The Outstation by Somerset Maugham, 1926

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by Somerset Maugham, 1926

Although the much-traveled Somerset Maugham is famous for his short stories with a Malayan setting, he did not spend all that much time in the country. He first visited what was then the British Colony of the Federated Malay States in 1921. His stay lasted for six months, three of them passed in a sanatorium in Java due to illness. His second and last visit came in 1925, when he was there for four months. This was enough, however, to collect the material he sought. During his travels through remote jungle places he would put up for the night at the homes of colonial officials who had not seen a compatriot for months on end and who accordingly were bursting with chat and tales to tell. In the capital, Kuala Lumpur, he talked with people in clubs and carefully stored up the gossip, stories, anecdotes, and reminiscences they were only too glad to pass on. Unlike certain other Malayan stories, "The Outstation" cannot be traced directly to a real person or place, although it probably had its germ in something told to Maugham over a hospitable gin pahit. It vividly illustrates his primary interest, which was to study the reactions of his compatriots when placed in an exotic context. "The Outstation" first appeared in the collection The Casuarina Tree (1926).

The story concerns a Mr. Warburton, the resident of a distant outstation in Borneo who always dresses for dinner at a set time every night, chooses his courses from a menu in French, and is waited on by Malay servants immaculately turned out. He peruses The Times, especially the social news of lords and ladies, even though it arrives six weeks late. He has disciplined himself to read each issue in strict sequence, however much he is longing to know the course of certain events. When he is on duty, his attire is invariably perfect, for he believes that if a man succumbs to the influences around him and loses his self-respect he will also lose the respect of the natives. Warburton is the complete snob. Yet over the years he has evolved into a skillful administrator and has acquired a profound knowledge of, and affection for, the Malays, their customs, and their language, although he remains an English gentleman who will never "go native."

An assistant is sent out to help him with the extra work that has developed. The assistant, a shabby, blunt-spoken man named Cooper, is everything Warburton is not, and he is at first amused by the stately dinner routine and chuckles at the resident's pomposity. Cooper has been neither to public school nor to a university, and during the war he served in the ranks. "I wonder why on earth they've sent me a fellow like that?" Warburton thinks to himself, especially when he learns that his assistant, a colonial with an inferiority complex, bullies the Malays and treats them harshly. In return Cooper earns their dislike. Small irritations become large ones between the two men. The impious Cooper tears open Warburton's sacrosanct copies of The Times and dares to read them first and leave them in an untidy condition. Then Warburton is obliged, for perfectly valid reasons, to countermand one of Coop-er's orders to his men. Their mutual antagonism erupts into a violent confrontation when Cooper accuses him openly of being a snob and humiliates him by reporting that he is a standing joke among his colleagues up and down the country. But Warburton has the last laugh. Cooper sacks his Malay servant, having held back his wages, treated him with injustice, and insulted him. Warburton, from his deep acquaintance with the passionate and vengeful mind of the Malays, warns him that he is running a grave risk. Cooper disdains him, but a few days later he is found in his bed, a dagger through his heart. Warburton settles down again happily to his ceremonious dinners for one, in full evening dress, and to his thrilled absorption in the social columns of The Times.

It is one of Maugham's great strengths that he does not take sides but rather lays out the facts with apparent objectiveness in order to round out his characters. Warburton is an outrageous snob, but he is also a just administrator who is respected by the Malays, whom he instinctively understands and among whom he wishes to be buried when he dies. Cooper is a racist cad, tactless and uncouth, but within his limits he is conscientious and hardworking, grimly determined to get the most out of those whom he is employed to supervise. Local color is deftly touched in to highlight the encounter between two types of men who, because of their different social classes, would never have met in England, whereas in Malaya their close juxtaposition emphasizes the unbridgeable gulf that separates them. Maugham's eye for dramatic effect lends the narrative a power that propels the story to its inevitable end. Speaking of the stories in The Casuarina Tree, Maugham observed, "I have the impression that they are rather tight and I believe that I could attempt with advantage a greater looseness of construction. Have you not noticed that the tightrope walker skips now and then in order to rest his audience from a feat too exactly done?" However that may be, "The Outstation," which the contemporary critic Edwin Muir declared to be "one of the best stories written in our time," remains a prime example of Maugham's gift for taut structure. Here, as in the other stories in the volume, he builds up an intricate mosaic through the accumulation of significant detail that only a master craftsman knows how to distinguish and apply.

—James Harding