Maugham the masterly story teller …

‘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.

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Maugham at his villa in Riviera – Cap Ferrat Image Courtesy – Getty Image Popperfoto

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.

Maugham has a pet formula for the way to get this done – the white man needs to respect and acknowledge the local customs and traditions but he cannot permit himself to lower his guard and intermingle with the locals. Yet he cannot be a boorish Westerner who is inflexible in attitude and unwilling to engage with the masses.

With this attitude set, Maugham brings in his next trump card – the face off between a veteran man being confronted by a young upstart who is still wet behind his ears. A perfect setting for conflict and confrontation that refuses to die till the last man is standing. The natives too are actors in the scene but they are incidental and inconsequential at the end of it. They end up being puppets in the hands of the Westerners who are planning and plotting their moves.

What is interesting and in contrast in the two stories is that the eventual outcome of the conflict goes to contrasting parties in the situation. Maugham’s sympathies are for the ol’ bandicoot so while it ends as a celebration in Outstation, it becomes a double tragedy in Mackintosh. Funnily enough Mackintosh’s final reaction does seem to be a bit out of the character. A freakish slip when one thinks of Maugham’s mastery on his overall narrative.

But Maugham doesn’t draw cardboardish caricatures – his characters have depth and shades of grey all over them. The reader’s sympathies waver from one to the other as they get drawn to the endearing characteristics of the men involved. To create a popular snob is no mean task – Maugham is able to draw them from his mould of Elliott Templeton featured in his popular novel ‘The Razor’s Edge’.

Maugham has done contrasting ends to a story in other cases as well, white man finding paradise in the tropical islands (The Fall of Edward Barnard) v/s white man being disgraced in the same setting ( The Pool). At times it appears to be contrived, but within the individual story Maugham delivers a charming tale that holds our interest and the perfect formula of a beginning, middle and end to the tale.

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