Saturday, November 15, 2014

Creatures of Circumstance by W. Somerset Maugham

A surprisingly delightful collection of short stories--although perhaps, as I read and enjoy more and more Maugham, the surprise that ushers in the delight should begin to give way to expectation. Like all the Maugham I have so far read, the subtext here is the artist, and what it takes to do what the artist does--but this time is it turned directly, almost clinically, on the creation of short stories.

This is from Maugham’s very helpful introduction to the collection, where he more or less apologizes to his critics for continuing to produce stories that reside somewhere below their expectations of art.

But if I may judge from the reviews I have read of the volumes of short stories that are frequently published where the critics to my mind err is when they dismiss stories as magazine stories because they are well constructed, dramatic and have a surprise ending. There is nothing to be condemned in a surprise ending if it is the natural end of a story. On the contrary it is an excellence. It is only bad when, as in some of O. Henry’s stories, it is dragged in without reason to give the reader a kick.

A valid observation, to my way of thinking. Anyone can write a surprise ending. Not everyone can write a surprise ending the seeds of which have been carefully laid throughout the story. But Maugham continues...

Nor is a story any the worse for being neatly built with a beginning, a middle and an end. All good story writers have done their best to achieve this. It is the fashion of today for writers, under the influence of an inadequate acquaintance with Chekhov, to write stories that begin anywhere and end inconclusively. They think it enough if they have described a mood, or given an impression or drawn a character. That is all very well, but it is not a story and I do not think it satisfies the reader. He does not like to be left wondering. He wants to have his questions answered.

Read some of what I said about T.C. Boyle’s early stories, or even that collection by John Updike I read, and you’ll see I agree entirely with Maugham. Some are entertaining. But they are not stories. But here’s where Maugham gets really insightful...

There is also today a fear of incident. The result is this spate of drab stories in which nothing happens. I think Chekhov is perhaps responsible for this too; one one occasion he wrote: “people do not go to the North Pole and fall off icebergs; they go to offices, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup.” But people do go to the North Pole and if they don’t fall off icebergs they undergo experiences as perilous; and there is no reason in the world why the writer shouldn’t write as good stories about them as about people who eat cabbage soup. But obviously it is not enough that they should go to office, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup. Chekhov certainly never thought it was. In order to make a story at all they must steal the petty cash at the office, murder or leave their wives and when they eat cabbage soup it must be with emotion or significance. Cabbage soup thus becomes a symbol of the satisfaction of a domestic life or of the anguish of a frustrated one. It may then be as catastrophic as falling off an iceberg. But it is just as unusual. The simple fact that Chekhov believed what writers, being human, are very apt to believe, namely that what he was best able to do was the best thing to do.

So this is what Maugham sets out to do in this collection--make the otherwise mundane circumstances of life as catastrophic as falling off an iceberg, or symbolic of the anguish that comes with a frustrated life. The title of the collection now comes into sharper focus--Creatures of Circumstance. Each story within it follows a similar pattern--create a character, put that character in a circumstance, allow the drama of that character in that circumstance unfold to whatever consequence is significant or inevitable.

It is something he does with varying degrees of success, but most masterfully, I think, in the story called Sanatorium. In that story, the main character is a chap named Ashenden (the same name and, evidently, the same character as the narrator in Maugham’s Cakes and Ale), who is spending time in a sanatorium to recover from a bout of tuberculosis. While there, he becomes acquainted with a number of the other patients, including an accountant named Henry Chester.

He was a sticky, broad-shouldered, wiry little fellow, and the last person you would have ever thought would be attacked by t.b. It had come upon him as a sudden and unexpected blow. He was a perfectly ordinary man, somewhere between thirty and forty, married, with two children. He lived in a decent suburb. He went up to the city every morning and read the morning paper; he came down from the city every evening and read the evening paper. He had no interests except his business and his family. He liked his work; he made enough money to live on in comfort, he put by a reasonable sum every year, he played golf on Saturday afternoon and on Sunday, he went every August for a three weeks’ holiday to the same place on the East coast; his children would grow up and marry, then he would turn his business over to his son and retire with his wife to a little house in the country where he could potter about till death at a ripe old age claimed him. He asked nothing more from life than that and it was a life that thousands upon thousands of his fellow men lived with satisfaction. He was the average citizen.

Abundantly so. But, hark. What happens to this ordinary creature?

Then this thing had happened. He had caught a cold playing golf, it had gone to his chest, and he had had a cough that he couldn’t shake off. He had always been strong and healthy, and had no opinion of doctors; but at last at his wife’s persuasion he had consented to see one. It was a shock to him, a fearful shock, to learn that there was tubercle in both his lungs and that his only chance of life was to go immediately to a sanatorium, The specialist he saw then told him that he might be able to go back to work in a couple of years, but two years had passed and Dr. Lennox advised him not to think of it for at least a year more. He showed him the bacilli in his sputum and in an X-ray photograph the actively diseased patches in his lungs. He lost heart. It seemed to him a cruel and unjust trick that fate had played on him. He could have understood it if he had led a wild life, if he had drunk too much, played around with women or kept late hours. He would have deserved it then. But he had done none of these things. It was monstrously unfair. Having no resources in himself, no interest in books, he had nothing to do but think of his health. It became an obsession. He watched his symptoms anxiously. They had to deprive him of a thermometer because he took his temperature a dozen times a day. He got it into his head that the doctors were taking his case too indifferently and in order to force their attention used every method he could devise to make the thermometer register a temperature that would alarm; and when his tricks were foiled he grew sulky and querulous. But he was by nature a jovial, friendly creature and when he forgot himself he talked and laughed gaily; then on a sudden he remembered that he was a sick man and you would see in his eyes the fear of death.

These circumstances change him. They turn him into something he would not otherwise be, something that can no longer see the world as it once was. Even his loving wife, who comes to visit him regularly, fears what these circumstances have done to him.

“He’s beginning to hate me and it breaks my heart.”

“Oh, I can’t believe that,” [Ashenden said]. “Why, when you’re not here he talks of you all the time. He couldn’t talk more nicely. He’s devoted to you.”

“Yes, that’s when I’m not here. It’s when I’m here, when he sees me well and strong, that it comes over him. You see, he resents it so terribly that he’s ill and I’m well. He’s afraid he’s going to die and he hates me because I’m going to live. I have to be on my guard all the time; almost everything I say, if I speak of the children, if I speak of the future, it exasperates him, and he says bitter, wounding things. When I speak of something I’ve had to do to the house or a servant I’ve had to change it irritates him beyond endurance. He complains that I treat him as if he didn’t count any more. We used to be so united and now I feel there’s a great wall of antagonism between us. I know I shouldn’t blame him, I know it’s only his illness, he’s a dear good man really, and kindness itself, normally he’s the easiest man in the world to get on with; and now I simply dread coming here and I go with relief. He’d be terribly sorry if I had t.b. but I know in his heart of hearts it would be a relief. He could forgive me, he could forgive fate, if he thought I was going to die too. Sometimes he tortures me by talking about what I shall do when he’s dead, and when I get hysterical and cry out to him to stop, he says I needn’t grudge him a little pleasure when he’ll be dead so soon and I can go on living for years and years and have a good time. Oh, it’s so frightful to think that this love we’ve had for one another all these years should die in this sordid, miserable way.”

It is, in many ways, the basic outline of all of the stories in this collection, but here the most powerfully told. And when Maugham, in the figure of Ashenden, reflects on the painful drama that is the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Chester and the circumstances that has created it, we see as clearly as ever the bitter inspiration the storyteller must draw upon and the distance he must maintain to fully master his craft.

People often said he had a low opinion of human nature. It was because he did not always judge his fellows by the usual standards. He accepted, with a smile, a tear or a shrug of the shoulders, much that filled others with dismay. It was true that you would never have expected that good-natured, commonplace little chap to harbour such bitter and unworthy thoughts; but who has ever been able to tell to what depths man may fall or to what heights rise? The fault lay in the poverty of his ideals. Henry Chester was born and bred to lead an average life, exposed to the normal vicissitudes of existence, and when an unforeseeable accident befell him he had no means of coping with it. He was like a brick made to take its place with a million others in a huge factory, but by chance with a flaw in it so that it is inadequate to its purpose. And the brick too, if it had a mind, might cry: What have I done that I cannot fulfill my modest end, but must be taken away from all these other bricks that support me and thrown on the dust heap? It was no fault of Henry Chester’s that he was incapable of the conceptions that might have enabled him to bear his calamity with resignation. It is not everyone who can find solace in art or thought.

As I’ve commented before, this is what I enjoy most of Maugham’s work, this blending of character and story with artist and craft, the way his narrator, in interacting with the characters and events in the story, reveals equally the drama of the tale and the insights of the author.

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All of the stories in the collection contain some kind of conflict. That’s an essential part of the drama Maugham creates when he places creatures of differing circumstances into opposition with one another. Often times, the conflict is unresolvable, as the people in opposition are driven by wholly incompatible circumstances.

The most extreme example of this dynamic is in the story called The Unconquered, where Hans is a German soldier in occupied France during World War II, and Annette is a young French woman whom Hans first rapes and then, upon discovering that she is pregnant with his child, grows to love and honestly tries to woo into a loving marriage.

First, there are his circumstances, magnified by his view of himself and his nation as the conqueror…

He could think of nothing but Annette and her swollen body. She had been unbearably pathetic as she sat there at the table crying her eyes out. It was his child she bore in her womb. He began to feel drowsy and then with a start he was once more wide awake, for suddenly it came to him, it came to him with the shattering suddenness of gunfire; he was in love with her. It was such a surprise, such a shock that he couldn’t cope with it. Of course he’d thought of her a lot, but never in that way, he’d thought it would be a great joke if he made her fall in love with him, it would be a triumph if the time came when she asked for what he had taken by force; but not for a moment had it occurred to him that she was anything to him but a woman like another. She wasn’t his type. She wasn’t very pretty. There was nothing to her. Why should he have all of a sudden this funny feeling for her; it wasn’t a pleasant feeling either, it was a pain. But he knew what it was all right; it was love and it made him feel happier than he had ever felt in his life. He wanted to take her in his arms, he wanted to pet her, he wanted to kiss those tear-stained eyes of hers. He didn’t desire her, he thought, as a man desires a woman, he wanted to comfort her, he wanted her to smile at him--strange, he had never seen her smile--he wanted to see her eyes, fine eyes they were, beautiful eyes, soft with tenderness.

And then there are her circumstances, magnified by her view herself and her nation as the unconquered...

Hans’s face grew sullen. It had never occurred to him that Annette might care for anyone else.

“Where is he now?”

“Where do you suppose he is? In Germany. A prisoner and starving. While you eat the fat of our land. How many times have I got to tell you that I hate you? You ask me to forgive you. Never. You want to make reparation. You fool.” She threw her head back and there was a look of intolerable anguish on her face. “Ruined. Oh, he’ll forgive me. He’s tender. But I’m tortured by the thought that one day the suspicion may come to him that perhaps I hadn’t been forced--that perhaps I’d given myself to you for butter and cheese and silk stockings. I shouldn’t be the only one. And what would our life be with that child between us, your child, a German child? Big like you, and blond like you and blue-eyed like you. Oh, my God, why do I have to suffer this?”

In the end, the conflict created by their circumstances is unresolvable. Predictably, but horribly all the same, after receiving word that her fiancee has died in Germany and after giving birth to Hans’s child, Annette drowns the infant in the river that runs through her family farm.

Hans gave a great cry, the cry of an animal wounded to death; he covered his face with his hands and staggering like a drunken man flung himself out of the door. Annette sank into a chair and leaning her forehead on her two fists burst into passionate weeping.

And in the horror of that concluding paragraph, the reader is left to wonder if any of us is able to rise above the circumstances that seem to control our lives, or if, like Hans and Annette, we are creatures wholly beholden to them. Love, hate, happiness or sorrow--our circumstances, and not ourselves, are the very authors of our fate.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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