For six months in 1921 and four months in 1925, W. Somerset Maugham traveled throughout the British-ruled Malay States, befriending the civil servants, planters, officials, and hostesses of the Malaysian colonies—and gathering abundant material for his fiction. “The Letter,” one of Maugham’s best-known short stories, is the result of these travels. Set against the exotic, vivid backdrop of the British colony at Singapore, “The Letter” depicts the dishonorable effects of jealous passion and deceit while suggesting a subtle tension between the British colonists and their Eastern subjects.
Leslie Crosbie, the wife of rubber planter Robert Crosbie, has been arrested for shooting Geoffrey Hammond, a fellow planter, and claims self-defense. Mr. Joyce, the Singapore lawyer who has been retained in Leslie’s defense, finds his position—and his judicial principles—compromised by Crosbie’s naiveté, Leslie’s practiced dissimulation, and the machinations of his Chinese clerk, Ong Chi Seng, whose Anglicized appearance belies duplicity. Seng, in possession of a letter from Leslie Crosbie to Geoffrey Hammond revealing her infidelity, positions himself as middleman in a discreet but expensive scheme of blackmail. His friend will sell the letter to Robert Crosbie for $10,000. Joyce, at once fascinated and repelled by his client, is moved by her artfully feigned helplessness to take the “unjustifiable” step of accepting Seng’s offer, thus shielding Leslie from public humiliation as well as certain conviction. Once Crosbie has read the letter, however, and grasped its implications, Leslie cannot avoid private humiliation.
“The Letter” is notable not only for its suspenseful plot but for Maugham’s skillful portrayal of the unrepentant, manipulative, and self-serving character Leslie Crosbie and for his subtle representation of colonial racial tensions: Leslie Crosbie’s murderous rage is prompted by her lover’s scorn, but it is intensified because he has scorned her in favor of a Chinese woman. Maugham’s depiction of the careful, crafty negotiations between Joyce and Seng further underscores the impression conveyed by “The Letter” of two worlds, the colonial and the Oriental, existing in an uneasy balance.
Maugham, W. Somerset. The Collected Short Stories. London: Penguin, 1977.