Somerset Maugham’s ‘Vessel of Wrath’

Maugham has an axe to grind – he never had a favourable opinion about the missionaries who plied their trade in the mystical East and seemed to be on a mission to carry on the ‘white man’s’ burden. Such presumptuous and supercilious attitude naturally evokes his ire though the broader view would be more tolerant given the good work done by the majority of them.

With the game being set the way it is, one still admires Maugham for creating an interesting tale that amuses us to no end. Its content lent itself to easy adaptation in Theatre and Movie formats.

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Tropical island, laid back lifestyles, opposites attract … such esoteric themes to a simple tale that was concocted to amuse and entertain. The Dutch Controleur of the island is but Maugham himself in disguise. His attitude and sympathies are well-known echo for Maugham’s own predilections. In short the man is an able administrator and who is quite tolerant of human foibles though he never quite lets any affair to get out of hand.

His life is made a bit difficult for a brother-sister pair who serve primarily as missionaries for the group of islands but are also competent amateurs who manage to deliver relief and succour to the suffering population. They are narrow-minded and moralistic – the Controleur endures the sufferance as they are useful in managing people and providing relief when health hazards like Cholera break open.

The last white man on the island is Ginger Ted, a wild and ruffian character. He receives a weekly allowance from someone who wants him to stay away from the hometown. He is a pretty shiftless character who loves his tipple and fancies any woman who falls for him. Indeed his unruly behaviour and loose morals are a key source of complaint from the missionary duo’s end who also feel that he sets a bad example and dilutes the discipline within the masses as well.

It so happens that Ginger Ted and Martha end up spending a night on an uninhabited island. Martha realizes her invidious position and is in terror that Ted will outrage her modesty. This piece of narrative is Maugham sardonic comedy at his best for the reader clearly sees Martha as an old maid and who could never ever rouse a passion in a Casanova like Ginger Ted. More amusement follows when Martha’s brother apologizes to Ginger Ted in the Controleur’s presence and thanks him for being a gentleman. Ginger Ted doesn’t quite get the message though he knows that the joke is on him. The kind-hearted controleur explains the situations and Ginger Ted explodes in anger at the thought of such a liaison.

The Jones’ sibling take a different view of Ginger Ted and try to befriend him though he spurns all their overtures. Another Cholera outbreak makes its appearance and circumstances throw Martha and Ginger Ted together on one of the remote islands. The epidemic rages for quite a few months. At the end of it the controleur is looking forward to meeting Ginger Ted again and share a tipple.

Imagine when he encounters a sober man instead who spurns his offer to have drinks and states that he would prefer to have Tea instead. He further shocks the controleur by stating he has decided to marry Martha. Superb satire that calls for extreme measures – the controleur offers an escape route but Ginger Ted is determined to turn a new leaf.

The controleur is very upset at the sudden turn of events as he knows that Ginger Ted would be a lost cause if Martha marries him. He decides to try another tack and plans to convince the Jones’ that it is bad match. Imagine his final shock, when Martha’s brother shows his avidity to the match and slyly suggests that Ginger Ted stood no chance of escape as his fate was sealed on the very night on when he was with Martha. Martha too is happy and emphasizes that there is nothing like responsibility to help set right lost souls like Ginger Ted. She has grand plans to celebrate her honeymoon on the very island on which the story was set in motion.

For once the Controleur’s head reels and he is shaken to the core. He is surprised on not having reckoned the possibilities of the proximity leading to the couple falling in love with each other. And thus finishes the final note of the story – Maugham’s sarcasm and unique story format make it a very interesting tale to read and savour.

Credit: General Photographic Agency Courtesy : Getty Images
Credit: General Photographic Agency
Courtesy : Getty Images

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