Classical and Modern Literature 13.3 (1993): 217-227
[Reprinted with the permission of the editors of
Classical and Modern Literature]
quisquis in hos fontes vir venerit, exeat inde
semivir et tactis subito mollescat in undis.
Ovid Metamorphoses 4.385-386
Whatever man enters these pools, let him leave there
half a man and suddenly start going soft in the waters he’s touched.
[Page 217] In the short story entitled The Pool, published in 1921,1
All citations and references for Maugham’s short stories are from, The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1934); The Pool is found in 1:148-183.
Maugham avails himself of Aristotelian theory and Ovidian typology to construct a narrative that develops two themes thoroughly familiar to all readers of the short stories: one, that of the essential intractability of love relationships, and, two, that of the British colonial gone native and besotted by drink. 2
In pursuing my particular critical path I do not wish to appear entirely blind to the possibility of certain Christian overtones of redemption and expulsion from Eden in this tale; that aspect of the story is not, however, what interests me here; see Anthony Curtis, The Pattern of Maugham: A Critical Portrait (New York: Taplinger, 1974), 158, 160. And whether or not the central pair – and other characters – in The Pool is most immediately based on individuals Maugham had actually run into in Apia while sojourning in Samoa is entirely irrelevant to my concern with the literary shaping of the tale. See Wilmon Menard, The Two Worlds of Somerset Maugham (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Pr, 1965), 141-143, 318 [141: “Practically everyone in the novelette was a real person in Apia”; 142: “not a figment of Maugham’s imagination, but a story based on solid fact”; 318: “I am inclined to think that this particular story was all too true”] and Ted Morgan, Maugham (New York: S&S, 1980), 217 [“apparently based on the English manager of the Apia bank, who had met a sixteen-year-old Samoan girl at a rock pool and had fallen in love with her”]. Menard reports (313-318) that he interviewed the woman, then in her sixties, who had been the model for Ethel, whose real name is given simply as M-e (315); the latter informed Menard that the story was “outrageously distorted” (317) and that she could not possibly “have been the horrible bitch of The Pool” (317).
The first of these themes is, as is well known, also basic to Ovid, especially in the Metamorphoses, where it manifests itself in flight-pursuit and transformation, frequently, as in Maugham’s story, causing someone’s death. Among the variants on transformation, a particularly poignant one is that in which a nymph-of-the-pool encompasses the sad and sorry end of herself, a [page 218] transformed lover, or both. In the following paper I would like to analyze the Ovidian thematic and linguistic tactics of Maugham’s Aristotelian strategy for a variant on the ancient type.
In Maugham’s story, briefly, an accountant, Lawson, has been sent out to manage the Samoan branch of an English bank, and he occupies a position of high relative status in the local community of Apia. One day he notices an exquisite young woman bathing in a pool at some distance from the town, and he is mesmerized by her beauty: he must have her. He learns that she is a half-caste, named Ethel, the daughter of a native woman and a Norwegian captain long since settled in Apia. He arranges an introduction, and in due time the young couple are wed. She has made a catch that is the envy of all the islanders and he has a native beauty about whom more than one European in Samoa has entertained a number of fantasies. All is bliss – at first. After a son is born, Lawson begins to feel Samoa is not good enough for the boy, and after he secures a job in Scotland that family packs up and moves back to Europe. Predictably, Ethel grows increasingly remote and dissatisfied with life in Scotland, and when rumors begin to circulate about a naked native woman bathing in a pool outside the little Scottish town where they live, even Lawson realizes his difficulties. He tries to persuade her to adjust, but within a short time she absconds with the boy and returns to Samoa. Desperate, he quits his job on the spot and follows her on the next steamer. He has no job in Apia. He begins to drink too much; he turns slovenly in dress and comportment; he loses jobs and ends up working for a Samoan, a horrendous insult to his self-esteem; and after a while he comes to be pitied by the Europeans and looked upon with contempt by the Samoans, including his wife. He thinks that he is being cuckolded, and soon his imagination, warped by alcohol, spins out lurid scenarios of Ethel’s infidelities with whites and natives alike. Finally, when he can stand this torture no longer, he drowns himself in the pool where he had first seen Ethel, and his body is discovered by erstwhile European friends out for a swim.
In the Ovidian topography of love the fons constitutes a cherished complex of emblems for the psychological deliquescence and literal dissolution of identity that uncontrolled and uncontrollable eroticism may promote. Losers who immediately come to mind are, among others, Achelous, Hermaphroditus, and Narcissus; the correspondents are, respectively, Arethusa, Salmacis, and, most spectacularly, the specular Narcissus. These are stories of personal disintegration brought on by the obsessive passion for or of the creature in the pool, the lover being transformed in the course of the tale from a character of power and influence into one of insignificance or even literal nothingness.
Before turning to particulars of the language and thematic structure we are well served by asking ourselves to what extent a conscious manipulation of Ovidian material on Maugham’s part may be assumed. Since we have a wealth of biographical and autobiographical material as well as extensive correspondence by Maugham to others and them to him, we can establish with certainty [page 219] that, like any educated person of his place (France and England) and time (1874-1965), he was thoroughly grounded in the Greek and Latin classics, 3
See Morgan (above, note 2) 19 [on the curriculum at King’s School in Canterbury, which Maugham attended between 1885 and 1889]: “The stress in studies was on Greek and Latin.” Also Richard A. Cordell, Somerset Maugham: A Writer for All Seasons. A Biographical and Critical Study (Bloomington: Ind U Pr, 1969), 26; Forrest D. Burt, W. Somerset Maugham (Boston: G K Hall, 1985), 9.
and he surely makes a similar demand of the readers of The Pool.
Even if we had not been able to demonstrate this familiarity on Maugham’s part with the classics on external grounds, the internal evidence would in and of itself have been overwhelming in favor of such an assumption. Maugham offers the reader at least three unmistakable and explicit cues about the classical underpinning of this tale.
First, the auctorial narrator (who, it should be recalled, was in his day as famous a playwright as he was a novelist and writer of short stories, and was also steeped in French classical drama), after having first met the decaying Lawson, invites the reader to understand the tale as a kind of tragic drama by alluding to classical definitions of tragedy found in the Poetics (1452b-1453a) of Aristotle (the “theorist” in the following citation): “his [viz., Lawson’s] life had in it those elements of pity (cf. ἔλεος) and terror (cf. φόβος) which the theorist tells us are necessary to achieve the effects of tragedy” 150]. Indeed, the final phrase, “to achieve the effects of tragedy,” appears to be an almost literal translation of Aristotle’s πόθεν ἔσται τὸ τῆς τραγῳδίας ἔργον (1452b29-30). It is, further, well know that on Aristotle’s theory of tragedy the disaster befalling the undeserving man arouses our pity, while fear is aroused when we surmise that we ourselves might have been or could be victims of the disaster in question (1453a3-7). Lawson is neither excessively good or just, nor really evil, but a man with a serious personal flaw (1453a7-10). Betraying “a tragic depth of emotion” (151), he is characterized as, among other things, a “good chap” (149), and a “position as manager of the bank made him one of the catches of the island” (159), which speaks to his high status relative only to the circumscribed world of Samoan society. Finally, Maugham’s plot (μῦθος) here is clearly what Aristotle called (1452a12) “complex” (πεπλεγμένος [literally, “plaited”]), which is found in the best tragedy (1452b31-32), and the ἀναγνώρισις of the tragic hero at the end, as we shall see, is pure Aristotle (1452a29-31, 1452a38-1452b1).
Second, after Lawson’s initial surreptitious sightings of Ethel in the pool, “scraps of poetry, half forgotten, floated across his memory, and vague recollections of the Greece he had negligently studied in his school days” (117).
But third, and perhaps the most directly telling, is the name of the young half-caste, Ethel. If we take the letters –th- as the phonetic digraph it is and transliterate into Greek, we get θ. The woman’s name, e-th-e-l, is an obvious palindrome for l-ē-th-ē, λήθη, or Lethe (forgetfulness). Lethe of course is not [page 220] only one of the traditional rivers of the underworld (which connects Ethel onomastically with both water4
It is worth observing that Maugham may well have toyed indirectly with the general “liquid” associations in the story in that he gives to the man into whose service Lawson enters upon returning to Samoa the name Bain, which of course means “bath” in French, Maugham’s native language.
and death), but it is also a form of the death-goddess herself who destroys her human lover. As a half-caste, Ethel enjoys a displaced liminality that hovers, on the mythic plane, between the human and the divine, and on the narrative plane of the present story, between European and Samoan. The palindromic nature of the name itself becomes a microscopic emblem of the great reversal (in Aristotelian terms, περιπέτεια [1452a22, 38]), or metamorphosis (cf. Aristotle’s μεταβολή [1452a23]), that constitutes the central linchpin for the tale’s counterpoint as psychological dominance increasingly accrues to the Samoan Ethel and she becomes more “civilized,” 5
The narrator observes that there “was something extremely civilized about her” (153). Although this description comes physically early in the short story, it belongs to the end of the narrative time (structurally the short story as a totality is a typical ring-composition, with the present framing the central inset of the past).
the status of her husband, the English Lawson, becomes ever more attenuated and his behavior to her and others progressively more “barbaric.” 6
Similarly, although Lawson is recognized as being a “gentleman” under the surface (149), by this time he has clearly gone badly to seed. As Chaplin, Lawson’s ironic comparandus is made to say about him, “One of the best. Pity he drinks” (149).
Further, a sardonic irony that strikes one as quite Maugham-like appears to attach itself to the man’s name, Lawson. For this law-son, offspring of an imperial Britain that imposes its way of life and law on native peoples, in his obsessive passion for the native comes to abandon and cut himself off from European law, both human and divine, by taking his own desperate life. 7
There is surely paronomastic irony in the safe “pool”-playing of the other Europeans (153) at the hotel. In the end, after playing pool (178) and poker (182) all night, they decide to go to the “pool” for a cleansing dip and thus discover the body of Lawson, a very different kind of “pool”-player.
Against this general backdrop the language that Maugham deploys in describing the pool proves powerfully evocative, for it echoes the language of Ovid unmistakably and repeatedly. Using evening and dark as his setting rather than Ovid’s “high noon”, 8
The motif, along with the general pastoral mode of the narrative type, is analyzed by Hugh Parry, “Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Violence in a Pastoral Landscape,” TAPA 95 (1964): 268-282.
Maugham first describes the pool “to which in the evenings he [Lawson] often went to bathe” early in the story: it is located in a “forest [that] was still virgin” at a distance of “a mile or two away from Apia,” is “deep” and has “fresh” water and trees that “grew thickly on the banks” and “were reflected in the green water,” and there is an ambiance of “solitude and … friendly silence.” It is the time when “light was almost failing” (154). The comparable pool near Aberdeen is “just like that pool at Upolu,” “deep” and “with a little sandy beach. Trees overshadow it thickly” and “the sun played fitfully through the leaves” (165).
[page 221] This verbal scene-painting summons up the similar descriptions that we find in Ovid’ stories. Maugham lingers over precisely the qualities of the pool that so delighted Ovid in his settings: its virginal, untouched nature; its remoteness and solitude; its grassy, arboreal borders; its pellucidity and purity. These motifs are all reflexes of Ovid’s highly formulaic settings, as for example in the Narcissus story (Met. 3.407-411):
fons erat inlimis, nitidis argenteus undis,
quem neque pastores neque pastae monte capellae
contigerant aliudve pecus, quem nulla volucris
nec fera turbarat nec lapsus ab arbore ramus;
gramen erat circa, quod proximus umor alebat.
Again, consider the “vis … notissima fontis” (Met. 4.287) in the unhappy tale of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, where we read of the latter’s approach to the pool (4.297-301):
… videt hic stagnum lucentis ad imum
usque solum lymphae. non illic canna palustris
nec steriles ulvae nec acuta cuspide iunci;
perspicuus liquor est: stagni tamen ultima vivo
caespite cinguntur semperque virentibus herbis.
And how is Ethel characterized? She is “extremely young” and “adorably pretty,” “small and very beautifully made,” and has a “slight, lithe figure” and “features [that] were lovely” (153); she is explicitly likened to “a naiad startled by the approach of a mortal” (154) and “a wild creature of the water or the woods” (155); she is notable for the “scarlet hibiscus” (156; cf. 177: “she reminded one of the red hibiscus”) associated with her; she is “something not of this earth … the spirit of the pool” 9
Similarly, in the environment of the pool in Aberdeen she is “once more … the strange, wild spirit of the stream,” (156), “something not quite of a human being in the way she swam” (166). And later, after she has gone back to Samoa, “the silent pool … seemed to have an attraction for her that was not quite human” (175).
(157), and she is “lithe and graceful like some young animal of the woods” (160).
This characterization of Ethel when Lawson, having finished work, first comes upon her bathing, vividly recalls Diana and the unfortunate Actaeon after his “work.” He brought down his own destruction by stumbling on the bathing goddess at the pool (Met. 3.161-164, 174):
fons sonat a dextra tenui perlucidus unda,
margine gramineo patulos succinctus hiatus:
hic dea silvarum venatu fessa solebat
virgineos artus liquido perfundere rore.
ecce nepos Cadmi dilata parte laborum.
[page 222] Lawson, in turn, is typically Ovidian in that he pursues foolishly, hopelessly, and ruinously. The other Europeans are aghast at his plan to marry Ethel: “He’s a damned fool then” (159) and “He don’t know what he’s up against” (160). The desperation of his situation emerges in his uncomprehending remonstrance that “I’ve done everything in the world for her … and she had the heart to treat me like this. How cruel, how monstrously cruel!” (167), an observation rivaled in its vapidity only (to focus on an example in Ovid) by Apollo’s catalog to Daphne of the benefits she’s missing by not letting him rape her (1.512-524). Lawson’s realization that “there was only one thing to do and that was to follow her. He could never live without her” (167) precipitates the destructive pursuit back to Samoa that encompasses his ruin. It recalls Apollo’s “amor est mihi causa sequendi” (1.507).
But there are important, and compelling, differences in Maugham’s retelling of the Ovidian set pieces of flight and pursuit on the one hand, and the spirit of the pool on the other. He exploits as well as expands the Latin material. For example, Ovid’s emblematic use of the pool as disintegrator is extended metonymically by Maugham. Early in the narrative (e.g., the “wet” stories of drinking ) the male world of liquid booze in which Lawson attempts but fails to end his desperation is associated with the female world of the watery pool in which he finally succeeds in drowning himself.10
There is in this story, as also in Ovid’s use of the symbol, a not very veiled suggestion that the pool can be understood as destructive female sexuality. Unlike Cordell (above, note 3) 171, I do not find the pool a “mysterious symbol”; closer, in my view, is the latter half of the observation by M.K. Naik (W. Somerset Maugham [Norman: U of Okla Pr, 1966], 118) that the pool “becomes a symbol of the beauty of the East – beauty which is only a Belle Dame sans Merci for the European.” Since I am not interested in psychoanalyzing Maugham but in analyzing his narrative as creative art, I eschew any speculation in this connection about Maugham’s homosexuality as a kind of triggering narrationis origo. It would seem otiose to take Maugham to task for having had the effrontery not to anticipate social sensibilities and juridical concerns of America in 1992 when he reflects such Victorian sentiments about women as we find expressed in the observation that once Lawson has beaten up Ethel, “perhaps then she was nearer to loving him than she had ever been before” (173). Similarly, in his story entitled Honolulu (Complete Short Stories, 1:125-147), which also deals with a man destroyed by his dealing with a woman, Maugham notes that “women, for the most part frivolous creatures, are excessively bored by the seriousness with which men treat them, and they can seldom resist the buffoon who makes them laugh. Their sense of humor is crude. Diana of Ephesus is always prepared to fling prudence to the winds for the red-nosed comedian who sits on his hat” (133-134).
As Chaplin notes of Lawson’s final stages of deterioration (150): “He’ll hang himself one of these days, if he don’t drink himself to death before. Good chap. Nasty when he’s drunk.”
And consider the mapping of the narrationis personae. The basic configuration is of the type Apollo and Daphne (of which there are some twenty variants throughout the Metamorphoses),11
In addition to Apollo and Daphne (1.452-567) we find Zeus and Io (1.588-750), Pan and Syrinx (1.689-712), Jupiter and Callisto (2.409-530), Apollo and Coronis (2.598-632), Mercury and Herse (2.708-751, 814-822), Juppiter and Europa (2.836-3.5), Narcissus and Echo (3.339- [page 223] 510), Sol and Leucothoe (4.190-270), Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (4.285-388), Hades and Proserpina (5.359-408), Alpheus and Arethusa (5.572-642), Boreas and Orithyia (6.682-721), Achelous and Perimele (8.590-610), Hippomenes and Atalanta (10.560-704), Glaucus and Scylla (13.730-741, 13.898-968, 14.1-42), Cyclops and Galatea (13.742-898), Glaucus and Circe (14.8-74), Vertumnus and Pomona (14.622-697), and Anaxarete and Iphis (14.698-761).
in which the lover pursues the [page 223] fleeing beloved.12
The specific Ovidian formulation of the pattern derives from Parthenius (e.g., Narrationes amatoriae 15.4.2-4 [ἔφευγεν … διώκετο]) and, more remotely, Callimachus (Hymn 3.189-203 [διωκτύν … ἔφευγε]), and ultimately descends from Sappho 1.21-24 (φεύγει … διώξει). The general typology of flight and pursuit, of which the just cited examples are an eroticized subset, is at least as old as Iliad 22.188-201 (cf. 199: οὐ δύναται φεύγοντα διώκειν).
But Maugham modulates and transforms this pattern of pursuit and flight by rehearsing it in two shapes: metaphorical pursuit (marriage) that is successful and real pursuit (from Scotland to Samoa) that proves in the end lethal to the pursuer.
First Lawson engages in metaphorical pursuit of Ethel in his visits to “Brevald’s bungalow” (157) and the native environment in which the old man lives with his wife and extended family. Unlike Daphne who wishes to avoid her suitor Apollo, Ethel does not wish initially to escape her suitor Lawson; and unlike Daphne’s father Peneus who makes marriage impossible, Ethel’s father Brevald promotes the marriage.
But in midstream, as it were, the mapping shifts. For once Ethel has spent some time in Scotland, she becomes very Daphne-like in her precipitous flight (“She had bolted” ) from Lawson, and he becomes alternately mawkish, mean, and mad in his driven pursuit to recapture the affections of his contemptuous wife. In the latter half of the story he becomes not a relentless Apollo but undergoes a psychological transformation into a victim on the order of the thwarted Iphis who, unable to persuade Anaxarete to love him, committed suicide by hanging himself.13
A likely way for Lawson to kill himself, if he didn’t drown himself in drink, as Chaplin had foretold (150).
Ethel, who “entirely despised him,” “had such a contempt for him,” and “was obviously irritated by his presence” (174-175), and “panting with rage” after abusing him verbally and physically (176), is reminiscent of Anaxarete (Met. 14.714-715):
spernit et inridet factisque inmitibus addit
verba superba ferox et spe quoque fraudat amantem.
Much like Iphis, the exclusus amator (Met. 14.700-715), Lawson is excluded from contact with Ethel, first psychologically and, after she wounds him by hurling a rock at him (176), also physically.
Lawson is at the end presented in a way that readily recalls the frantic lovers in Ovid, both the successful ones and the failures. Maugham repeatedly characterizes him as distraught, tormented, and half out of his mind with a passion that is inaccessible to Ethel. We are told that “his hungry love was destined ever to remain unsatisfied” (166), and he “seemed hardly sane” (167) [page 224] as he “went about like a raving maniac” (171). As she distances herself from his importunate begging, “he loved her more passionately than ever” (169). In the face of continued frustration he “lost all control of himself” (173): it was “the madness of those who love them that love them not” (175). This emphasis on the ravenous insanity of love is of course a staple in the Ovidian narratives. Like the unfortunate Narcissus (“male sanus” [3.474]), for example, or Iphis (14.701-702), Lawson “ratione furorem14
Cf. furoris (of Narcissus [3.350; cf. 479] and of Tereus [6.480]); furori (of Byblis [9.512; cf. 541, 583, 602]; cf. insanos … amores [9.519]); furor (of Myrrha [10.355; cf. 397]). Striking by its omission in this context is the absence of the metaphorical language of love as consuming fire, which is at least as common as, if not more than, that of madness (e.g., of Apollo [1.492-496], of Narcissus [3.464], of Boreas [6.708], etc.). I would venture that the “liquid” ambience of Maugham’s story does not lend itself well to the exploitation of this particular symbolism and hence the author perhaps intentionally elected not to invoke it in his own account.
/ vincere not potuit.”
Lawson begins his metamorphosis at the point where he recognizes that he no longer holds the upper hand and has to work for a native: “From that time his degeneration was rapid.” He first loses his claim to privileged category in that “he had no longer the prestige of the white man” (170). Similes and analogies used of him now point to the deep transformation that has set in. He is “weak as a child” (173) and “all his bones seemed to grow soft within him”; he talks to Ethel “as though he were a child”; and he grovels “like a cur” (174) before his wife, who treats “him like a dog” (175) and calls him a “drunken beast” (171). She, in the meantime, in counterpoint to Lawson’s transformation into less than a native, has changed to the point that “she looked quite European” (177).
Lawson’s exterior physical change is matched by the interior collapse into sexual paranoia. He becomes convinced that Ethel is unfaithful to him and is “seized with furious jealousy” (171). He accuses some of the other whites of carrying on with her, and in the end he alienates himself from both Samoan and white society and becomes an outcast.
The story of Iphis and Anaxarete is Ovid’s last tale of the type in the Metamorphoses. Here it is the lover who suffers defeat and the beloved who comes out victorious (14.718: “vincis, Anaxarete”) – albeit metamorphosed – in erotic conflict. It reads as Ovid’s metamorphosis and undercutting of the outcomes of the earlier metamorphosis variations on this pattern. Maugham compresses this Ovidian development hugely not only in using the same characters throughout but also in telling, effectively, only one tale. But the modern story admirably captures the Ovidian sense of metamorphosis, or reversal, of the general pattern.
Before Lawson plunges to his death in the pool he has a midnight chat with the ego-narrator, and it is hardly without significance that the time is New Year’s Eve, that cardinal emblem of pivotal renewal and fresh starts. Maugham’s ironic ending is more than a little Aristotelian, for it is patterned on the classic [page 225] ἀναγνώρισις. I have already discussed the Aristotelian backgrounding at the beginning of the story (150), and it is consonant with the general structure of reversal in The Pool that we should be brought back as it were to beginnings in the end.
Lawson gives the impression of finally have come to his senses, and discusses, with almost preternatural calm, his inchoate but imperfect recognition of what has gone wrong (180):
“I’ve made an awful hash of things. That’s obvious, isn’t it? I’m right down at the bottom of the pit and there’s no getting out for me … And the strange thing is that I don’t see how I went wrong.”
I held my breath, for to me there is nothing more awe-inspiring than when a man discovers to you the nakedness of his soul. Then you see that no one is so trivial or debased but that in him is a spark of something to excite compassion.
And shortly thereafter he comments that it’s “just rotten luck” (181) that things did not work out between him and Ethel. If we look closely at Aristotle’s formulation about tragedy, we shall see that Maugham’s ending follows them closely. For Aristotle recommends the three “plot parts” (μύθου μέρη) of ἀναγνώρισις, περιπέτεια and πάθος (1452b9-10), the latter being (1452b11-12) “a destructive or painful action such as deaths for all to see” (ἐν τῷ φανερῷ). Lawson does come to a recognition of his difficulties, he does suffer a reversal, and, as the narrator informs us, he can readily “excite compassion” (180) in us.
At a structural level Maugham’s story is an almost schematic fleshing out of Aristotle’s formal prescriptions for the “plot parts” of tragedy, and on the narrative level it is an obvious elaboration of classical themes and motifs. One might suggest that it is, formally, an “Ovidian tragedy.” Yet, for all its unmistakable rootedness in classical prototypes The Pool is neither Ovid nor is it genuine tragedy.
Such defining and formally decisive factors as lack of meter, absence of spectacle, and the omission of stasima aside, the sensibility is neither tragic nor overtly15
Yet, it is worth recalling that not only was Athenian drama (especially the later Euripides not to mention Aristophanes) critical of policies promoted by Periclean Athens and pursued with ruinous consequences after his death, but the Augustan dispensation was certainly not everybody’s cup of tea, and in particular not Ovid’s.
Periclean or Augustan, but that of British imperialism critical if not condemnatory of itself. Maugham appears to have it both ways on formal grounds, much as he has on thematic ones.
Consider the following.
It is possible to read Maugham’s tale in a number of non-contradictory ways. On the one had it is a classic metamorphosis narrative about an individual man’s erotic obsession and impossible love that is driven by a tragic-like blindness and eventuates in his disastrous demise; on the other, it can be read as ironic allegory of Great Britain’s imperial decline and loss of influence in [page 226] once subjugated territories.16
The story appeared in Maugham’s first collection of short stories, entitled The Trembling of a Leaf and published in 1921. See Menard (above, note 2) 372.
It is also a tale which formally integrates many of the classic Aristotelian conditions for tragedy; nonetheless, the story is hardly a tragedy in the sense that this term is generally understood. And just as Ovid spun numerous variations on the amatory narrative in question, so did Maugham ceaselessly vary his tales about the British colonial who came to be psychologically and physically (often in the guise of a [native] woman) dominated by the forces of a world that, while legally subject to his control, he only imperfectly understood (e.g., Before the Party [1: 217-241], Flotsam and Jetsam [2: 98-121], Mackintosh [1: 71-103], The Force of Circumstances [1: 242-266], The Yellow Streak [1: 296-321], etc.).17
This “European-Oriental” shape is also discernible in the 1896 novel An Outcast of the Islands (New York: Doubleday, 1921) by Maugham’s older contemporary, Joseph Conrad. The character set of Willems-Aïssa in Conrad matches that of Lawson-Ethel in Maugham’s story, and Conrad’s set Willems-Joanna-Hudig suggests Maugham’s Lawson-Ethel-Brevald. Further, the meeting of Maugham’s Lawson and Ethel is not without similarities to Conrad’s baroque description of the encounter between Willems and Aïssa at the brook (68-71). In general, of course, neither Conrad nor Maugham were alone in availing themselves of this literary configuration, for it was common enough in the writings, inspired at least in part by Britain’s colonial experience, of such authors as Louis Becke, E.M. Forster, Graham Greene, Rudyard Kipling, Walter de la Mare, Jean Rhys, Robert Louis Stevenson, and many others. For example, although Maugham’s The Pool is vaguely reminiscent of, and may possibly owe some small motival (e.g., the stone weighing down the man in the pool, the extraction from the pool at the end, the “European-Oriental” lovers, the lethal woman, etc.) debt to “Luliban of the Pool” (Louis Becke, The Ebbing of the Tide: South Sea Stories [London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1896], 3-11), the plot and literary ambiance of the two tales are quite different. Robert Gish refers, broadly, to the general type as “the exotic short story” (“The Exotic Short Story: Kipling and Others,” in Joseph M. Flora, ed., The English Short Story 1880-1945 [Boston: G.K. Hall, 1985], 1-37).
In the ancient narratives to which we have alluded, Ovid moves largely in two realms. One is a universe consisting of both powerful male gods (e.g., Apollo, Jupiter, Hades, etc.) and lesser characters who, by any criterion, occupy secondary or even tertiary rungs in a divine and folkloristic hierarchy (e.g., Sol, Alpehus, Achelous, etc.); the other is made up of female spirits without recourse who are often no more than numinous emblems of nature (e.g., Daphne, Callisto, Proserpina, etc.) or personalities embodying, in the context of a fairy tale, social realities then as now (e.g., Leucothoe [“blame the victim”], Arethusa [“sexual harassment”], Perimele [“blame the victim”], etc.).
These disparate environments, all brought vividly to life in Ovid’s numerous permutations, have been translated by Maugham into a contemporary framework in which there are also two sets of societies, that of the British Europe and British Samoa. One imposes rules and laws, the other obeys – in the former live the powerful lords of creation; in the latter, their emissaries and the subject populations.
But at the same time that Maugham has translated this machinery he has also [page 227] transformed it. For although there can be no question that an ultimate power of military and commercial enforcement lies with Britain and in particular its male representatives (Lawson, it will be recalled, had been sent out “from England to manage the local branch of an English bank ), in distant Samoa the tables are turned in that Lawson, representing Britain,18
Maugham makes it a point to reinforce in the reader an awareness of Lawson’s close ties and associations to Britain: “By George, I’d like to be in London to-night”; “I was a link with the world he regretted [viz., London] and a life he would know no more” (152); “At whatever cost he must get back to Europe” (162); “I’ll make a real Scot of him [viz., his son]” (164); and “It would be jolly to go home once more” (180).
is overwhelmed and destroyed by Ethel, the local half-caste. The Ovidian inversion, as observed above in the tale of Iphis and Anaxarete, has been turned into the primary narrative in Maugham. Ethel, emblem of the dominated colonial and the colonized land, becomes dominant, and Lawson, the paradigmatic exemplar in this story of the dominant colonizer, becomes the dominated and, in this case, is destroyed by the native culture.
As for the “tragedy” of this tale, Maugham brings off a clever balancing act. The presence of formal tragic elements is unmistakable, as Maugham himself has let us know, but at the same time they hardly make the tale tragic. Lawson’s fate does indeed evoke a sense of pity and compassion in the reader, as we have seen, but Lawson’s status is neither that of a Lear nor of an Oedipus. While Maugham’s story more than satisfies the Aristotelian insistence on the primacy of plot (1450a38-39: ἀρχὴ μὲν οὖν καὶ οἷον ψυχὴ ὁ μῦθος τῆς τραγῳδίας), to understand the central character as grandly tragic requires some fiddling with the formal criteria. Aristotle notes that tragedy is about people who have great repute and good fortune (1453a10: τῶν ἐν μεγάλῃ δόξῃ ὄντων καὶ εὐτυχίᾳ), like an Oedipus or a Thyestes or others from the great families, and about people who are our betters (1454b8-9: μίμησίς ἐστιν ἡ τραγῳδία βελτιόνων). Lawson qualifies only relatively.
It might be argued that if we want to read Lawson as an emblem of the British Empire, he qualifies by a kind of secondary mimesis as a “high type.” The story could then be understood on formal criteria alone as a sardonic portrayal by Maugham of imperial decline. Maugham, it seems, has simply exploited an inherent potential that was never actualized in Aristotle.
We are left with an ambivalent and ironic reading of the story. Its focus sharpens the portrait of personal catastrophe while it fuzzies the background of a nation’s global diminution. It is certainly not a question of this global dimension as cause of the personal; rather, we may see the personal as distant emblem of the global. The rapid dissolution of a minor character who is incapable of dealing rationally with the feral domination of his erotic impulses mirrors but faintly the slow unraveling of a once dominant empire that no longer fully controls its subjects.