Finally, 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)