Somerset Maugham’s Rain

Rain is probably the best short story written by Somerset Maugham – in its length and characterization it is more like a novella but of course it conforms to Maugham’s formula for a story – it has a beginning, a middle and an end.

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The story’s popularity has sustained over the years as it has been made into movies and plays. Sadie’s role of a prostitute out to have a good time has been portrayed on-screen by Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson and Rita Hayworth. The short story has often been selected for anthologies and is prescribed reading material for students attempting to master modern English literature.

The adventure begins off on simple terms. A ship headed to Apia is stranded near Pago Pago as a Cholera epidemic is suspected and a quarantine enforced to prevent an outbreak. Most of the travellers are ordinary folks headed on business and personal trips.

Our attention is drawn to two couples who are travelling First Class and feel that they are a cut above socially than the remaining junta. Robert Macphail is a good-natured doctor who prefers to take things quietly and not poke his nose in other people’s affairs. His wife tends to follow his lead. However the Davidsons are altogether different fish – they are missionaries who are on their way back to their work – and they are vociferous in their views about the morals and habits of the local folks.

Drama is surely in the making when the presence of Sadie Thompson is detected by the couple. Sadie occupies the lower floor of their common accommodation and is seen to be socially active and boisterous. Her evening parties are raucous and she entertains many men to much merriment. Without getting into specifics it dawns on Reverend Davidson that Sadie is immoral and leading a life of sin.

His initial attempts to make her mend her ways lead to derision and dismissal on part of Sadie. This provokes a ferocity in Rev. Davidson that is masked by his missionary zeal. He employs all his will and schemes to organize for Sadie to be sent back to San Francisco where it is indicated that she at large from Law and likely to face a prison sentence.

Sadie is at her wit’s end and seems resigned to her fate of having to board her ship to San Francisco when it arrives in about a week’s time. She has a change of heart and decides to mend her ways. In fact she takes a sharp u-turn towards spiritualism and Rev.Davidson willingly takes on the role of her mentor.

The situation seems to be well under control and the Davidsons are a self-satisfied lot. Dr.Macphail is a bit skeptical and puzzled by the turn of events. He even has a premonition of something evil in the making though he cannot quite put his finger on it.

Things pass on uneasily as Rev. Davidson is found to spend days at a stretch with Sadie in his bid to reform her. Outward appearance seem to show that he is succeeding in his cause. Sadie is so remorseful and submissive and she has accepted the need for her to be sentenced to prison.

The cloistered environment of the island and the boarding house is reinforced by the relentless rain that pours throughout the day. It seems to echo the message that there is simply no escape from what is ‘pre-ordained’ and nature must take its course.

And it indeed turns out to be precisely that – on the night before Sadie is to leave she seduces Rev. Davidson who succumbs to human frailties. Shocked at his fall from grace he commits suicide. Dr. Macphail provides an amazing insight when he breaks the news of Davidson’s suicide to his wife – instantly she knows what has led to it. The guilty knowledge betrays the murky past that Davidsons must have had before they turned to their current path of waging a war against sin.

Not to leave anything vague and hanging in the reader’s mind, Maugham throws it in our faces when Mrs. Davidson confronts Sadie about the tragedy. Sadie spits on her face and Mrs. Davidson beats a hurried retreat. Dr. Macphail confronts Sadie to know what is happening and she retorts, “You men! You filthy, dirty pigs! You’re all the same, all of you. Pigs! Pigs!”. Suddenly things are as clear as rain in the mind of Dr. Macphail and the average reader. Indeed a sardonic classic tale by a writer whom many critics chose to call a cynic.

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Credit: Jack Mitchell / contributor Courtesy: Getty Images
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6 Replies to “Somerset Maugham’s Rain”

  1. You should go back and reread the story. You have so many facts wrong about the story it seems it has been been a while since you read it. Where does it state or imply that it is she that seduces Reverend Davidson?

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    1. Hi Todd,
      I have ‘connected the dots’ so to say and put my view about the story.
      The story was adapted for movies multiple times and cinematic creative licence was employed in changing the plot lines, introducing a romantic angle etc. This creates a ‘Rashomon’ effect where the story can be seen through a prism of multiple views.
      However Somerset Maugham trademark was his sardonic cynicism that he employed with unerring skill while dissecting ‘human nature’ and often he conveyed a lot that was not mentioned explicitly.
      Thanks for dropping in all the same.
      Cheers.

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  2. I wonder if anyone has considered the possibility that Davidson may have raped Sadie? Or at least attempted to make love to her? A betrayal of trust which would explain Sadie’s words about ‘men being pigs’? This is just as likely a possibility as that Sadie seduced HIM, especially considering her conversion process.

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    1. Thanks Emily for dropping by. Maugham had a great reputation for fleshing out the true personality of the characters in his works. Indeed he often achieved this so well in short stories wherein many popular authors failed to manage it in their novels. The art of building a story means you ensure the reader’s interest and enable him to ‘connect the dots’. So the portraits of Davidson and Sadie are just not to be drawn from the conjecture of what happened on the fateful night – you need to consider the characterization built right from the beginning of the story.
      Apart from my own assessment, you can find many critical studies of the story that support the view that I shared in my blog post. I will leave you with the extract of the closing paragraph wherein Sadie exults in having exacted her revenge, so to say. You can draw your own conclusions from the same and I quote –
      “They walked up the steps and entered the hall. Miss Thompson was standing at her door, chatting with a sailor. A sudden change had taken place in her. She was no longer the cowed drudge of the last days. She was dressed in all her finery, in her white dress, with the high shiny boots over which her fat legs bulged in their cotton stockings; her hair was elaborately arranged; and she wore that enormous hat covered with gaudy flowers. Her face was painted, her eyebrows were boldly black, and her lips were scarlet. She held herself erect. She was the flaunting queen that they had known at first. As they came in she broke into a loud, jeering laugh; …”
      To me that doesn’t seem like someone who has had a traumatic experience, instead it seems to be the clearest indication that the so-called ‘conversion’ was a desperate act and Sadie has now made a triumphant return to her ‘natural’ persona. Maugham doesn’t make any ‘value-judgements’, but he also has never been the one to pull his punches.
      In fact in many stories, set in the Southeast Asian colonies of the British Empire, he has viewed with distaste missionaries meddling with local people’s lives and cultural values. A comical narrative on the same is the short story, ‘Vessel of Wrath’ (http://wp.me/p44iYk-1uX). I would encourage you to discover more about Maugham. Happy reading.
      Cheers!

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  3. I’ve read this story twice.

    From my first reading I concluded that Sadie Thompson took her revenge on Davidson by manipulating and exhausting him. Davidson would have become burnt-out and so he committed suicide. Therefore, Sadie committed a perfect murder by making Davidson kill himself.

    After reading your comments, I read the story again trying to find arguments in the text in favour of the assumption that Davidson would have been seduced by Sadie. I found following excerpts :
    The first one:
    ” ‘This morning he (Mr Davidson) told me he’d been dreaming about the mountains of Nebraska,’ said Mrs Davidson.
    ‘That’s curious ‘said Dr Macphail
    He remembered seeing them from the windows of the train when he crossed America. They were like huge mole-hills, rounded and smooth, and they rose from the plain abruptly. Dr Macphail remembered how it struck him that they were like a woman’s breasts. ”
    The second extract:
    Mr Davidson : ‘Ah, but don’t see you see? It’s necessary. Do you think my heart doesn’t bleed for her? I love her as I love my wife and my sister. all the time she is in prison I shall suffer all the pain that she suffers’

    Therefore, Davidson may have been attracted by Sadie, who, being a prostitute, didn’t have to make a lot of efforts to seduce and trap the missionary.

    As far as the sentence is concerned “You men !You filthy , dirty pigs! You’re all the same, all of you.Pigs! Pigs!” , why does Sadie generalize her scorn towards men?

    Jean-Pierre

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    1. Maugham favoured naturalism when it came to describing and dissecting human behaviour.
      I don’t believe Sadie actively connived to kill Rev. Davidson. She just wanted to live her way of life and got into a fight with him. She ‘enjoyed’ losing the battle but winning the war. Her scorn is aimed at hypocrites who think they are better than others and deny having the ‘feet of clay’ so to say.
      Maugham amuses and instructs us with his tales so enjoy reading his works.
      Thanks for dropping in and sharing your insights.

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