William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)

William Somerset Maugham is one of the best known English writers of the 20th century. He was not only a novelist, but also one of the most successful dramatists and short-story writers. He believes that the charm of a story lies in its interesting plot and exciting situation. More than that, Maugham’s story always implicates deep thought and signifies critical approach to the characters. The writer points out that a short story “can be read at a single sitting”; it must have a beginning, a middle and an end. His short stories are usually very sincere and logically explained.

William Somerset Maugham was born in 1874 in Paris, where his father worked at an Embassy. But the parents died when he was young, and his uncle, an English clergyman brought him up. Maugham got his education in Germany and studied medicine in London. His first novel “Liza of Lambeth” came out in 1897. It gives a realistic picture of slum life, and much is taken from his own experience as a doctor. Maugham went on producing books, but his first masterpiece “Of Human Bondage” appeared only in 1915. His own life, hardships and difficulties are described in this novel. It brought the writer fame. But it was “The Moon and Sixpence” (1919) which made his reputation of a novelist established.

Maugham travelled a lot. Many of his stories are set in foreign lands, and inspired by his travels in Malaya, Siam, China and other countries. His rich life experience gave the author a solid basis for his writing. He criticized the wrongs of the bourgeois society, but at the same time, like Rudyard Kipling, Maugham proclaimed the ideology of accepting “things as they are”. Maugham thought that it was not in the power of man to alter the world. In his works he compares world to the theatre where human life is staged.

In 1921 his first volume of stories was published under the title “The Trembling of a Leap” which includes a famous story “Rain”. Maugham is a sharp observer of people, and is amused by them, but doesn’t want to get closely involved with them. That’s why his stories often have a bitter or unexpected ending. In his story “Rain” (or “Miss Thompson”) the author stresses the idea that Man can’t withstand hardships and all the wrongs of society, that Evil is superior to Man.

The main characters, a missionary Davidson and his wife, manage the mission on a group of islands to the North of Samoa. The islands are widely separated, and Davidson has frequently to go long distances by canoe. The fear of personal danger can’t stop him in the performance of his duty. His work is “to instil into the natives the sense of sin”, because the natives have “no sense of sin at all”. He wants to save them: “Yes, with God’s help I’ll save them”. The Samoans don’t see their “wickedness”. Davidson has “to make sins out of what they thought were natural actions. He had to make it a sin to dance and not to come to church, […] for a girl to show her bosom, and a sin for a man not to wear trousers.” Davidson institutes fines. In his opinion, it is the only way to make people realize “that an action is sinful is to punish them if they commit it.” He fines them if they don’t come to church, if they dance, if they are improperly dressed. He has a tariff, and “every sin had to be paid for either in money or work.” At the end of the story Davidson himself breaks the moral law and finds a horrible death: “The doctor saw a group of natives standing round some object at the water edge. […] Then he saw, lying half in the water and half out, a dreadful object, the body of Davidson. […] The throat was cut from ear to ear, and in the right hand was still the razor with which the deed was done.”

Somerset Maugham’s story is marked by disbelief in human nature. Uncertainty dims his links with the realistic art; therefore we can’t distinguish the writer as one of the progressive authors of critical realism of the 20th century. Besides the numerous plays and stories Somerset Maugham wrote his famous novels: “The Painted Veil” (1925) andCakes and Ale” (1930).

During World War I and World War II the writer was the British Agent, and he was best known for his short stories, published in 1928 under the title “Ashenden”. Ashenden is a spy who has become very popular as a hero in English fiction during this century, and the character, who tells the story, has become particularly associated with Somerset Maugham himself in the minds of the public.

Many of Maugham’s stories and novels are staged and well-known all over the world.

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