Somerset Maugham’s ‘Letter’

It began its journey as a short story, then got adapted into a full length play and finally made into a movie with Bette Davis playing the lead protagonist role.

Bette Davis in Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Letter’               Image Courtesy – Carens Classic Cinema

The power of the tale lies in the simplicity of its narrative and the famous twist in the tail that Maugham was known for, a style possibly inspired by the signature of his muse, Maupassant.

The tale has arresting potentialities – set in the remote rubber estates of the Federal Malay Estates before World War II, the opening scene showcases a gruesome murder. The lead lady, played by Bette Davis in the movie, has killed a fellow planter in self-defense. He came over at the night when her husband was away for a business team. He wanted to talk about something but soon tried to take advantage of her. In the resulting confusion, the heroine was driven to the extreme by despair – the final scene was that the assailant lay dead with 6 bullets shot at him in close range.

The reaction to the story is instant sympathy for the heroine – her husband and others applaud her for being brave and also sympathize with her for the ordeal she has gone through. More pain is to be dealt with though for she must face trial, in accordance with the norms of normal justice, and is widely expected to be released at the earliest. Her lawyer – who happens to be a close friend of her husband – is a bit sceptical. The story is tad too smart and the heroine seems to be far well composed after the event. Well years of professional experience must amount to something one may presume for lawyers tend to be cautious in making up their minds.

The average Joe on the street who is watching the play or movie too knows something is afoot and will eventually unravel. The simple logic being, otherwise there is no real story to be told over the next couple of hours. And here Maugham displays all his wares and expertise. The exercise, particularly in the short story, is a gradual movement created in the mind of the reader wherein he starts with full sympathy for the heroine and ends exactly at the other end of the spectrum.

A sordid tale reveals itself – the man was actually her lover and the tragedy was a result of the lady’s frustration since after years of having the affair the lover had turned away from her. And the reason hard for her to stomach – he has been having an affair with a Chinese lady and no longer cares for her. Hell hath no fury than a woman scorned, she was so upset that she ended it all by shooting him to death. And the real nub of the affair is that the lover’s Chinese mistress held a letter written by the heroine. The letter would make it apparent that the entire defence was a fabrication and the murder was a crime of passion.

The affairs are to be smoothly concluded and involve a spot of blackmail wherein the husband is forced to spend his entire fortune to purchase the letter and rescue his wife and reputation. Things go as planned and post release the couple are taken in for a holiday by a hospitable couple. The lawyer then witnesses the husband denounce his wife since he has seen the letter and learnt the truth. Maugham has been even called cynical for this, but he has held on to his craft and rarely pulls his punches. The finally dénouement may be tragic but it is also logical as per the narrative. Indeed the audience ended up appreciating it as being served one’s just desserts though it cost them a happy ending.


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