Analysis of W. Somerset Maugham’s Stories

W. Somerset Maugham (25 January 1874 – 16 December 1965) 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 Seas 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.

Somerset Maugham


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 bloated and bleary-eyed, is in fact the magnificent Red of Neilson’s imagination and that when Sally and he meet they do not even recognize each other, snaps something in Neilson. The moment he had dreaded for twenty-five years has come and gone. His illusions disintegrate like gossamer; the “father” is not insurmountable:

He had been cheated. They had seen each other at last and had not known it. He began to laugh, mirthlessly, and his laughter grew till it become hysterical. The Gods had played him a cruel trick. And he was old now.

In “Red,” Neilson’s realization of failure and waste do prompt some action, possibly an escape from the cell of his past. Over dinner, he lies to Sally that his eldest brother is very ill and he must go home. “Will you be gone long?” she asks. His only answer is to shrug his shoulders.

In its natural manner, Maugham’s prose in these stories never strains for effect; each could easily be retold over coffee or a drink. Like Maupassant, Maugham is a realist and a merciless ironist, but while his narrator observes and his readers chuckle, characters such as Neilson grapple in desperate roles against the onrushing determination of their lives.

In the style of the best “magazine” stories, incidents in Maugham almost inevitably build one on top of the other, slowly constraining his protagonists until, like grillwork, these incidents all but completely bar the protagonists from realizing their individual potential and freedom. Maugham’s predilection for the surprise ending helps some find a final success, but not all; most end as we have believed they would—like the cuckolded Scotsman Lawson in “The Pool” who, after losing job, friends’ respect, wife, and self, is “set on making a good job of it” and commits suicide “with a great stone tied up in his coat and bound to his feet.”

Lawson, another “great coward” in the Stevenson mold, has married a beautiful half-caste and, naïvely assuming human nature the same the world over, has treated her as he would a white woman. By providing primarily in terms of his own culture’s expectations, Lawson unwittingly shoulders “the white man’s burden,” that bequest of Kipling’s, until he becomes himself a burden. Maugham implies, with great irony, that if Lawson had been less “a gentleman” and had taken the girl as a mistress, his tragedy might have been averted. As the reader must see the “alien land” for what it really is, so must they see its peoples.


“Rain,” Maugham’s best-known short story, develops many of these same themes. Pago Pago is unforgettably described, but no one could confuse it with the romanticized “loveliness” of Neilson’s island. When the rain is not falling in torrents, the sun is oppressive. Davidson, the missionary, and Sadie, the prostitute, act out their parts with the same furious intensity. Neither is banalized; Maugham neither approves nor condemns. Only the “mountains of Nebraska” dream foreshadows Davidson’s lust. (With its overtones of sexual repression, this dream makes “Rain” a notable pioneer in Freudian fiction.) Other than that, however, Davidson’s sincere religious fervor seems convincingly real, inspired though it is by his “mission,” yet another example of “the white man’s burden.” In the ensuing struggle between spiritual and “heathen” sensuality, the ironic stroke is that the prostitute wins; up to the last few pages, the story’s outcome looks otherwise. Finally, Davidson must admit that he cannot proscribe human nature, not even his own. Neither saint nor sinner, he is simply human. On a more universal level than either “The Pool” or “Red,” “Rain” shows that in human nature, only its unaccountability is predictable.

Maugham’s detachment and moral tolerance, as well as assuring Davidson’s and Sadie’s vitality as characters, benefits his handling of the tale. The restraint exercised in not portraying for the reader either of the two “big scenes,” Sadie’s rape or Davidson’s suicide, gives Maugham’s story “Rain” an astounding dramatic power. The “real life” genesis of “Rain” is well known. Maugham jotted down his impressions of a few passengers aboard ship traveling with him in the winter of 1916 from Honolulu to Pago Pago; four years later he created a story from these notes. Of his prototype for Sadie Thompson he wrote:

Plump, pretty in a coarse fashion perhaps not more than twenty-seven. She wore a white dress and a large white hat, long white boots from which the calves bulged in cotton stockings.

Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular • This practice of taking characters and situations directly from life is nowhere better elaborated in Maugham than in the volume entitled Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular. The personal touch—clear in the book’s title—leaves a strong impression of reality. Whereas “Rain” seems a small classic in its theme, conflict, effective setting, and dramatic ending, it has one difficulty: The reader is unable to sympathize clearly with any one character, and this detracts from a greater, warmer effectiveness it might otherwise have. When the narrator- as-detached-observer is introduced as a character, however, there is no such problem with sympathy. This creation, the consistent and subsequently well-known cosmopolite, the storyteller for his stories, is one of Maugham’s finest achievements.

“Virtue” the narrator—here differentiated as “Maugham”—browses at Sotheby’s auction rooms, goes to the Haymarket, and dines at Ciro’s when he has a free morning; he was once a medical student and is now a novelist. In “The Round Dozen,” he is a well-known author whose portrait appears in the illustrated papers. He is at Elson, a tattered seaside resort “not very far from Brighton,” recovering from influenza. There, “Maugham” coincidentally observes a well-known bigamist—whose portrait at one time had also graced the pages of the press—capture his twelfth victim. In “Jane,” the versatile man-of-the-world is introduced as a writer of comedies, while in “The Alien Corn” he is a promising young novelist who has grown middle-aged, written books and plays, traveled and had experiences, fallen in and out of love. Throughout Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular, “Maugham” is intermittently away from London, “once more in the Far East.” Such frank appeals to verisimilitude (in other words, that “Maugham” is in fact Maugham) succeed extremely well.

The Human Element

In “The Human Element,” the narrator is a popular author who likes “a story to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.” He meets Carruthers, whom he does not much like, one night at the Hotel Plaza in Rome during the late summer “dead season.” Carruthers is inhumanly depressed and tells Maugham why: He has found his life’s love, the woman he would make his wife, Betty Weldon-Burns, living in Rhodes “in domestic familiarity” with her chauffeur.

Carruthers, also a short-story writer, has been praised by critics for “his style, his sense of beauty and his atmosphere,” but when “Maugham” suggests he make use of his experience for a story, Carruthers grows angry: “It would be monstrous. Betty was everything in the world to me. I couldn’t do anything so caddish.” Ironically, the story ends with Carruthers’s excuse that “there’s no story there.” That “Maugham” has in fact just made a story of it suggests that life can and does provide limitless possibilities for art if we are only ready to accept them.

Maugham specifically delineates these dual creative principles, life and art, in his introduction to the six stories in the collection. Defending the practice of drawing fictional characters from personal experience, Maugham cites Marie-Henri Beyle (Stendhal), Gustave Flaubert, and Jules Renard. “I think indeed,” he writes, “that most novelists and surely the best, have worked from life.” The concern of Maugham’s South Seas stories, to convey what he “saw” rather than what he “had read,” is continued here on a higher plane. Maugham qualifies that there must also be art:

A real person, however eminent, is for the most part too insignificant for the purposes of fiction. The complete character, the result of elaboration rather than of invention, is art, and life in the raw, as we know, is only its material.

Illustrating the unaccountability of human behavior (for how could he endeavor to account for it?), “Maugham” remains a detached observer of life. Critics have wished for more poetry, loftier flights of imagination, more sympathy for his characters, and even occasional indirection; the lack of these things constitutes the limitation of Maugham’s style. Rejecting both the atmospheric romanticism of his predecessors and the exhaustive modernism of his contemporaries, Maugham’s short stories do not seek to penetrate either landscape or life. His reader, like his narrator, may experience admiration, annoyance, disgust, or pity for the characters, but he does not share or become immersed in their emotions. This point of view of a calm, ordinary man, so unusual for the twentieth century, is instructive, teaching careful and clear consideration of life’s possibilities, its casualties and successes, banalities, and gifts. In this way, objective understanding is increased by reading Maugham much as intersubjective facilities are by reading James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, or the other moderns.

Major Works
Plays: A Man of Honor, wr. 1898-1899, pr., pb. 1903; Loaves and Fishes, wr. 1903, pr. 1911, pb. 1924; Lady Frederick, pr. 1907, pb. 1912; Jack Straw, pr. 1908, pb. 1911; Mrs. Dot, pr. 1908, pb. 1912; The Explorer, pr. 1908, pb. 1912; Penelope, pr. 1909, pb. 1912; Smith, pr. 1909, pb. 1913; The Noble Spaniard, pr. 1909, pb. 1953; Landed Gentry, pr. 1910 (as Grace; pb. 1913); The Tenth Man, pr. 1910, pb. 1913; The Land of Promise, pr. 1913, pb. 1913, 1922; Caroline, pr. 1916, pb. 1923 (as The Unattainable); Our Betters, pr. 1917, pb. 1923; Caesar’s Wife, pr. 1919, pb. 1922; Home and Beauty, pr. 1919, pb. 1923 (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. 1931-1934 (6 volumes; revised 1952, 3 volumes); For Services Rendered, pr., pb. 1932; Sheppey, pr., pb. 1933.
Novels: 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.
Miscellaneous: The Great Exotic Novels and Short Stories of Somerset Maugham, 2001; The W. Somerset Maugham Reader: Novels, Stories, Travel Writing, 2004 (Jeffrey Meyers, editor).
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; Ten Novels and Their Authors, 1954 (revision of Great Novelists and Their Novels); The Partial View, 1954 (includes The Summing Up and A Writer’s Notebook); The Travel Books, 1955; Points of View, 1958; Looking Back, 1962; Purely for My Pleasure, 1962; Selected Prefaces and Introductions, 1963.
Screenplay: Trio, 1950 (with R. C. Sherriff and Noel Langley).

Archer, Stanley. W. Somerset Maugham: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Connon, Bryan. Somerset Maugham and the Maugham Dynasty. London: Sinclair- Stevenson, 1997.
Holden, Philip. Orienting Masculinity, Orienting Nation: W. Somerset Maugham’s Exotic Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
____________. “W. Somerset Maugham’s Yellow Streak.” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (Fall, 1992): 575-582.
Loss, Archie K. “Of Human Bondage”: Coming of Age in the Novel. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
____________. W. Somerset Maugham. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1987.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Somerset Maugham. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Rogal, Samuel J. A Companion to the Characters in the Fiction and Drama of W. Somerset Maugham. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
____________. A William Somerset Maugham Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Short Story

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: