Maugham’s ‘Before The Party’

The opening scene is London as an upper middle class family gets ready to attend a ‘Garden Party’. The action is set in the mystical East – it is a sordid tale wherein the Family has just discovered that apparently their son-in-law was an incorrigible drunkard and had committed suicide. Millicent, the widow, is pressed to explain and she does have a tale to narrate.

before-the-party-gwen-taylor-as-blanche-and-carol-starks-as-laura-photo-credit-mark-yeoman
Somerset Maugham ‘Before The Party’                                                                                                                                Image Courtesy – Theatre Bath

The story is from the collection called ”The Casuarina Tree’ set in the 1920s and it is a tragic assortment of British character’s trial and tribulations in the alluring tropical islands in Malaya. The contrast in the beautiful settings and the shabby lives enlivens the ‘shock’ value of the story.

Maugham did not want any illusions in the mind of the reader about the nature of the narrative and so he provided a quaint explanation to the title and its significance. He explained 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 …’.

Set in this tone, the characters seemed to be doomed with little hope of finding redemption. Yet reading the tale on its own is anything but that. Maugham sets up the scene efficiently – a well-respected solicitor, a socially conscious wife, a spirited elder daughter (Millicent) who has been recently widowed and returned from Borneo and finally the younger daughter (Kathleen) who lost her chance to get married and settled; so seems to be destined to ‘spinsterhood’.

An innocuous remark by Kathleen sets the ball rolling. She informs the family that Millicent had kept secrets from the family when she had informed them that her husband, Harold (Resident in one of the settlements in Borneo), had died of fever. She had learnt that it had been a case of suicide and shockingly Harold was known to be an incorrigible alcoholic who had been afflicted by episodes of delirium tremens.

Millicent tries to be evasive and not divulge the sordid saga. Since the family insists she breaks her silence and lets them have it all. Maugham is pitiless as every nuance of the marriage is exposed. The tremulous courtship was surely a comedy of errors – Millicent was anxious not to miss the marriage market while Harold, unknown to her then, has a task to get married in order to save his position as it was felt that marriage will rescue him from his alcoholism.

Millicent arrives in the tropics and gets adjusted to her new life. She discovers her husband’s weakness and tries to rescue him. Things seem to improve and then there is a setback. Yet they make a new beginning and even begin a family with little Joan being the apple of her father’s eye. Comically they even make a trip to England and things are in cruise control. No one knows the tale of woes hidden beyond the veil.

Maugham will not let things rest though – Joan’s recuperation occasions a brief trip to the river’s mouth. Harold is left to his devices and relapses into an alcoholic stupor. Millicent discovers the slip and is enraged enough to react violently. A sharp knife is lifted from the wall and Harold has a slit neck. Millicent’s family is aghast to known the reality and barely able to stomach their reaction. Ostensibly the order is restored since the car has arrived and the family departs to the attend the party.

Borneo is mentioned in the passing, the local characters and other folks in the narrative are incidental. The story focussed mostly on Millicent and is narrated from her point of view. It is quite a credible tale and the ebbs & flows have a realistic tone to it. Yet this was not the most popular of the tales in the selection – ‘Outstation’ and  ‘The Letter’ enjoyed much wider acclaim and appreciation.

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