bondage (1915) through The Razor’s Edge (1944), he produced his most significant prose works. During this period, he was a worldfamous man of letters with a following of many thousands who would buy and read anything he wrote; however, a few novels that he produced, such as Then and Now and Up at the Villa, were not in his best vein.

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The novels brought Maugham acclaim and recognition both from a general audience and from the intelligentsia. Among common readers, he was perhaps the most successful English novelist of the twentieth century, and, as Samuel Johnson pointed out, the common reader is not often wrong. Yet, it must be admitted that Maugham’s detractors, such as Edmund Wilson, present valid criticism: One expects a serious artist to exert an important influence, either thematic or formal, upon his medium. The symphony was forever altered by Ludwig van Beethoven; no similar statement can be made about Maugham and the novel. He sought to tell a story with clarity and grace, to embody a set of attitudes and values, and to entertain his readers with insights into character and life.

Maugham’s novels are written in a style highly idiomatic and fluent, revealing the qualities of simplicity, lucidity, and euphony which the author sought to attain. Content to narrate an interesting story from his own unique angle of vision, he brought to the genre a gift for creating interesting characters who reflect life’s ironies. In his later works, Maugham’s narrative persona is a character interested in people, yet detached and somewhat clinical in his analysis of their actions and motives. The narrator demonstrates an unusual degree of tolerance for human peccadillos and incongruities and is reluctant to judge the actions of human beings. He writes primarily of adults in conflict with one another and with social mores. Frequently, his characters grow in tolerance and acceptance of human life, which is portrayed somewhat pessimistically. Maugham based his characters upon people whom he had known or whose lives he had somehow come to know; their actions are presented with consummate realism. They are motivated by their passions or emotions and by their attempts to control their destinies, not by an ideology or set of ideals. Though they may experience inner turmoil and conflict, they are seldom tormented by such emotions. Like their creator-narrator, the characters often have the ability to view themselves with clinical detachment and objectivity, to cast a cold eye on life.

Liza of Lambeth

Among the early novels of Maugham, Liza of Lambeth, published when the author was only twenty-three, is probably the best known. Set in the Lambeth slum along Vere Street, London, it depicts naturalistically the lives of people in a state of poverty, characters such as those whom the author had come to know at first hand as an obstetric clerk at St. Thomas’s Hospital. In its depiction of character, Liza of Lambeth fits the tradition of the naturalistic novel, somewhat in the manner of George Gissing, whose work Maugham knew well. The Cockney dialogue that pervades the novel is accurately represented, both in its pronunciation and in its slang or colloquial expressions. As is typical of naturalistic fiction, the characters are generally without hope, yet even in a naturalistic tradition Maugham reveals an original perspective. Unlike much naturalism, Liza of Lambeth does not urge social reform; the characters exhibit more hostility toward one another than toward any system. They generally accept their lot, which would be bearable but for their own mistakes. Liza Kemp’s friend Sally enters marriage with hope, only to find her chances for happiness shattered owing to her husband’s bad temper following drinking bouts, a weakness he had previously concealed. Liza, brimming with life and energy, spurns the devotion of a staid suitor, Tom, and finds excitement in an affair with an older, married neighbor, Jim Blakeston. By allowing passion to dominate their lives, the characters create undue hardships for themselves. This theme is commonly found in Maugham’s work.

Just as Liza of Lambeth represented an effort at producing a naturalistic novel, Maugham’s other early novels give the impression of deliberate attempts at imitating well-established forms. In The Making of a Saint, he wrote a brief historical novel with a late fifteenth century Florentine setting. A story of intrigue, assassination, and revenge, it is derived from a brief passage in a work by Niccolò Machiavelli. Mrs. Craddock is set in rural England of the late nineteenth century, a novel of manners depicting provincial life, much in the manner of Arnold Bennett; The Merry-Go-Round belongs to a similar tradition. In The Magician, Maugham incorporates the conventions of the gothic genre, though there is perhaps too much realism for this work to be designated a true gothic novel.

Of Human Bondage

In Of Human Bondage, Maugham’s longest novel and his masterpiece, he turned to the well-known form of the Bildungsroman, the novel of a young person growing to maturity. Of Human Bondage is highly autobiographical, although it departs significantly from autobiographical accuracy in places. With the aid of an omniscient narrator, the reader follows the life of Philip Carey from his mother’s death when he was only nine until he becomes a doctor and resolves to marry. Numerous characters in the novel are based upon people the author knew. The Reverend William Carey and his wife Louisa are based upon Maugham’s uncle and aunt with whom he lived; Lawson is his friend Sir Gerald Kelly; Cronshaw derives from the eccentric poet Aleister Crowley, who had also been the model for Oliver Haddo in The Magician; and Hayward is based upon Maugham’s friend Ellington Brooks. In a similar manner, Maugham incorporates descriptions of places that he knew well, with names only slightly altered (Whitstable to Blackstable, Canterbury to Tercanbury) or not altered at all, as the countryside of Kent or the cities of London and Paris.

In Of Human Bondage, Maugham sees three forces impinging upon Philip, shaping and influencing his life, forces that the novel emphasizes strongly: passion, disillusionment, and the quest for purpose in life. Philip is ill-equipped to cope with passion. Having been born with a clubfoot, which becomes a source of ridicule among school boys, and having lost both parents in childhood, he becomes overly sensitive. He takes pleasure in the solitary pursuit of reading and is less in the company of others than most boys; as a result, he has little understanding of the world at large. He finds that women who adore him arouse in him no passion in return, whereas he falls irrationally and inexplicably in love with the common and venal Mildred Rogers. Only after a long period of bondage, humiliation, and pain can he free himself from this attachment, which he comes to regard as degrading. At the end of the novel, he proposes marriage to Sally Athelney, not because he feels passion for her but because he believes she will be a good wife. Maugham’s view of romance in this work is consistent with the view presented in his other works and with Arthur Schopenhauer’s pessimistic outlook—that romantic passion is a kind of trick played upon people by nature to foster procreation, that it does not last, that it is irrational, and that it represents a poor basis for marriage.

To express the necessity for disillusionment, Maugham depicts Philip as growing up in an atmosphere of illusion involving religious beliefs and assumptions about the code of an English gentleman. When Philip arrives in Germany, it becomes awkward to continue to maintain that a gentleman necessarily belongs to the Church of England. He encounters a diversity of religious beliefs, all sincerely held and advocated through conflicting arguments. The result is that he loses his religious faith, though he assumes that the actual cause of the loss is that he lacks the religious temperament. Losing a framework so basic, he experiences a sense of liberation, yet he finds his new freedom uncomfortable as well, lacking in certainties.

Philip clings to one certainty: He assumes without question that he must earn his living through some profession, and he begins to explore various unsuitable paths. He rejects the idea of becoming a clergyman, quits a career in accounting, abandons the struggle to become an artist after studying in Paris, and finally decides to pursue medicine. He does not escape hardship, for at one point he loses the money provided for his education and must work at a department store until his uncle’s death brings a small inheritance.

Reflecting upon happiness, Philip is puzzled as to how this quality fits as a purpose in life, since his own is unhappy. He observes that happiness eludes people such as the dancers at the Bal Bullier in Paris who pursue it frenetically. Those who seek happiness through the enjoyment of art waste their lives, and those who struggle to create art seldom find happiness, even when they succeed. Yet, the paintings of El Greco suggest to Philip that the will of humankind is powerful, that life can be made meaningful through struggle. After this realization, Philip comes to understand the secret of a piece of Persian rug given him by an eccentric poet. The poet told him that the rug held the key to the meaning of life, but he refused to explain the puzzle to Philip. The solution becomes apparent to Philip years later, after much searching for it: Life has no meaning. There is no set of obligations by which a person must live, no certain path to follow. With this bleak conclusion, Philip comes to another realization: Like the weaver of the carpet, a person may choose the strands that please his aesthetic sense and make a pattern of his life satisfying to his own taste. Happiness and pain are important only as strands in the design. Though people are under no obligation to create a design, they are free to do so if they choose; or, if they reject freedom of the will, it may seem that they are free. Life for Philip, then, has purpose because he wills to endow it with purpose—a conclusion primarily existential but also in accord with Schopenhauer’s view of people’s will.

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The Moon and Sixpence

In The Moon and Sixpence, a novel that relies somewhat upon autobiographical materials used in Of Human Bondage, Maugham narrates a portion of the life of his hero Charles Strickland, a stockbroker turned artist whose character is based upon that of the artist Paul Gauguin. The narrator, or the Maugham persona, is a successful author who enjoys access to high society and, like Maugham, travels extensively around the world. He is detached and analytical in his attitudes, revealing a fondness for the maxims of Blaise Pascal and La Rochefoucauld. He prefers to permit the story to unfold in an episodic way by letting others whom he meets tell him what they know or think about Strickland. Maugham sees in Strickland the frustrated genius, a moderately successful businessman who, at age forty, decides to become an artist, ruthlessly throwing over everything to pursue his ambition, and succeeding.

The action occurs over a period of more than twenty years, with the setting shifting from London to Paris to Tahiti and back to London. As in the earlier Of Human Bondage and later in Christmas Holiday, art is an important theme, and allusions to paintings and painters are numerous. At the beginning of the novel, Maugham invents a “scholarly” tradition on Strickland, complete with footnotes, to enhance the realism. In the concluding segment set in Tahiti, he introduces characters who had known Strickland during his final years and who report on his decline and death. They are modeled after characters whom Maugham met in Tahiti and who told him about Gauguin. With references to actual people whose identities the author does not very much bother to conceal, The Moon and Sixpence, then, is a roman à clef, as are its two most important successors, Cakes and Ale and The Razor’s Edge.

Cakes and Ale

In Cakes and Ale, the most “literary” of Maugham’s novels, the narrator assumes the name Willie Ashenden, one that Maugham had used in his collection of short stories based upon his work as an intelligence agent (Ashenden, 1928). Ashenden is a novelist in his fifties who during the course of the narrative has several meetings with another novelist and critic, Alroy Kear. Kear, about the same age as Willie Ashenden, represents the Edwardian novelist Hugh Walpole. The unflattering portrait of Walpole, recognizable to many contemporaries and to Walpole himself, contributed to an attack on Maugham by Evelyn Wiehe in Gin and Bitters (1931), where he is given the name Leverson Hurle. Besides the narrator and Kear, another author plays a major role in the novel. Edward Driffield, the grand old man of Victorian literature, is based upon the character of Thomas Hardy. Rosie Gann, Driffield’s first wife, is modeled after the actress Ethelwyn Sylvia Jones, to whom Maugham once proposed.

Alroy Kear, who is writing a biography of Driffield, discovers that Ashenden has been a longtime acquaintance of the Driffields. The Driffields once lived in Ashenden’s village of Blackstable, where they were regarded with suspicion by the villagers, especially by Ashenden’s uncle, the vicar, who represents the epitome of Victorian propriety and prudery. The villagers’ suspicions are confirmed when the Driffields move to London, leaving behind debts to most of the merchants.

Later, Ashenden renews his acquaintance with the Driffields in London, gradually losing touch with them after Rosie leaves Driffield for a Blackstable coal merchant, Lord George Kemp. Ashenden’s knowledge of all these details merges in flashbacks that go back as far as his childhood. Ashenden knows that a tactful biographer such as Kear, who has secured the approval of Driffield’s second wife, cannot include such revealing recollections, and thus he tells them to the reader. He concludes his narrative with an account of meeting Rosie, then more than seventy years old, in New York. She confesses to Ashenden that she ran off with Lord George because “He was always such a perfect gentleman,” a judgment with which every other character in the novel would have disagreed.

Except for one brief episode that occurs in New York, the novel is set either in London or in the nearby villages and countryside. Maugham relies heavily on flashbacks ranging over a period of some forty years; Cakes and Ale is a novel cast in the form of reminiscences of a character, which assuredly would conflict with the “official” biography of Driffield as recorded by Alroy Kear. Its appeal lies primarily in its allusions to actual persons, its behind-the-scenes literary gossip, and the creation of Rosie Gann, probably the most appealing of Maugham’s female characters—a wholesome, agreeable, and vivacious woman utterly lacking in pretense.

The Razor’s Edge

In The Razor’s Edge, the narrator becomes “Mr. Maugham,” a celebrated author and world traveler. With characters such as the urbane and aristocratic art agent, Elliott Templeton, he exchanges views and pleasantries in an attitude of amusement and tolerance. To younger characters such as Sophie Macdonald he offers sage advice. To readers he offers a variety of wry comments on the art and craft of the novel. He speculates as to why people whom he barely knows divulge their life stories so readily to him. He admits the reader behind the scenes of the writer’s study with such unguarded comments as the famous opening, “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving,” and such wry asides as “I feel it right to warn the reader that he can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of [the] . . . story. . . . I should add, however, that except for this conversation I should perhaps not have thought it worthwhile to write this book.” Usually “Mr. Maugham” limits his involvement to conversation; his own actions, where they are noted (as when he withdraws to write a novel or takes his boat to Toulon), do not advance the plot. Occasionally, he does involve himself in the plot in some minor way. He contrives for the dying Elliott Templeton to receive an invitation to a party given by the Princess Novemali after she had deliberately snubbed Elliott, and he is on hand to identify the body of Sophie Macdonald.

“Mr. Maugham” reports the story as the major characters reveal it in their conversations. Isabel Bradley is in love with Larry Darrel but sensibly marries the successful Gray Maturin, only to find that after Gray loses his assets during the Depression, she and her husband and their two daughters must live on the generosity of her uncle Elliott. Larry, whose main interest in life is the study of philosophy and religion, attempts to marry Sophie Macdonald to save her from a dissolute life, an effort that Isabel shrewdly thwarts. Larry goes to a Benedictine monastery in France, later leaving it to study the Hindu religion in India. Returning from India at the end of the novel, he gives up his independent income and resolves to find work in New York driving a taxi. The Maturins move from Paris to Dallas, where Gray has secured an executive position in an oil company. The plot covers more than a decade, with the settings in France, England, and America. “Mr. Maugham,” like the young Philip Carey, seeks a pattern in the lives of those he has met, and he finds that each life in The Razor’s Edge has been a success. Even Sophie Macdonald, whose trauma caused her to seek death, found what she was seeking.

Maugham’s three most significant novels following Of Human Bondage explore ideals that he considered in the final chapters of his autobiography, The Summing Up—truth, beauty, goodness. In The Moon and Sixpence, Charles Strickland represents the true genius whose work survives and speaks to posterity, even though his talent surfaced late in life and he violated accepted standards to advance it. In him, truth is neither obvious nor pleasant, but its existence can be confirmed by those who have felt the power of his work. Even the wife he abandoned displays reproductions of his paintings in her home and takes pride in his attainments. In Cakes and Ale, the ideal is beauty, which readers and critics find in the style, characters, and descriptions of Edward Driffield’s novels. The narrator Willie Ashenden rejects this aesthetic beauty in favor of a more realistic beauty. He discovers the ideal in the warmth and charm of Rosie Gann, Driffield’s first wife, who possessed neither fidelity nor business ethics but whose character brought others a wholesome sense of well-being. In The Razor’s Edge, Larry Darrel reveals a basic goodness, a difficult quality to depict, partly because it may be attributed to the absence of either appetites or temptations. Though not an ascetic, Larry keeps passion and ambition in check and pursues his own spiritual development. He readily sacrifices himself for others, making a futile effort to save Sophie Macdonald from self-destruction through an offer of marriage, yet his sacrifices do not appear quixotic. A generous amount of modesty enables him to make the best of a life that reveals only goodness as an extraordinary element.

In each character, the ideal is neither obvious nor probable in the conventional sense. Its existence is ironic, and it might be overlooked were not the Maugham persona on hand to define it. Not even the narrator, however, can explain or account for it; the reader savors its presence without fully understanding its origin.

Among the remaining novels of Maugham, one finds works of literary merit and appeal, though they represent lesser achievements. A reader of Maugham would not want to miss novels such as The Painted Veil and The Narrow Corner, which narrate suspenseful and intense conflicts. Works such as these differ from the better-known novels in several important respects. First, the Maugham persona is either absent or less intrusive. In The Narrow Corner, for example, the author’s viewpoint is usually expressed through Dr. Saunders, who lives on a Pacific island and has no literary interests or ambitions. Further, the settings are usually foreign or exotic—European or Asian rather than American or English. Instead of spanning decades, the plots narrate events that occur during a few months; novels such as Up at the Villa, for example, differ little from some of Maugham’s short stories.

Significantly, in Maugham’s major novels, the important characters—Philip Carey, Larry Darrel, Rosie Gann, and Charles Strickland—either embody an ideal or achieve some measure of success in pursuit of an ideal, whereas idealism in the minor works is usually crushed and defeated. Fred Blake and Erik Christensen in The Narrow Corner find only disappointment, disillusionment, and early death, as does the unfortunate Karl Richter in Up at the Villa. Those who survive are worldly-wise and detached characters who can regard life as Maugham’s spokesman Dr. Saunders does:

Life is short, nature is hostile, and man is ridiculous but oddly enough most misfortunes have their compensations and with a certain humour and a good deal of horse-sense one can make a fairly good job of what is after all a matter of very small consequence.

The minor works reward the reader with their depiction of the ironies of human life, the eccentricities of human beings, and the unusual settings and universal conflicts, yet, however rewarding, they lack the thematic richness and emotional concentration of Maugham’s best novels.

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Principal long fiction
Liza of Lambeth, 1897; The Making of a Saint, 1898; The Hero, 1901; Mrs. Craddock, 1902; The Merry-Go-Round, 1904; The Bishop’s Apron, 1906; The Explorer, 1907; The Magician, 1908; Of Human Bondage, 1915; The Moon and Sixpence, 1919; The Painted Veil, 1925; Cakes and Ale, 1930; The Narrow Corner, 1932; Theatre, 1937; Christmas Holiday, 1939; Up at the Villa, 1941; The Hour Before Dawn, 1942; The Razor’s Edge, 1944; Then and Now, 1946; Catalina, 1948; Selected Novels, 1953.

Other major works
Short Fiction: Orientations, 1899; The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands, 1921; The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories, 1926; Ashenden: Or, The British Agent, 1928; Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular, 1931; Ah King: Six Stories, 1933; East and West: The Collected Short Stories, 1934; Cosmopolitans, 1936; The Favorite Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, 1937; The Round Dozen, 1939; The Mixture as Before: Short Stories, 1940; Creatures of Circumstances: Short Stories, 1947; East of Suez: Great Stories of the Tropics, 1948; Here and There: Selected Short Stories, 1948; The Complete Short Stories, 1951; The World Over, 1952; Seventeen Lost Stories, 1969.
Plays: A Man of Honor, wr. 1898-1899, pr., pb. 1903; Loaves and Fishes, wr. 1903, pr. 1911; Lady Frederick, pr. 1907; Jack Straw, pr. 1908; Mrs. Dot, pr. 1908; The Explorer, pr. 1908; The Noble Spaniard, pr. 1909; Penelope, pr. 1909; Smith, pr. 1909; Landed Gentry, pr. 1910 (as Grace); The Tenth Man, pr. 1910; The Land of Promise, pr. 1913; Caroline, pr. 1916, pb. 1923 (as The Unattainable); Our Betters, pr. 1917; Caesar’s Wife, pr. 1919; Home and Beauty, pr. 1919 (also known as Too Many Husbands); The Unknown, pr., pb. 1920; The Circle, pr., pb. 1921; East of Suez, pr., pb. 1922; The Constant Wife, pr., pb. 1926; The Letter, pr., pb. 1927; The Sacred Flame, pr., pb. 1928; The Breadwinner, pr., pb. 1930; The Collected Plays of W. Somerset Maugham, pb. 1931, 1952 (3 volumes; including 18 plays); For Services Rendered, pr., pb. 1932; Sheppey, pr., pb. 1933.
Screenplay: Trio, 1950 (with R. C. Sherriff and Noel Langley).
Nonfiction: The Land of the Blessed Virgin: Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia, 1905 (also known as Andalusia, 1920); On a Chinese Screen, 1922; The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong, 1930; Don Fernando, 1935; The Summing Up, 1938; Books and You, 1940; France at War, 1940; Strictly Personal, 1941; Great Novelists and Their Novels, 1948; A Writer’s Notebook, 1949; The Writer’s Point of View, 1951; The Vagrant Mood: Six Essays, 1952; The Partial View, 1954 (includes The Summing Up and A Writer’s Notebook); Ten Novels and Their Authors, 1954 (revision of Great Novelists and Their Novels); The Travel Books, 1955; Points of View, 1958; Looking Back, 1962; Purely for My Pleasure, 1962; Selected Prefaces and Introductions, 1963.

Bibliography
Cordell, Richard A. Somerset Maugham, a Writer for All Seasons: A Biographical and Critical Study. 2d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969.
Holden, Philip. Orienting Masculinity, Orienting Nation: W. Somerset Maugham’s Exotic Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Maugham, Robin. Somerset and All the Maughams. New York: New American Library, 1966.
Morgan, Ted. Maugham. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.
Naik, M. K. William Somerset Maugham. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.
Rogal, Samuel J. A William Somerset Maugham Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997

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Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Novel Analysis

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