World Literature

W. Somerset Maugham

 

BORN: 1874, Paris, France

DIED: 1965, Nice, France

NATIONALITY: French

GENRE: Novels, short stories, plays

MAJOR WORKS:

Of Human Bondage (1915)

The Moon and Sixpence (1919)

The Painted Veil (1925)

Cakes and Ale; or, The Skeleton in the Cupboard (1930)

The Razor’s Edge (1944)

 

 

W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham, W. Somerset, photograph. AP Images.

 

Overview

W. Somerset Maugham, during a career that spanned sixty-five years, attained great renown first as a dramatist, then as the author of entertaining and carefully crafted short stories and novels. Maugham’s productivity has sometimes hindered his critical reception, leading commentators to assess him as a merely competent professional writer. A number of his works, however, most notably the novels Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence, Cakes and Ale; or, The Skeleton in the Cupboard, and The Razor’s Edge, and the short stories ‘‘The Letter’’ and ‘‘Rain,’’ are acclaimed as masterpieces of twentieth-century literature.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

To England and Back. William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris, France in 1874, the son of solicitor to the British embassy, Robert Ormond Maugham and Edith Mary (Snell) Maugham. His father died when he was eight and his mother when he was twelve, and he was raised by his father’s brother, a clergyman. When he was thirteen, he was sent to King’s School, Cambridge, in England, where he was supposed to prepare for a career as a clergyman. He was more interested in writing, though, and got his uncle’s permission to study in Heidelberg, Germany. He ultimately decided to study medicine and trained for six years in a hospital in London. Although he spent a year-long internship in the London slums, he never went into medical practice. Instead, he moved to Paris, where he worked on his writing and lived in poverty. His first play, Lady Frederick, was produced in 1907, and was followed by three others within a year. Thus he launched his long and illustrious career as a writer.

Playwright Success, and Back to England. Lady Frederick met with considerable success, and Maugham quickly attained celebrity as a dramatist. In the play, Lady Frederick foregoes a fortune she desperately requires to stave off loan sharks and then generously disillusions a captive young lord. A play that a theater manager had accepted against his better judgment as a stopgap of several weeks, Lady Frederick had to be transferred to four successive theaters to satisfy public demand. Maugham returned to England to continue his career in drama.

In 1908, four of Maugham’s plays—Lady Frederick, Jack Straw, Mrs. Dot, and The Explorer—ran simultaneously in London theaters. Over the next twenty-six years, twenty-nine of Maugham’s plays would be produced, many of them among the most well received of their time.

Importance of the Tale. The writer, for Maugham, was a purveyor of pleasure, and what he wrote about was more important than how it was presented. He said, ‘‘With me the sense is more than the sound, the substance is more than the form, the moral significance is more than the rhetorical adornment.’’ He added, ‘‘I wrote stories because it was a delight to write them.’’

Of Human Bondage, however, ‘‘was written in pain.’’ Its principal character, Philip Carey, sensitive and plagued with a clubfoot, was so like the author, who was afflicted with a stutter, that Maugham was unable to read the book after it was published. Perhaps to avoid similar pain, Maugham later chose to write about other people and found material for stories everywhere.

Wartime Intelligence Work. At the onset of World War I, Maugham joined the Red Cross and went to France as an interpreter. There he met Frederick Gerald Haxton and the two became lovers, remaining close companions for the next thirty years until Haxton’s death. During the war, because he was considered too old for battle, the British government recruited Maugham as an intelligence agent and subsequently involved him in covert operations in Switzerland and Russia. These experiences formed the basis of his 1928 novel Ashenden; or, The British Secret Agent, about a playwright who becomes a British secret agent. Despite the ongoing relationship with Haxton, in 1917 Maugham married Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, with whom he had had a child two years earlier. They divorced in 1929. During the years between the world wars, Maugham lived lavishly and wrote prolifically. He bought an expansive villa in southeast France, which remained his home thereafter, although he traveled widely. His visits to Italy, the United States, the South Seas, and the Caribbean provided the settings for his works that appeared between the world wars, including the novels. The Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale. Maugham fled France during the Nazi occupation of World War II and went to the United States, where he lectured and oversaw the Hollywood production of several motion pictures based on his stories and novels. Haxton, who had accompanied Maugham, died in 1944. In 1948 Maugham returned to France.

The Compulsive Writing Years. By 1959 this compulsive writer was writing, he said, only for himself. At the time of his death he was reportedly working on an autobiography that was to be published posthumously. A few years before his death he destroyed all of his old notebooks and unfinished manuscripts. He continued to assert that ‘‘literature, or pure imaginative creation, was the highest goal toward which man could strive.’’ Maugham died in Nice, France, in 1965.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Maugham's famous contemporaries include:

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): Famous American expatriate writer whose name is synonymous with the Great American Novel.

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963): Irish writer and scholar known for his work on literary criticism, Christian apologetics, and medieval literature. Best known for his series The Chronicles of Narnia (1965).

Sergio Osmena (1878-1961): Fourth president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines and founder of the Nacionalista Party.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973): English writer, philologist, poet, and university professor best known for his fantasy classics The Hobbit (1936) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955).

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Maugham and his fiction are often associated with the twilight of British colonialism in Asia and the Pacific. Here are some other works that highlight the changing influence of the British Empire in the early to middle twentieth century:

A Passage to India (1924), by E. M. Forster. This novel centers on the accusation of rape made by a white British woman against an Indian man. Forster's novel is set against the backdrop of the growing independence movement in India in the 1920s.

Burmese Days (1934), by George Orwell. Orwell based this novel on his five years of service in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (now called Myanmar).

The Long Day Wanes (1959), by Anthony Burgess. This collection of three novels takes its name from the old saying ''The sun never sets on the British Empire.'' Set in British Malaya (modern Malaysia), the novels take place during the 1950s, leading up to the final withdrawal of the British from Southeast Asia.

Our Man in Havana (1958), by Graham Greene. Greene spins a tale of a hapless vacuum cleaner salesman caught up in British espionage efforts in Cuba in the 1950s.

Midnight's Children (1981), by Salman Rushdie. Considered a landmark in postcolonial literature, this novel is set at the time of the independence of India in 1947.

 

Works in Literary Context

Colonialism and the Short Story Form. Maugham has received greatest recognition for his short fiction. He emerged as a preeminent short story writer in the 1920s, and many commentators maintain that he consistently achieved excellence in this genre, concurring with Anthony Burgess that ‘‘the short story was Maugham’s true metier, and some of the stories he wrote are among the best in the language.’’ Maugham’s most successful short stories—which include ‘‘Before the Party,’’ ‘‘The Book-Bag,’’ ‘‘The Pool,’’ ‘‘Mr. Harrington’s Washing,’’ ‘‘The Letter,’’ and ‘‘Rain’’—exploit the oppressive atmosphere of Britain’ colonies and feature petty intrigue, marital infidelity, and sometimes violent death against a background of the rigidly stratified colonial communities in India and the Far East. In ‘‘The Letter,’’ for example, the wife of an English plantation owner in Singapore shoots and kills a man whom she claims forced his way into her room. Her lawyer, however, discovers a letter she wrote to the murdered man arranging a tryst on the night of his death. In ‘‘Rain’’ a medical quarantine isolates a number of travelers, including Sadie Thompson, a prostitute; Dr. and Mrs. Macphail; and the Davidsons, a missionary couple, in a remote port of Pago Pago. Mr. Davidson becomes obsessed with reforming the flamboyant prostitute, and he bullies her into submission with the threat of a prison term. One night he is found dead, having cut his own throat. Sadie Thompson is angrily defiant, and the words she hurls at Dr. Macphail—‘‘You men! You filthy, dirty pigs! You’re all the same, all of you. Pigs! Pigs!’’— suggest that what passed between her and the missionary was not entirely spiritual in nature. These two stories are among the most frequently anthologized in world literature; both have undergone several stage and film adaptations.

Espionage and Secrets. Maugham’s Ashenden stories, based on his experiences in the secret service, are credited with originating a style of sophisticated international espionage fiction that has remained popular for decades. His stories resemble his dramas in structure: plots hinge and pivot on a secret; suspense is heightened by the possibility of revelation; and tension builds on strategically timed entrances and exits, lost and found properties, and verbal combat. In fact, Maugham often transformed short stories into plays and rewrote unperformed dramas as novels or short stories, and this ease of adaptation attests to the unity of Maugham’s literary construction.

Influences. Maugham believed Graham Greene was the best British novelist, and he liked William Faulkner. Though critics attributed influences on Maugham to such authors as Dickens, Fielding, Defoe, and Trollope, Maugham once said, ‘‘I follow no master, and acknowledge none.’’ In similar respect, Maugham is said to have influenced such differing writers as John le Carre, Ian Fleming, and Graham Greene with his skill at espionage novels.

 

Works in Critical Context

‘‘In my twenties,’’ Maugham once wrote, ‘‘the critics said I was brutal. In my thirties they said I was flippant, in my forties they said I was cynical, in my fifties they said I was competent, and in my sixties they say I am superficial.’’ John Brophy called Maugham’s writings ‘‘extroverted.’’ Yet Maugham was ‘‘the most continuously readable storyteller of our lifetime,’’ said Christopher Morley. He was, Walter Allen added, ‘‘the last survivor of a vanished age, an age which had not divorced, as ours has largely done, the idea of entertainment from the idea of art.’’ While many of his works have earned great accolades, just as many continue to be read, reread, and discussed. Among them, one, Of Human Bondage, stands out as his best.

Of Human Bondage (1915). Based on an early manuscript called ‘‘The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey,’’ Maugham’s semiautobiographical coming-of-age novel chronicles the youth and early adulthood of Philip Carey as he struggles to retain his freedom and individuality within a rigid society. Reviews of the book were mixed upon its publication in 1915. R. Ellis Roberts, in a review for the Bookman, called it ‘‘a remarkably clever book,’’ but added about the author, ‘‘It is no disrespect to this piece of work to wish him a rather robuster subject for his next novel.’’ William Morton Payne, in his review for the Dial, objected to the book’s unnecessary length, though he conceded that ‘‘allowing once for all its inartistic method, it is at least a noteworthy piece of creative composition.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Consider the disabilities and abilities of the characters in Of Human Bondage. How are they contrasted? How do they make the characters endearing? Also, as you read, take note of any favorite lines of dialogue or description that you find striking.

2. Find a favorite passage or two from the novel and write it (or them) down. Then, with three or four peers, drop the favorites into a hat. Have each person draw a paper from the hat, then take turns discussing how that quote expresses the values of the people and/or the period of the novel.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Archer, Stanley. W. Somerset Maugham: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Brander, L. Somerset Maugham: A Guide. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1963.

Brophy, John. Somerset Maugham. Rev. ed. London: Longmans, Green, 1958.

Brown, Ivor. W. Somerset Maugham. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970.

‘‘Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.’’ In Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Brigham Narins, Deborah A. Stanley, and George H. Blair. Vol. 93. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996.

Web sites

Caxton Club. World Traveler, Famed Storyteller. Retrieved February 7, 2008 from http://www.caxtonclub.org/reading/smaugham.html. Kirjasto. Somerset Maugham. Retrieved February 7, 2008 from http://www.caxtonclub.org/reading/smaugham.html.

Spartacus. William Somerset Maugham. Retrieved February 7, 2008 from http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jmaugham.htm.