The mystique of Maugham stories

Maugham’s naturalism gives his tales a real flair and he leads the list when we talk about popular short story writers in English.

Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev /
Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev /

I regard Maugham as the best short story writer that I have come across. He even wrote novels, plays and critical essays but nothing matches his appeal as the teller of tales. Like the fabled Pied Piper or Queen Scheherazade from Arabian Nights, his stories draw you into a world that you never want to leave till the show is over.

A professional writer to the core, he introduces the reader to the shades of grey in life – none of his characters are real heroes or villains in ‘black-n-white’. Rather often they display a streak of virtue or vice that often turns the story on its head. And this is no mere jugglery – Maugham builds up the characterization and plot to make it look plausible and possibly inevitable. He is able to build characters in short stories that many fail to build possibly in the novels too.

Maugham has been called a cynic and he was rather unapologetic in his reply. He puts it rather nicely in ‘The Back of Beyond’ when he says, ‘But if to look truth in the face and not resent it when it is unpalatable, and take human nature as you find it, smiling when it is absurd and grieved without exaggeration when it is pitiful, is to be cynical, then I suppose I am a Cynic. Mostly human nature is both absurd and pitiful, but if life has taught you tolerance you find in it more to smile at than to weep’.

I first came across Maugham’s work when we had one of his short stories – ‘The Man With The Scar’ as one of our lessons in  my English class when I was in school. The story is one of his usual pieces aimed at mere entertainment and employs the twist in the tale akin to O Henry and Maupassant. Still I liked it a lot. I further enjoyed reading, ‘The Ant and The Grasshopper’. A modern take on the morals, to Maugham’s credit he was able to generate more sympathy for the roguish younger brother compared to the prim and proper elder one who comes off looking pedantic and preachy.

My favorite Maugham stories are –

Rain : Often regarded as his masterpiece, most people rate this story as one beyond criticism. His skills of characterization and plotting a face off between a missionary and a prostitute makes it a classic. The relentless rain beats on as we march towards an inexorable climax. And the missionary’s wife’s reaction to the final dénouement is such a revealing moment. The story is handled very sensitively and Maugham chose to narrate it using the sympathetic character of Dr. Macphail. Sardonic as ever, Maugham defines credible characters with conviction and the unraveling of the plot seems incidental to the story.

The Back of Beyond : George Moon – an old Resident in charge of a territory in the Federal Malay States – is rather unpopular with his staff and at the brink of retirement when he gives some astute advice on managing marital woes to a junior planter who has had a flaming row with his wife.

The man has also rankled under his strictures earlier and so is hesitant to even consult him on such a delicate matter. The advice has more credibility as it is rooted in the Resident’s own experience – it is a trifling statistic to mention that the advice flies in the very face of conventional wisdom to the mentioned problem.

Maugham is his masterly self when he compares human nature to a quaint animal called the Jumping Johnnie. ‘They are the color of the mud they lived in. They sat and looked at you with large round eyes and then with a sudden dash buried themselves in their holes. It was extraordinary to see them scudding on their flappers over the surface mud …there was something uncanny about them, but something amusing too. They reminded you very much of human beings. It was quite entertaining to stand there for half an hour and observe their gambols…’

‘The Outstation’ and ‘Mackintosh’ : These are two stories on similar theme but are a great example of Maugham’s power of characterization and story telling. You put two men of contrasting natures and incompatible temperament together in a situation of conflict from which there is no escape and the only outcome possible is one of them emerging victorious by the conquest of the other.

And within each story you narrate episodes that force the reader to waver his sympathy from one character to the other. The plot is incidental and the closure of the story inconsequential. And Maugham makes the two stories end in utterly contrasting ways. It is amazing that I felt that both the ends are plausible and not contrived. I do not know of any other writer who could have done this with such skill in the short story format.

‘The Door of Opportunity’ : Again a masterpiece –  it begins with a normal English couple returning to England post their stint in the East. The story starts ordinarily enough with a doting wife admiring her husband for his various talents and skills. Obviously he is destined to rise in the Service.

And  then the theme plays out where gradually it dawns on the reader that the man could have such a fatal flaw in his character. You like Maugham’s discerning eye enough to ask him to take a bow again for creating such credible characters and depicting the shades of grey in life.

‘The Kite’ : It is a very ordinary tale but it arouses my sympathy for depicting so well the Freudian syndrome of men holding onto their mother’s apron strings. And of course it is quite prevalent in India too and many young couples spend most of their youth coming to terms with it.

And yet before one takes umbrage, it needs to be considered why is it so deep-rooted and prevalent? It is a bit ironical to consider that a wife who complains about her husband often ends up modelling her son in a similar fashion – so how does it feel when the boot is on the other foot?

‘The Lotus Eater’: A rather attractive story about an ordinary man because he made an extraordinary choice rather early in his life. A young, unmarried Banker without any encumbrances from London, he decides to retire in his early 30s and buys a 25 year annuity that will enable him to lead a simple and blissful life in a small cottage on the Italian island of Capri in the Mediterranean.

And the tale runs over the years as Maugham keeps you on tenterhooks on how the story would end. The end is a bit tame and yet made very plausible based on the explanation given by the writer. It delights nonetheless.

Maugham’s genius for writing short stories was well-recognized. Cyril Connolly called him a ‘Compassionate Cynic’ and said, ‘But, if all else perish, there will remain a story-teller’s world from Singapore to the Marquesas that is exclusively and for ever Maugham, a world of verandah and prahu which we enter, as we do that of Conan Doyle’s Baker Street, with a sense of happy and eternal homecoming.’

Maugham chose rather esoteric titles for his short story collections set in the Malay peninsula. One was called, ‘The trembling of a Leaf’. The explanation was – ‘In life, according to Saint Beuve, happiness and misery are separated by so small a division or so slight an event that this may well be compared to the trembling of a leaf. Thus the heroes of these stories are those weak and unsettled natures who are equally subject to undivided joy and to boundless, extreme despair.”

Another collection was named as ‘The Casuarina Tree’ and he explains the nature of the Casuarina tree : ‘Of the Casuarina tree they say that if you take in a boat with you a piece of it, be it ever so small, contrary winds will arise to impede your journey or storms to imperil your life. They say also that if you stand in its shadow by the light of the full moon you will hear, whispered mysteriously in its dark ravage, the secrets of your future …’


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