Thursday, July 20, 2017

"The Outstation" (1924)

Story by W. Somerset Maugham not available online.

I thought this story by W. Somerset Maugham was pretty good, though unfortunately marred by comparison with an earlier and better story in the collection with similar themes by Joseph Conrad, "An Outpost of Progress." Both are set in British colonies across the globe and involve conflicts encountered by the white men stationed there. Conrad is concerned with the violence and barbarism of colonialism, whereas Maugham appears to have more the portability of the British class system on his mind, with an exotic background that somehow forces the conflict. It's as effective in its way as the Conrad, but not as visceral. Maybe that's what I miss. Maugham's story has the more interesting characters. It's told third-person omniscient, mostly from the point of view of the ranking white man, Mr. Warburton, at a Malaysia station of a private trading company. Warburton is an effete upper-class toady, a carefully defined "snob." His new assistant, Mr. Cooper, is a blustering fellow on the rise from the working class. He is competent in his work, but rejects the dress and manner of Warburton as phony. Cooper knows well on a blunt level the injustice of the class system, but it is Warburton who is more capable of kindness to "inferiors." Cooper beats and mistreats his servants, calls them "niggers," and can't understand Warburton's objections any more than he can understand the requirement to dress for dinner. Warburton is caught by the situation, as Cooper is too good at his job to move him elsewhere and replace him. They modulate from being strained with one another, to hostile, to quarreling, and finally they stop speaking altogether. "Each lived in his own house as though the other did not exist." I don't think I'm giving too much away if I let you know that going from bad to worse is the basic narrative arc here. But here also is where the comparison with Conrad becomes apt again. Maugham continually erects a stiff upper lip British sensibility around the details that leaves things just a little more distanced than I think is called for. These characters are complex and interesting and in vital conflict with one another. I wanted it all more out in the open—or perhaps a better view of the inside—and the result of the disaffection is that the conflict feels slighted a little, as if it were something proposed as a thought experiment of some kind. Or is that just the comparison with the Conrad again?

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

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