W. Somerset Maugham, The four Dutchmen (#Review)

W. Somerset Maugham, Collected Short Stories Volume 4Finally, an excuse to mention W. Somerset Maugham here – and the excuse is, as Aussie literary fiction followers will probably know, that Mirandi Riwoe’s Stella shortlisted novella, The fish girl, is a response to (was inspired by) Maugham’s short story “The four Dutchmen”. I don’t usually feel I need to read the original work in these situations but given the original here was a short story and given it gets Maugham into this blog, I decided to read it.

Before I get to the story, I must explain that one of the reasons I’d like Maugham here is because I was astonished some years ago to discover just how many of his novels, short stories and plays had been adapted to film. Wikipedia says that he was “one of the first authors to make significant money from film adaptations”. So, having seen several of the films and read a few of his books, I’ve wanted him here – albeit Maugham described himself as “in the very first row of the second-raters”!

“The four Dutchmen” has not, as far as I know, been adapted to film, but it makes interesting reading. In his introduction to the volume of collected stories which includes this one, Maugham says that “most of these stories are on the tragic side. But the reader must not suppose that the incidents I have narrated were of common occurrence.” He then describes how the majority of the people in the Asian regions from which the stories come are decent hardworking people, but

they are not the sort of people I can write stories about. I write stories about people who have some singularity of character which suggests to me that they may be capable of behaving in such a way as to give me an idea that I can make use of, or about people who by some accident or another, accident of temperament, accident of environment, have been involved in unusual contingencies.

The four Dutchmen – a captain, chief officer, chief engineer, and supercargo on a Dutch tramp – are such people. The four fattest men our narrator ever knew,

They were the greatest friends, all four of them; they were like schoolboys together, playing absurd little pranks with one another.

And in such a way, the first person narrator (ostensibly the author) sets them up as jolly, cheery men for whom having a good time was more important, say, than winning money from each other at bridge. After all,

‘All friends and a good ship. Good grub and good beer. Vot can a sensible man vant more?’


… the captain was very susceptible to the charms of the native girls and his thick English became almost unintelligible from emotion when he described to me the effect they had on him. One of these days he would buy himself a house on the hills in Java and marry a pretty little Javanese. They were so small and so gentle and they made no noise, and he would dress her in silk sarongs and give her gold chains to wear round her neck and gold bangles to put on her arms.

The last two sentences here comprise the epigraph Riwoe uses to open The fish girl – but more on that next week.

What happens is that the captain brings a Malay girl on board, against the wishes of his friends, and tragedy ensues – as our narrator pieces together from later newspaper reports and the hotel manager. It’s a story about friendship and loyalty, envy (probably) and revenge. But it’s also about colonial attitudes to local inhabitants, and about men seeing women as objects or toys to be played with and discarded at will.

The interesting thing is Maugham’s attitude. What is it? This is not a didactic story. The first person narrator makes no specific commentary on the rights and wrongs of the four men’s behaviour, but seems to act rather as observer and reporter. However, I think we can glean some opinion. He initially finds them fun to be with, but there are hints that he sees them lacking in substance. At one point he says “to me not the least comic part of them was their serious side” and a little later he comments ironically, after the chief had made an egregious statement, that he “had a philosophic soul”. His, the narrator’s, concluding comment seems off-hand – as if it’s just another story about characters he’s met. And maybe that’s all it is to him, but I’d say there’s ironic intent behind the reference to the “comic and celebrated friendship”.

It’s somewhat more difficult to pin down his attitude to the young woman who is first referred to as “pretty little Javanese”, then “a little thing” and “Malay girl”, before finally being characterised as “brazen hussy”, “bad rubbish”, and “trollop”. She has no voice at all in “the story” – but these descriptions of her are reported rather than his own, so again I’d say he is asking us to consider the attitudes and values he portrays. Anyhow, next week I’ll review Riwoe’s post-colonial response to the story.

Meanwhile, I’d love to know what you think of Maugham (if you’ve read him)?

W. Somerset Maugham
“The four Dutchmen” (1928)
in Collected short stories, Vol. 4
(Selected by Maugham himself)
London: Vintage Books. (Orig. pub. 1951)
ISBN: 9781409076421 (ePub)

33 thoughts on “W. Somerset Maugham, The four Dutchmen (#Review)

  1. I used to love reading Maugham stories when I was a teenager, but later I realised that he generally disliked or had a low opinion of women, as you suggest about men seeing women as objects or toys. I found out only much later about his sexuality.

    • Hi Anna, yes, that’s exactly where I’m at. The sexuality is not so much the issue of course, but the attitude to women is a concern. I feel like I should read books like The razor’s edge again! But here, it’s a little tricky to know whether he is really mainly concerned to tell the story about the Dutchmen’s falling out or wants is also commenting on the particular behaviour that brings it all about. WE can read it as commentary and take away from it the lessons WE see BUT what was his concern? Is he the neutral observer pushing us to think or?

  2. Hi Sue, I am a fan of Somerset Maugham. I was a late comer in reading Maugham, I didn’t
    read until the early 80s, I have not read all his books but loved The Razor’s Edge and of Human Bondage. I have read many of his short stories. His characters and their behaviour is spot on. I do have his book A Writer’s Notebook, which he began when he was 18. Great observations of himself, people and places he encounter. I have The Fish Girl on reserve at the library.

    • Thanks Meg. I was a fan too – and read those two books you loved. His Writer’s notebook would be interesting. It is, though, in the light of contemporary thought to wonder about his attitudes to some things. We have to accept that they are of his times – but of course there are attitudes and attitudes – and teasing those out is interesting. The fish girl is an excellent read. I’ll post on it after my Monday musings. For once I’m a bit backed up!!

  3. Like ablay1 above, I first read Maugham when I was a teenager. My high school had collections of his stories in its library. Much of Maugham’s oeuvre belongs to the Far East parts of the British Empire, the chic parts of continental Europe, and the rather gentlemanly espionage of the First World War and after. He has a way of inhabiting the exotic while reminding you of its depravities and degradations – it was he, after all, who first said that the French Riviera was a sunny place for shady people – all in his clipped, matter-of-fact prose style. But, as you’ve pointed out, he was clearly not particularly emancipated from many prevailing male and Western attitudes to culture, gender, and behaviour. H.E. Bates’ short story “The Good Corn” is another good example of a supposed “seductress” being positioned as malign and despicable, without her viewpoint or desires ever being aired (I studied that one in high school, too.)

    Many of the anecdotes that form the basis of Maugham’s stories were sourced from his lover Gerald Haxton; it was he who would hang around the bars and gaming tables while they were travelling, gossiping with other habitues and listening to their scandalous goings-on. Maugham had a miserable childhood that was quite devoid of affection, and he remained emotionally reserved ever afterwards. His life included his training and practice as a physician, his early success as a novelist and a dramatist for the London stage, a tortured marriage to a woman he struggled with sexually and came to despise, a passionate involvement with a brilliantly sociable but dissipated man (Haxton) who ruined himself with alcohol, a dramatic evacuation from Cap Ferrat on the deck of a freighter ahead of the advancing Nazis in 1940, and a terrible, senile feud with his daughter over her inheritance, which was essentially instigated by his jealous live-in companion. How do I know all this? I got it from Selena Hastings’ excellent biography “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham.” It’s a fascinating book about a fascinating life.

    • Thanks very much Glen. I read some of that story on Wikipedia but you’ve breathed some life into it! It can certainly be useful to know an author’s biography, though it adds to the challenge of assessing his work – or, more accurately I suppose, our response to it – doesn’t it?

  4. I think Maugham is underrated. Writers go in and out of fashion, and, yes, he probably held attitudes that we would find unacceptable but it’s been a long time since I read the stories and I’d have to go back and read them to confirm that. But I did read Of Human Bondage recently and found it terribly powerful, in all senses of those words. The biography sounds terrific, and it will be interesting to hear more about The Fish Girl. Thanks, WG.

    • Thanks Sara. It is interesting about that fashion thing isn’t it? Maugham and Greene for example could probably both do with a bit of a revival. I’m certainly not put off reading him, because I do like his writing and would be interested to read more to see what I think about what he seems to believe and is saying.

      I have deleted your “edit” comments and have edited you original comment to what I think you wanted. Let me know if I need to do something else. It’s very irritating that you can’t edit comments you make on other blogs. I think you should be able to edit your own comment. It’s particularly hard getting it right on smart phones I’ve found!

  5. I must confess I don’t find much about the girl and her “value”. To me the story is much more about the stupidity of the captain, and how the friends could foresee problems if he bought a girl aboard, but he be couldn’t.

    To me, when they finally call her a “slut”, this is more to justify their actions, rather than what she is. Indeed, the narrator is not willing to outright blame her for being with the chief officer, instead, suggesting that perhaps he instigated it for revenge against the captain.

    If I were, heaven forbid, ever to have an affair, I certainly wouldn’t want it with a slut. That would suggest I showed no judgement at all :-!

    I vaguely recall reading one of Somerset Maugham’s short stories at high school, from a collection of short stories. I shall have to read more of her his works, after I’ve finished “The Rosie Project”.

    • Thanks Neil for your assessment. I agree that the story is more about the captain and his friends – and that the “trollop” description is ore about them than about her. I think though that it’s more than just justifying their actions, that it represents an attitude to women in particular, and to Asian women even more particularly.

      Are you reading The Rosie project for your book group? It’s an enjoyable read, don’t you think?

      • You could be right in your assessment. I rarely use these terms, but if I hear that an older man has dumped his wife and taken up with a much younger woman, my instant reaction is to call her a trollop. Sad but true.

        Sorry, I meant “The Rosie Effect”. I read Project a few years ago. Just for my own edification, the bookclub choice this month is “The curious charms of Mr Pepper”. I know others find the Rosie books funny. I’m a bit squeamish about this. He has Asperger’s, that’s what he does. Different? Yes. Funny? Well, not sure!

        • Hmm, that’s a bit double-standard Neil!

          Must say I enjoyed The Rosie Project but didn’t feel I needed to read another one, but then I’m not much of a one of series books. I get bored quickly!

        • Double standard? Perhaps. I haven’t told you what I call him in this situation, and I can’t because this is a family blog!

          (I called my eldest daughter a dill, recently, and was castigated from all sides. I didn’t apologize, since I thought her actions less than prudent, and I certainly got her attention!)

        • Haha, Neil, no you didn’t. I would have castigated you too for calling her that, as Len will commiserate with you. The behaviour may have been imprudent but she’s not a dill (I’m sure, though I haven’t met her!)

  6. On finishing “The Fish Girl” I sought out “The Four Dutchmen” and read it. At first, I wondered if Somerset Maugham wanted the reader to notice how the girl had been used, both by the Dutchmen and by himself. Now I believe that he is not pushing any line. He just wants to tell a good story, and everything else serves that purpose. The Dutchmen’s treatment of the girl parallels his own use of her, and reflects how women are seen and treated – by him and by others. “The Fish Girl” is a powerful rejoinder to “The Four Dutchmen”. Riwoe’s depth of characterization enables her to exact a sort of revenge on Maugham. I found it gripping.

    • Hi Bryce, thanks so much for this. That’s what I’m toying with too – is it just a story and nothing else for him or is it more? I’m open to persuasion because of the odd hints but the tone is challenging me. Regardless though of what we think Maugham was doing, Riwoe’s response is wonderful, I agree. Have you written it up? If you did I’ve missed it in my inbox.

    • Oh, that’s great Lisa. I’d be interested in what you think. It’s not very long.

      Do you reckon your two-volume edition is an edition of the four-volume one he put together I think.

  7. I really enjoyed reading your Christmas gift of The Fish Girl and I look forward to your review next week. As for your question about experiences with Somerset Maugham, I remember liking Of Human Bondage way back in my twenties, and thinking that the movie, the Painted Veil, was beautiful, but I’d have to revisit them with the awareness of sexism and marginalization that I hope I’ve gained with age. It’s interesting that the fish girl (forgot her actual name Maya? Mana?) was not only a victim of the Dutch, but also of her village and its hierarchy.

    • So glad you like it. I feel like you, that I need to re-read this books with contemporary eyes.

      And yes, one of the points I’ll make in my review is that there’s a colonial aspect to Mina’s treatment, but also a wider gender issue. I like the way Riwoe made that point.

  8. I like his self-ranking, in the first row of the second raters, there’s plenty of those around!

    I live and work in an environment, WA mining, where bachelors actively seek out Asian women because they’re smaller (more like girls than women) and supposedly better looking and more obedient – all a bit suss. Of course WSM didn’t have any idea that he should critique this behaviour, but it goes without saying that we should.

    • Haha, yes, I liked that too Bill – particularly as he says “the VERY first row” of them.

      I wouldn’t say “Of course” he “didn’t have any idea that he should critique” the behaviour because what they did was murder for a start and they got away with it because she was only “a trollop”. I think anyone, any time could be expected to critique murder of a defenceless person as she was? However, I agree that it doesn’t stop us looking at it with our ideas. Again, a reason for reading contemporary stories – and seeing how they depict a time and place – isn’t it.

      As for that seeking out of Asian women, yes, I agree a bit suss because it does seem that many are looking for someone “cute” and “submissive”.

  9. I read a lot of his books as a teenager and really enjoyed them, but that was back in the 1970s. I’m now wondering what I would think of them nowadays.

      • I read and enjoyed a lot of Maughm’s fiction years ago. I would almost say that any reader who enjoys fiction at all must appreciate his craftsmanship and that rather cynical, rather tolerant authorial pose is an excellent platform for short stories.

        • Thanks Ian. Yes, that’s a good point about his “pose” or “voice”, I might say, being a good platform for short stories. I will try to read more of them.

  10. I love Maugham, I think his greatest strength as a writer was how deeply he saw into life and how sharply he observed human nature. Some of that human nature was less than noble, he told the story anyway. I don’t see the value in criticising a long dead author because his writing doesn’t conform to your current political ideology. He can’t defend himself and the charges are pointless anyway.

    • No, I agree Lewis about not criticising, but it can be worth pointing out the disconnects in times that result in our reading older works through different eyes, and thus seeing different things. It can be a fine line though.

      I like Maugham too. A great story-teller.

  11. Hi – I find this hard to write politely. Will have a go. I find Maugham’s work to be sexist, racist and Empire-driven. In this story he can’t even bother to give the Dutch he meets names, with the excuse that the main character can’t say them. And the attitude to the Malay woman…? “brazen hussy” and “trollop”. I can’t bare this man’s writing. Full stop.

    • Fair enough Shelley. I appreciate your comment. As I’ve written in this post, I find it hard to decide whether those attitudes are Maugham’s or his narrator’s or, sometimes, the narrator’s reporting the other character’s? I’m not 100% sure, but I understand your response.

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