Friday, 30 January 2015

"The Force of Circumstance" in The Casuarina Tree by W. Somerset Maugham – Analysis


The Casuarina Tree (1926) by W. Somerset Maugham
The Casuarina Tree (1926)
W. Somerset Maugham

"The Force of Circumstance." The Casuarina Tree (London: Heinemann, 1926, 157–202)


This post is about a short story in the collection The Casuarina Tree by W. Somerset Maugham that I already discussed before, I mean the edition. However, a new addition (see below) warrants my revisit to the stories, that is if I need an excuse to reread Maugham’s books.

Analysis of “The Force of Circumstance”


This is not going to be a formal analysis in the academic sense. Just my ruminations after reading the story again.

I opened a random page of the collection The Casuarina Tree (1926) and landed on “The Force of Circumstance.” It was first published in 1924, two years before being collected in the short story volume.

Upon rereading the story ideas and questions whirled in my mind and I decided to sit down and try to sort them out and answer the question of why Maugham is a great story-teller.

Let’s start from the beginning.

We are seeing through the eyes of a woman who is waiting for her husband to come home. The place is most probably the Malay Peninsula, because a servant, “The Malay boy” (157) appears.

All the associations of the land that the reader knows about comes to mind, but then if you do not know about the place, it does not matter, because we are told that it is insufferably hot and dull.

The woman is not familiar with the place, because of her gesture of raising the blinds. There is nothing to see and the Malay boy has already drawn them so as to keep out the heat.

From the raised blind we have a glimpse of the outside.

The setting is ominous: “breathless sun,” “the white pallor of death,” “the colours of the day were ashy and wan” (157). The scene is grey and filled with monotony, not only the colour, but also the evocation of sound for the comparison with the heat: “(It was like an Eastern melody, in the minor key, which exacerbates the nerves by its ambiguous monotony...)” (157).

From the tones of the heat, compared to the sound of Eastern music, the narration shifts seamlessly into the description of real sound: “The cicadas sang their grating song with a frenzied energy; it was as continual and monotonous as the rustling of a brook over the stones” (157).

Then, we know that the woman is from England and in one way or another, which she admits or denies, she is homesick.
[...] but on a sudden it was drowned by the loud singing of a bird, mellifluous and rich; and for an instant, with a catch at her heart, she thought of the English blackbird. (157)

Now, let’s jump a few pages and look at the woman’s first impression when she arrives:
When the little coasting steamer set them down at the mouth of the river, where a large boat, manned by a dozen Dyaks, was waiting to take them to the station, her breath was taken away by the beauty, friendly rather than awe-inspiring, of the scene. It had a gaiety, like the joyful singing of birds in the trees, which she had never expected. On each bank of the river were mangroves and nipah palms, and behind them the dense green of the forest. In the distance stretched blue mountains, range upon range, as far as the eye could see. She had no sense of confinement nor of gloom, but rather of openness and wide spaces where the exultant fancy could wander with delight. The green glittered in the sunshine and the sky was blithe and cheerful. The gracious land seemed to offer her a smiling welcome.

They rowed on, hugging a bank, and high overhead flew a pair of doves. A flash of colour, like a living jewel, dashed across their path. It was a kingfisher. Two monkeys, with their dangling tails, sat side by side on a branch. On the horizon, over there on the other side of the broad and turbid river, beyond the jungle, was a row of little white clouds, the only clouds in the sky, and they looked like a row of ballet-girls, dressed in white, waiting at the back of the stage, alert and merry, for the curtain to go up. (166–7)

However, only the memory remains. If we go back to the opening scene, it agrees with the mental picture the woman had before she arrived, from what she read in books:
[...] she had formed an impression of a sombre land with great ominous rivers and a silent, impenetrable jungle. (166)

The first colourful impressions are all spent after four months. The mysterious, incomprehensible, and threatening landscape dominates the rest of the story:
The river stretched widely before them and on the further bank the jungle was wrapped in the mystery of the approaching night. (171)

At their feet, with a mighty, formidable sluggishness, silent, mysterious and fatal, flowed the river. It had the terrible deliberation and the relentlessness of destiny. (177)

The darkness thinned away and the river was ghostly. (199)

The dawn now was creeping along the river mistily, but the night lurked still in the dark trees of the jungle. (199)

The setting is a witness to the inevitability of the disaster that is pending to come.


But we are precipitating. Let’s go back to the beginning.

The woman’s husband arrives and the characters are introduced. According to Maugham's standard, we know that the couple cannot be long married and they are still in love. Immediately when she hears his footsteps, she rushes to meet him, while he hurries up the steps and is delighted to see her.

We follow Doris’s consciousness still and listens attentively to the activities of her husband Guy. The narrator tells us what we suspect already, that she loves him.

Guy is lovingly described, adorable actually; though he may not be a dashing character, he possesses all the redeeming features.

A few lines about the bath further remove us from what we are accustomed to, which accentuates the foreignness of the setting.

Doris, trapped in this strange land, which she is to call home, is happy.

However, we are not quite free from the underlying menace at the opening of the story and this apparent peace is soon disrupted.

The domestic space, which Maugham will promptly develops, is being invaded, and ignorant of the language, Doris (and the reader) cannot define what the danger is, except a sense of foreboding, encapsulated by the description of the first scene.

An innocent question about the children gives an inkling of what this is about. The dramatic tension is created by Doris’s declaration that she would have hated if Guy were to be like the other fellows, having a Malay wife, heightened by the silence imposed by the boy changing their plates.

Doris’s casual remark about being upset if she were to find out that Guy had lived with a Malay woman must have sent a chill down his spine.

We are then introduced to their routine, which is to be disturbed and transformed little by little by Guy gradually losing his nerve.

The ominous presence of the Malay woman and children refuse to leave them alone, like the river in the background, silent and impenetrable but ever watchful.

After Guy reveals his past, we lose Doris’s consciousness. Her thoughts are blocked from the reader and we only have her pretence to contend with.

On one hand, it keeps us in suspense about Doris’s final decision; on the other, it illustrates the impossibility of penetrating into the human mind.

Swiftly, Maugham moves on to Guy instead. Like Doris, he is attentive to the sound of her activities, but now forever blocked from his view.

We associate ourselves with Guy, anxiously waiting to see what is going to happen.

It is after Doris explains her decision that we go back to her. It is as if Maugham refuses to dwell on these people’s most painful thoughts. We can only observe others’ struggles, we are unable to share their pain. One is alone in one’s misfortunes.

The other elements in the story, the living room, the efforts that Doris puts into it, the furniture, are props symbolizing Englishness and nativeness. Guy’s ambiguity is represented by his ability to move in both space, further accentuated by his being born in Sembulu, not quite an Englishman in its strictest sense.

Once having made a choice, it is impossible to go back. Once Doris is gone, her influence goes with her. Her furniture is removed and Guy once again goes back to his loose native jacket and sarong.

Many questions arise.

What is the nature of love?

As we were made to believe at the beginning, though ordinary, Doris and Guy adore each other. Nevertheless, their love at the same time appears to be so frail, so vulnerable.

Is the Malay woman’s tenacity love? She overlooks the fact that Guy abandons her and marries someone else, tolerates the humiliation and rejection. Perhaps Doris is the one who understands her better. After Guy’s confession, her first question is:
“Is she jealous?” (184)

Of course, the inevitable question is: does anybody have a choice? Can all this be avoided?

Guy has a choice not to follow others’ examples. His justification is that “After all, the chief point was that he’d done the same as everybody else” (188), which is a very tricky moral question.

As we all know, this generates many other arguments and can we forgive a mistake because it is understandable or because many people have done the same?

Once succumbed to, let’s call it temptation, one thing leads to another and one simply cannot escape.

I doubt very much if Doris would marry Guy if she were to know the truth.

Of course she is treated unfairly. She is not given a choice.

Then Guy does not have to confess. However, it is perhaps most likely that Doris will find out at the end.

So then we go to Maugham’s perception of destiny.

Early on, in Of Human Bondage (1915), he already expounds the idea of the illusion of free will and inescapability of fate through Cronshaw’s mouth:

“The illusion which man has that his will is free is so deeply rooted that I am ready to accept it. I act as though I were a free agent. But when an action is performed it is clear that all the forces of the universe from all eternity conspired to cause it, and nothing I could do could have prevented it. It was inevitable.” (Of Human Bondage. New York: George H. Doran, 1915, 220)

However, later, in The Summing up, Maugham gives more thoughts to this:
I do not think it unreasonable to hold the opinion that everything in the universe combines to cause every one of our actions, and this naturally includes all our opinions and desires; but whether an action, once performed, was inevitable from all eternity can only be decided when you have made up your mind whether or no there are events, the events that Dr. Broad calls casual progenitors, which are not completely determined. Hume long ago showed that there was no intrinsic connection between cause and effect which could be perceived by the mind; and of late the Principle of Indeterminacy, by bringing to view certain events to which apparently no causes can be assigned, has cast a doubt on the universal efficacy of those laws upon which science has hitherto been based. It looks as if chance must once more be reckoned with. But if we are not certainly bound by the law of cause and effect, then perhaps it is not an illusion that our wills are free. (The Summing up. London: Heinemann, 1938, 288–9)

Guy has the choice to be content with what he has chosen, which, however, he is not. He wants an English wife.

As we said, it is unlikely that Doris would have accepted the truth, so he lies.

The uncalculated risk is that the Malay woman does not accept the situation. The possibility is that perhaps time will do its work, but then again, it may not. Or Guy will get the transfer that he wants if he waits, but then it may not. The Malay woman can keep coming back and Doris will finally find out what happened.

Guy panics and tells the truth.

Then, the responsibility rests in Doris. She has to decide what to do. She follows her feelings; she cannot possibly be Guy’s wife anymore.

Everything is logical.

Okay, enough of the heavy stuff.

The Casuarina Tree – Dust Jacket


The Casuarina Tree (1928) by W. Somerset Maugham
The Casuarina Tree (1928), stripped
I was excited because I got another copy of a later edition of The Casuarina Tree (London: Heinemann, 1928), which comes with a dust jacket for $5. I grabbed it and put the later dust jacket on my first edition.

Cheating? Well, yes.

I rest my case.

The first edition of The Casuarina Tree with dust jacket now costs from over $1,000 to over $4,000.

"The Force of Circumstance" can be read here.


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How to cite this:


The Casuarina Tree at AbeBooks

2 comments :

  1. Breaks your heart, this story, doesn't it? Perceptive point about determinism. I don't know if Maugham realised it, but with this story he made a strong case against free will (as did Shakespeare with "Macbeth", probably without having the faintest idea). Doris is a smart gal. She knows her decision is entirely irrational. But she can't help it. The circumstances of his upbringing have conditioned her feelings (read "subconscious"). The force of circumstance(s) indeed. I am reminded of one of Willie's early notes (from 1896):

    "The intellect is such a pliable and various weapon that man, provided with it, is practically bereft of all others; but it is a weapon of no great efficacy against instinct."

    I am not going to protest, but I should like to observe that this "stripped" 1928 edition looks a lot like mine, only in better condition. Cute volume.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, it's heart-rending. Macbeth is one of my favourites of Shakespeare. I had to study it and I don't know how many times I read it. Like this story it is frightening.

      Great quote, thanks.

      Delete