Adventures in English Literature - W. Somerset Maugham

Adventures in English Literature
Adventures in English Literature

Inglis, Rewey Belle, Stauffer, Donald A., and Larsen, Cecil Evva. Adventures in English Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1952.

Another old book on literature, which I do not even remember ever possessing. By the look of it, it could be a secondary school textbook. In this post, we will look at the entries of W. Somerset Maugham in it.

Maugham in Adventures in English Literature

The Modern English Novel
The manner of many of these novels – Galsworthy, Stevenson, Conrad, Hardy, as well as some of those mentioned in the paragraphs below – you may sample through their short stories included in this book. Far places are still brought to England's doorstep – India by Rudyard Kipling, South American by W. H. Hudson, Scotland by James M. Barrie, the sea by W. W. Jacobs, the imaginary Asian Shangri-La by James Hilton in Lost Horizon, Europe and the Far East by Somerset Maugham. (339)

Interestingly, on the same page, there is a table of "Milestones of the English Novel," and the publication year of Of Human Bondage is wrong.

Milestones of the English Novel
Milestones of the English Novel

Entry for "Modern Short Story":
In reading the earlier fiction in this book you recognized the general form of the short story. It is usually limited to a single series of events; it introduces only one main character, or at most two; it establishes a dominant mood immediately which it holds throughout. This might be called the "classic" style of the short story. No one has performed more brilliantly in this style than the Englishman Somerset Maugham. He is a storyteller of the highest rank, and his narratives are told with skill and craftsmanship. When you read "The Verger," you will have a chance to analyze Maugham's method of building a story in the editorial section that follows it. (551)

[...] Not only in technique, but in subject matter, the English short story has roamed far afield. Kipling's stories of India have been, in a later time, paralleled by those of E. M. Forster and Rumer Godden. Conrad's tours of the South Seas as a master of merchant vessels lent plots and color to the stories he wrote later. Somerset Maugham has set his many tales East and West – in American, China, Africa, India, and France. (552)

Maugham's "The Verger" is chosen for discussion and before the reproduction of the text, we get a little introduction of Maugham:
The early life of Somerset Maugham was unhappy. He was born in France of English parents who both died when he was still a boy. He went to England to live in the cold, stern atmosphere of his uncle's home. It appears as a setting in Maugham's novel Cakes and Ale, in which he describes a boy like himself, shy, uncertain, afflicted with a stammer, but also imaginative and responsive. Maugham studied in English schools and at the University of Heidelberg [I wonder why it is that this keeps coming up; Maugham did not study at the University of Heidelberg]. He wanted to be a writer but instead studied medicine at the insistence of his uncle. After a year's internship in the Lambeth slums of London, he suffered an attack of tuberculosis and soon left to travel on the Continent, where he began writing [Maugham began writing before that]. He worked steadily for years; success did not come easily. In his most famous novel Of Human Bondage he tells the moving story of a young medical student whose struggles for self-expression were much like his own.

Somerset Maugham has become perhaps the most accomplished storyteller of our time. He has traveled the world over and gathered tales along the way – stories and novels and plays with strange incidents, odd characters, often in exotic settings. Possibly one secret of his popularity lies in his stated purpose in writing – entertainment. "Pleasure," he says, "is in itself good." Yet Maugham writes of neither the pleasant nor the pretty. While he does not make a special pleading for the poor and underpriviledged, he depicts the upper classes with an irony that is often malicious.

"The Verger" is one of Maugham's best-known stories. Recently, it and two other Maugham short stories were screened together under a single title Trio; four others were filmed under the title Quartet. This is a new style of production in motion pictures, corresponding to a book of short stories in literature. Still other Maugham stories have been seen recently on television. It is altogther fitting that Maugham should be telling his old tales in these new ways – few could do it as well. (564)

And together with the story we get a reproduction of Maugham while he was recording for the film collection.

W. Somerset Maugham before the Television Camera
W. Somerset Maugham before the Television Camera

After which there is an analysis of "The Verger," which I am going to quote full, because it is interesting to see how it is supposed to be taught in class.
Reading the Short Story

What should we watch out for in reading a short story? Principally, we should work out for ourselves satisfactory answers to two questions: Why was this short story written? How does it achieve its effects? Let us try to answer these questions by examining Somerset Maugham's "The Verger."

The Purpose of the Story: A First Glance
Maugham's plot is simple: the caretaker of a church in London, forced to resign because he cannot read and write, makes a fortune of £30,000 by setting up tobacco shops.

What is the idea back of the story? Does it purport to show that lack of schooling helps in business? Is it an attack on the church and a defense of business, or is it the other way around? Is the story a tragedy because the verger must resign, or a comedy because he makes money? Is the author deliberately turning ordinarily accepted values upside down? To answer such questions we must go beyond the mere outline, or plot, of the story and look at its structure, its characters, its general mood.

More than half of "The Verger" is told in two scenes: one, the conversation of the principal character with the vicar and the two churchwardens; the other (much shorter), the talk between the principal character and the bank manager. Try dividing the story into following sections: (1) introduction (what is introduced here?); (2) transition conversation between verger and vicar as they walk into the vestry; (3) big scene (why is it the main scene?); (4) transition, verger leaving the church and walking across London; (5) brief scene, at tea with his wife; (6) straight narrative, the happenings of ten years condensed into a single paragraph; (7) final scene.

Now look back over the story and see how each transition is handled. If you were filming this story, how much time out of a total of thirty minutes would you give to each section of it? Why is Foreman's wife kept in the background? When do you get a flashback that tells of the verger's earlier life? When do you learn about his lifetime's savings as verger? About his smoking and drinking habits? How does each of these pieces of information fit into the sequence of events in the story?

There are dozens of ways to suggest character; Maugham uses many of them here. Character may be revealed by conversation and action. Collect everything that Foreman says to others and see what qualities in his character you can detect from his remarks. Why does Maugham make Foreman talk to himself in a lower-class dialect? In how many places through the story does Maugham indicate what is going on in someone's mind by describing what they are doing? Here is one example: "Albert Edward's thin, sallow face reddened and he moved uneasily on his feet, but he made no reply." One of the hero's two principal actions is his decision not to meet the conditions imposed by his superiors. What is his other principal decision, and how do both decisions show his independence as well as his confidence in his own worth?

Character may be presented, of course, in direct description. Find as many short descriptions – phrases or words – as you can that build up your picture of Foreman. Can you find a single statement in the story which might serve to sum up Foreman's character? Finally, character may often be best revealed by showing the interaction between two persons. What is the effect of the contrast between the simple, direct talk of the two churchwardens (even if one is a lord and the other a general) and the high-flown sentences of the new vicar? Watching the vicar and the verger together, what conclusions can you draw about the importance of rank and education in forming a man's character?

General Mood
We have dug down deep enough into the story by now so that we can say definitely that the mood is comic, not tragic. The whole story is built up like a good joke; and like a good joke it ends with a quip which is at the same time inevitable and surprising. His comic spirit does not mean that Maugham is without a serious purpose. What is that purpose? How does the story suggest these larger questions: Is there any necessary connection between learning and virtue? Can an education be used for harmful ends as well as for good? The topsy-turvy world of comedy makes us look again at all our accepted beliefs. Why is a vicar better than a verger, or for that matter, a bank president better than a janitor? Why should we respect our superiors in our work or social groups?

Reading Other Stories
No two stories, of course, are absolutely alike in purpose or approach. Each story that you have read and will read has its own center and its own emphasis. But if you ask the questions "Why was the story written?" and "How can I prove its purpose by looking closely at its structure, its characters, and its general tone or mood?" you will be well on the way to doubling your enjoyment and understanding of stories. (569–70)

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  1. Wishing you the very best in the Chinese year of either the sheep or the goat - I have enrolled at UTS to learn the basics of teaching in the Graduate Certificate in TESOL.


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