Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Outstation - W. Somerset Maugham

Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Date: 1924
Setting: Borneo, in the 1920's
Availability: Read The Outstation on line, free

(note: there are numerous typos), or order a Maugham anthology below

Story: A British gentleman, Mr. Warburton, is in charge of an Outstation in the colony of Borneo. We learn that he is there because he tried to live a life rubbing elbows with the peerage in Britain, which was a little above his station. In so doing, he gambled a lot, and lost all his money. The standard solution to that problem, at that time, was to go to a distant colony.

In Borneo, Mr. Warburton has managed to create a nice little slice of the world, very much to his liking. He gets along well with the natives, and although he is revealed to be a snob in many ways, he does not feel that way toward the Malays at all.

The story opens as his new assistant, a young Australian, Alan Cooper, arrives by boat. Mr. Warburton has misgivings before Cooper even arrives. He has been the only white man in the area for years, and he’s quite content with that situation. But he greets Cooper politely, recognizing that travel is a dirty business, shows him to his bungalow, and invites him to come to the main house for dinner.

Mr. Warburton dresses for dinner, as is his custom, in full British formal style. Cooper shows up in his dirty, casual clothes. The clash between these two men’s attitudes toward civilized life begins, and goes downhill from that point. Cooper does not respect the natives at all and does not want to listen to Warburton’s recommendations of how to get good work from them. Cooper reads Warburton's newspapers, enraging the Brit, and finally calls Warburton “a snob” to his face, which is just the final straw.

Commentary: This is a realistic tale where there is no clear hero and villain. Each of the men has good qualities and serious failings. Warburton represents everything that is both bad and good about the British Empire of the 19th Century. Although he tends to think that he is better than most other white men, Warburton does not think of other races as inferior. Cooper represents the brash, new attitude toward life where no class of persons is better than another. But he is clearly racist, and treats the Malays as little more than slaves.

The inability of these two men to come to any sort of compromise leads to a self-imposed isolation from each other, at this outstation, where they should be looking for ways to find things they have in common. Once each has thoroughly offended the other, there is no way to extricate themselves from a descending spiral of attitudes and actions that leads to the tragic conclusion.

Author info: W. Somerset Maugham, 1875-1965, was born to an English family who served in the British Embassy of Paris. But his mother died when he was eight, and his father also died just two years later. Maugham was unhappy at school and developed a stutter, which he retained for his entire life.

Although his guardians had many ideas of an appropriate career for him, Maugham desperately wanted to be a writer. He did complete medical school, but soon thereafter, concentrated on writing. By 1914 he was already famous as an author.

Unusual Words:
prahu- a double-hulled sailing boat
topee- a pith helmet
Dyak- natives from the interior of Borneo, sometimes headhunters
songkok- a hat similar to a fez

Language skills 10
Depth of meaning 10


1 comment:

  1. I see this as a story of irony. Both characters are not part of the "in" crowd. Mr. Warburton is jeered by the higher levels of society by being a snob, which was a snobbish thing in itself to do. He was tolerated, as he was useful to lose at cards, make small loans, and was always properly thankful to be allowed to operate on the fringes.

    Cooper had everything against him, not being from England, attending a respected private school, and not even a dignified rank during WWI. However, instead of trying to ingratiate himself with the inner circle, he relished the part of the outsider.

    So the conflicts came when Warburton and Cooper had diametrically opposed philosophies about the fate they shared due to being "on the outside looking in."

    This struck me as a truth I see today when I see Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street react differently to being the political "have nots" in this country, and they end up taking on each other instead of confronting the people responsible for the frustration they share.

    In the end, Cooper and Warburton end up making each other miserable, since Cooper's personality is to push away those who push him away, while Warburton is drawn to those who would keep him at arm's length. Both disapprove of the other's mechanisms to handle rejection, and they remind each other daily that this rejection is felt, even though the both put on a brave front for themselves, if not for each other.


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