The Fall of Edward Barnard

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The Fall of Edward Barnard

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading

W. Somerset Maugham


W. Somerset Maugham's short story "The Fall of Edward Barnard" was published in The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands in 1921 (available from Replica Books). The story is principally about two young men from Chicago, Bateman Hunter and Edward Barnard, who have been friends since their college days. They are in love with the same woman, a Chicago socialite named Isabel Longstaffe. For reasons of business, Edward travels to the South Sea island of Tahiti. He is expected to return in two years and marry Isabel. But after a while, Edward discovers that he likes living on the island, and he has no plans to return. Bateman travels to Tahiti and tries to persuade Edward, whom he believes to be wasting his life, to return to Chicago. But Edward, who has discovered a new set of values in Tahiti, refuses to change his mind. He plans to marry a Tahitian girl and spend the rest of his life in this tropical paradise.

Thematically, "The Fall of Edward Barnard" deals with a clash of cultures between East and West. Maugham uses much irony to ensure that the East, where life is lived closer to nature, is seen in a better light than the materialistic West, as represented by Bateman and Isabel. The story also presents ideas about the role the social and cultural environment plays in shaping human character, and it illustrates Maugham's dislike of conventional morality.

Author Biography

William Somerset Maugham was born at the British Embassy in Paris on January 25, 1874. His mother died when he was eight and his father, an English lawyer, died when Maugham was ten. Maugham was sent to England to live with his uncle, a clergyman, and his aunt in Whitstable. He attended King's School in Canterbury, then spent over a year in Germany. From 1892 to 1897, Maugham attended medical school at St. Thomas's Hospital in London, receiving an M. D. degree. However, he had no desire to practice medicine, wanting instead to be a writer. His first novel, Liza of Lambeth, was published in 1897.

The next ten years constituted Maugham's literary apprenticeship. He published four more novels and a collection of short stories, Orientations: Short Stories (1899). He also wrote plays, but in that genre he had no initial success. But in 1907 his play Lady Frederick ran for over a year in London. It was the first of twenty-nine of his plays that would be produced over the next twenty-six years.

From 1914 to 1915, at the outset of World War I, Maugham served with a British ambulance unit and with military intelligence in Geneva. In 1915, he published what many regard as his finest novel, the autobiographical Of Human Bondage, which has twice been made into a movie. The following year, he visited the South Sea islands, which were to inspire several short stories, and in 1917 he was chief agent in Russia for the British and American secret services.

Although Maugham had homosexual tendencies throughout his life, he married Syrie Wellcome in 1917. They had a daughter, but the marriage was not happy, and the couple divorced in 1929.

Maugham's career continued to flourish and plays, novels, short stories and travel books poured from his pen. His major works from this period include three plays, The Circle (1921), Our Betters (1923), and The Constant Wife (1927); three short story collections, The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (1921), The Casuarina Tree (1926) and Ashenden (1927); and three novels, The Moon and Sixpence (1919), based on the life of Paul Gauguin, The Painted Veil (1925) and the comic novel, Cakes and Ale (1930).

Maugham's literary output remained prolific throughout the 1930s. He wrote three more novels, The Narrow Corner (1932), Theatre (1937), and Christmas Holiday (1939), as well as three more short story collections, and The Summing Up (1938), an autobiographical sketch.

During World War II, Maugham lived in the United States where he wrote one of his most important novels, The Razor's Edge (1944), as well as The Mixture as Before (1940), a collection of short stories. He published his last novel, Catalina in 1948.

By the 1950s, Maugham was perhaps the most widely read novelist of the century. In his old age he continued to write, publishing two collections of essays, The Vagrant Mood (1952) and Points of View (1958).

Maugham died at his villa on the French Riviera on December 16, 1965, at the age of ninety-one.

Plot Summary

"The Fall of Edward Barnard" begins as Bateman Hunter is returning home to Chicago after a trip to Tahiti. He has some vital news to tell Isabel Longstaffe, a young woman he greatly admires, but he is unsure of how to convey it.

Bateman's father meets him at the train station. He asks about Edward Barnard, but Bateman says he would rather not talk about him. When they get home, Bateman calls Isabel, and she invites him to dinner that night. After dinner with her parents, Bateman and Isabel talk alone. She asks whether Edward Barnard is coming back, and he says no.

Then Bateman tells her his long story, and the narrator also gives the reader the background to what happened. Bateman and Edward are old friends, and they were both in love with Isabel. But Isabel chose Edward, and they were engaged to be married. But then Edward's father met with financial disaster, and Edward, who no longer had any money or prospects, arranged to join the business of a family friend named Braunschmidt. Braunschmidt is a South Sea merchant who owns a branch agency in Tahiti. The plan was for Edward to work in Tahiti for one or two years, learning the business, and then return to take up a position in Chicago. Isabel agreed to wait for him.

Before Edward's departure, his father warned him to stay clear of Arnold Jackson, his brother-in-law, who was the black sheep of the family, having served time in prison for financial fraud. Jackson was living now in Tahiti.

In Tahiti, Edward regularly wrote to Isabel. All seemed well, except for the fact that after a while Edward made no mention of returning to Chicago. Isabel was puzzled but not alarmed. Then Bateman heard that Edward no longer worked for Braunschmidt, having been fired for laziness and incompetence. Bateman decided to go on a business trip to Honolulu and return via Tahiti, to find out what was going on with Edward.

When Bateman reached Papeete, Tahiti, he was surprised to find that Edward was known to the locals as Arnold Jackson's nephew. He eventually found Edward, who was working as a salesman at a trading store. Bateman was surprised to find him in such a humble position, but Edward appeared to be perfectly content, happy, and relaxed.

They returned to Bateman's hotel, where they drank cocktails on the terrace. They were soon joined, to Bateman's confusion and alarm, by Arnold Jackson. Jackson invited them both to dinner that night at his house. He said his wife was a good cook, which puzzled Bateman who knew that Jackson had a wife in Geneva. In the conversation that ensued after Jackson left, Edward revealed his admiration and affection for Jackson, to Bateman's further consternation. Bateman resolved to find out why his friend was so attached to a man Bateman regarded as reprehensible. He also noted that his friend's values seemed to have changed.

Jackson's house was on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and when Edward and Batman arrived, they went bathing. Jackson joined them, wearing a pareo, the native dress. As the three men walked back to the house, Edward was also dressed in a pareo, but Bateman insisted on wearing his own Western clothes. At the house, Jackson spoke with great idealism and spirituality, and Bateman had to remind himself of the man's unsavory history. Jackson's beautiful young daughter Eva mixed a cocktail for them, and Jackson spoke unself-consciously of his prison days. Bateman was embarrassed and angry. His discomfort increased when Eva placed on his head a garland of flowers that she had made.

After dinner the three men talked on the verandah. Jackson told romantic stories of the history of

the island. After Jackson left them alone, Edward told his friend that he was happy in Tahiti and had no plans to return to Chicago. Bateman urged him to rethink, saying that he had succumbed to evil influences. Edward then explained how he had changed since he arrived in Tahiti two years before. At first he had been full of energy and had many ideas for how the island could be developed and modernized. But gradually he came to like life the way it was in Tahiti, with its ease and leisure and its good-natured people. He found he had time to think and read, and he realized that everything he had formerly thought to be important—the bustle and industry of a large city—seemed trivial. Now he valued beauty, truth, and goodness. He said he still admired Isabel and was prepared to marry her if she held him to his promise, but it was clear that this was not what Edward really wanted. Edward then said that Bateman should marry Isabel instead. Bateman was shocked, but he felt some exultation over the idea. Edward went on to say that he planned to marry Jackson's daughter and move to a small island a thousand miles away. Jackson owned the island and had offered to give it to him. Bateman once more was bewildered and perplexed, thinking that his friend was wasting his life. But Edward looked forward with zest to his future. He believed he would live a peaceful and happy life.

After Bateman finishes telling Isabel his story, she realizes that the situation is hopeless. She knows she will not be able to persuade Edward to return, and she declares that Edward is his own worst enemy.

Bateman then blurts out his love for Isabel, and she says she loves him, too. As they embrace, it is clear that they will marry. Bateman thinks of his glowing future in business, and Isabel thinks of all the antique furniture she will be able to acquire and the cultured life they will lead together.


Edward Barnard

Edward Barnard comes from a well-off family in Chicago and is Bateman Hunter's best friend. But just after Edward becomes engaged to a suitable young lady, Isabel Longstaffe, his father loses his fortune. Edward is left penniless and is forced to do his business apprenticeship in Tahiti, thanks to the assistance of a family friend. Everyone expects great things from Edward, since he is handsome, capable, energetic, and ambitious. But the longer Edward stays in Tahiti, the more his values change. After two years there, he no longer aspires to become a captain of industry in Chicago, or to marry Isabel. On the contrary, he is quite content in a humble occupation in Tahiti, an island he has come to love. He has learned tolerance and understanding. Bateman implores him to return to Chicago and not waste his life, but Edward believes that he can best realize his new ideals of beauty and goodness in the South Seas.


Eva is Arnold Jackson's beautiful young daughter by his wife Lavina. Edward Barnard plans to marry her.

Bateman Hunter

Bateman Hunter is Edward Barnard's best friend from their college days. They both fall in love with Isabel, but Bateman is magnanimous when Isabel chooses Edward. Bateman remains a loyal friend to both of them, keeping his real feelings for Isabel in check. He does not envy them their happiness. Bateman is ambitious about his career in a conventional kind of way, but his greatest virtue is his loyalty to his friend. When he travels to Tahiti, he has only Edward's best interests at heart, but his encounter with an alien culture reveals some less appealing aspects of his personality. He is rigid, priggish, and stiff, unable to appreciate values and lifestyles other than his own. When faced with life in Tahiti, he is continually uncomfortable. He refuses to wear native clothes and is embarrassed when Eva places a garland on his head. He cannot relax but remains aloof and disapproving. However, Bateman's motivations are impeccable, and he is a man of unshakable integrity. Only when it is certain that Edward and Isabel will not marry does he confess his love for her. He and Isabel seem to have every chance of happiness since they both have the same materialistic values.

Mr. Hunter

Mr. Hunter is Bateman Hunter's father. He is a wealthy Chicago businessman, the owner of Hunter Motor Traction and Automobile Company. He built his own house in the city to resemble a chateau on the Loire.

Arnold Jackson

Arnold Jackson is Isabel's uncle and the black sheep of the family. Many years before the story begins, he had a successful career in Chicago as a respected banker and was a philanthropist and church member. But he was convicted of fraud and served seven years in prison. His crimes involved such consistent and widespread dishonesty that there was nothing to mitigate his disgrace. His relatives never mentioned his name again, and his wife and children had to move to Europe to escape the stigma.

Jackson ended up in Tahiti. When Bateman visits the island, he desperately wants to avoid him but is unable to do so, since Jackson and Edward have become close friends. Jackson turns out to be rather different from the man Bateman imagined him. Bateman expects to find a rogue and a scoundrel, but Jackson is courteous and charming, an engaging storyteller and a perfect host. He speaks of his incarceration without embarrassment and appears to be happy and content. He loves the South Seas and accepts life serenely as it comes to him. Edward regards him as generous and kind, the most agreeable companion he has ever known.


Lavina is Arnold Jackson's second wife. She is a native of Tahiti.

Isabel Longstaffe

Isabel Longstaffe comes from one of Chicago's elite families. She is educated, cultured, sophisticated and is a fine conversationalist. She is also slim and beautiful. Her personality is virtuous and upright, with an unyielding sense of honor. But she is also rigid in her judgments which once made, she never changes. Both Bateman and Edward love her. After she and Edward become engaged and Edward departs for Tahiti, she waits patiently for his return. She never doubts his love, but when she hears the bad news about his change of heart, she quickly accepts it and wastes no time on grieving. She is quick to pass adverse judgment on Edward, saying he is his own worst enemy and that he lacks backbone. When she accepts Bateman's marriage proposal, she is happy because she knows she will have a large house with antique furniture (just like the one she grew up in) and will be able to give concerts and have dinner parties with all the most cultured people in Chicago.

Mr. Longstaffe

Mr. Longstaffe is Isabel's father. He advises Edward to avoid any contact in Tahiti with Arnold Jackson, his brother-in-law.


Culture Clash

Central to the story is the clash between Western and Eastern values and cultures. Bateman sums up the Western way of seeing things when he says, in answer to Edward's question about how a man gets the best out of life, "By doing his duty, by hard work, by meeting all the obligations of his state and station." Bateman, as an embodiment of the Chicago spirit of the 1920s, values money and power. He justifies this by saying that these assets help to create jobs for many people.

In contrast to the eternal hustle and bustle of Chicago, which is emblematic of Western civilization as a whole, is Tahiti. In this haven of the East, the leisurely, relaxed pace of life and the friendliness of the people suggest a completely different set of values. Much of this is shaped by the warm climate and the sheer beauty of the region, which seems to belong less to time than to eternity. For example, this is the view from the verandah of Arnold Jackson's house: "The full moon, sailing across an unclouded sky, made a pathway on the broad sea that led to the boundless realms of Forever."

Edward soon finds in Tahiti that the Western values he formerly lived by were pointless. The things that mattered to him before no longer matter, as Isabel astutely deduces from his letters. Edward decides that the city life he has turned his back on is just a monotonous, draining routine of going to an office each day to work until nightfall and pursuing the same trivial round of leisure pursuits. Worldly ambition now means nothing to him, and Chicago seems like a prison.

If in the West there is an emphasis on achievement, progress, and the conquest of nature, the East prefers to live in harmony with nature. In place of the Western notion of progress is the value of acceptance, of taking life as it comes and as it is. But to Bateman's Western mind, living by this alien set of values is nothing more than a "living death." He tries to convince Edward that he has been "breathing poisoned air." Bateman is entirely blind to the irony of an heir of the Hunter Motor Traction and Automobile Company talking to an inhabitant of the unpolluted South Seas about poisoned air (although to be fair to Bateman, few people in the 1920s could have been aware of the ill effects of air pollution by the automobile).

But Edward believes that it is in the Eastern paradise of Tahiti that he can best live according to his new values of beauty, truth, and goodness. Tahiti also stimulates him to a spiritual view of life. He believes that he has discovered his own soul in his life on the island, and he refers to the New Testament passage that says it will not profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul. Thus the dichotomy between the cultures of West and East is given a religious dimension—it is the West, of course, (in Edward's view) that gains the world but at the price of losing what is most valuable about life.

Bateman, on the other hand, believes he can find such things as beauty and truth in Chicago. He is himself a man of integrity, and the story does not entirely favor the East at the expense of the West. He and Isabel value great art, for example, although in Bateman's case this is somewhat undermined by his motivations, as he thinks of the great collection he plans to amass. He simply wants to outdo New York, which is Western competitive spirit at its best (or worst, depending on one's point of view). Western art in any case is an artificial creation, quite different from the natural, artless beauty of the South Seas, a beauty that even Bateman is forced to acknowledge as he looks out of the window at Jackson's house:

[Y]ou saw the vast calmness of the Pacific and twenty miles away, airy and unsubstantial like the fabric of a poet's fancy, the unimaginable beauty of the island which is called Murea. It was all so lovely that Bateman stood abashed.

Nature versus Nurture

The story explores the old debate about whether people are what they are because of certain innate qualities (nature) or because they are shaped by the environment in which they live (nurture). The latter is clearly the case. Isabel, for example, is presented as a product of her environment. Bateman believes that "no city in the world could have produced her but Chicago." Bateman and Edward, before Edward leaves for Tahiti, are also products of their environment. Their values and ambitions have been entirely shaped by the big city environment in which they were raised. Chicago is presented as the most important city in America. Although it is crowded, full of traffic and noise, Bateman does not regard this as a disadvantage. On the contrary, he sees it as the embodiment of a strong collective will to develop the city industrially and so create the kind of wealth that his family, as well as Isabel's, enjoys.

It is because of the importance of environment in molding character that Edward undergoes such a profound change after arriving in Tahiti. At first he is the quintessential American, full of plans to bring the blessings of industrial and technological development to a backward portion of the world. But after a while, the climate, the beauty of the island, and the easygoing, relaxed people all work to change him.

Topics for Further Study

  • Which is more important in shaping a person's personality: his genetic inheritance or his social environment? In other words, is "nurture" more important than "nature," as the story would seem to suggest? If so, are people no more than the products of their environment? How might you be different had you grown up in a different environment?
  • Research the topic of intercultural marriage. What are some of the problems typically encountered by people marrying someone from a different culture?
  • Do you think that Edward made the right choice or is Bateman right in thinking that he is wasting his life? Can their different sets of values be reconciled, or must a person always choose one or the other? Can one have what Edward wants—beauty, truth, and goodness—as well as the material values of American life?
  • Research the effects of the French colonization of Tahiti and other South Sea islands. What were the effects of colonialism? Were the islands helped or hindered by it? What role do the French play in French Polynesia today?
  • In 1995 and 1996, there were riots in Tahiti over the issue of French nuclear testing in the region, which had been going on since 1966. Research this issue. What were the rights and wrongs involved?



The title of the story "The Fall of Edward Barnard," is ironic. A statement is ironic if its real meaning is different from the one that is asserted on the surface. In this story, the irony unfolds gradually. When the name of Edward Barnard is first mentioned on Bateman's return to Chicago, Bateman's face darkens, and he says to his father, "I'd sooner not speak about him, Dad." At this point the reader has every reason to suppose that something bad has indeed befallen Edward Barnard. But as the hints unfold in Edward's letters, the reader begins to question whether something else may be the case.

At the same time, Maugham sets up another thread of irony in the story, with the introduction of Arnold Jackson. Jackson is another man who has supposedly fallen. Formerly a respected figure in Chicago society, he served time in prison for financial fraud. So when Bateman travels to Tahiti, he is expecting to find a rogue and a scoundrel, someone beyond the pale of civilized society. But the man he encounters does not fit this expectation. Nor does Edward fit into Bateman's expectations of meeting a man who has failed at his profession and been branded lazy and incompetent.

At this point, the irony becomes so pervasive that it amounts to what is sometimes called structural irony. This is where the irony occurs in more than the odd statement or two; it is central to the author's strategy. In this respect, Bateman functions as what is called a naïve hero, because he fails to see what is obvious to the reader. For example, he insists on interpreting Jackson's character from his own previous expectations. He cannot accurately perceive the man who is in front of his face and so is confused by what he sees and hears. He cannot make the mental leap required to reassess the situation. Here, for example, is the description of Jackson and Bateman's reaction: "His voice was deep and resonant. He seemed to breathe forth the purest idealism, and Bateman had to urge himself to remember that the man who spoke was a criminal and a cruel cheat." The reader immediately appreciates the irony of Bateman's obtuseness.

The same is true for Bateman's perceptions of Edward. He cannot see what is obvious to the reader. When he first sees Edward in Tahiti, for example, he notices something is different about him, but he cannot put two and two together and reach the conclusion that Edward is happy in Tahiti: "He [Edward] walked with a new jauntiness; there was a carelessness in his demeanor, a gaiety about nothing in particular, which Bateman could not entirely blame, but which exceedingly puzzled him."

The irony brings into focus Bateman's basic assumptions (and perhaps the reader's) about what is valuable in life, what success might consist of and what the purpose of life might be.

The final irony in the story turns on Bateman himself. As Bateman clasps Isabel in his arms, Maugham clearly intends the reader to see a superficial couple dreaming empty, materialistic dreams about the future. The surface meaning of the words does not necessarily suggest this, but when taken in the context of the story as a whole, the ironic intention is clear. And the final words of the story, "Poor Edward," uttered by Isabel, also have a different, ironic meaning for the reader than they do for Isabel.

Narrative Technique

Maugham utilizes the technique of the frame story. This occurs when there is a story within a story. The frame in this story is the Chicago setting with which the narrative begins and ends. It is largely concerned with Bateman's interactions with Isabel. In between is the story of Edward and his Tahitian adventure. The frame story is a common technique in both ancient and modern literature. The best known example is probably Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

Point of View

Maugham adopted, for part of the story, the form of the omniscient third-person narrator, who can see into the minds and emotions of all the characters. However, much of the story is told only through Bateman's point of view. This is known as a limited third-person narrator. The reader only knows events and people as they are seen through the eyes of the viewpoint character. During the part of the narrative set in Tahiti, for example, Edward and Jackson are seen entirely through Bateman's eyes, which adds to their mystery and enables Maugham to deepen the irony on which the meaning of the story rests.

Historical Context


Tahiti was first discovered by Europeans in 1767, in the expedition of the English Captain Samuel Wallis. Louis-Antoine de Bouganville followed in 1768, claiming the island for France. England's Captain James Cook followed in 1769. The island is actually two islands that are joined together by a small isthmus. Papeete, where much of "The Fall of Edward Barnard" takes place, lies on the northwestern coast. It is the biggest town on the island. The island of Moorea (Murea in the story) lies about twelve miles northwest of Tahiti.

Tahiti was ruled by the local Pomare dynasty until 1880, when the French assumed control. (The French influence can be detected in the name of the hotel de la Fleur in the story.) In 1891, the French artist Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) visited Tahiti, and the exotic location gave him inspiration for his art. He remained there for two years and returned in 1895.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1920s: Because of its excellent harbor, Papeete, the largest town in Tahiti, has been a center of trade since the nineteenth century. Products shipped from Papeete include copra, sugarcane, vanilla, and coffee. The port is also used often by whaling ships, and it is the seat of the French governor.
    Today: With its modern harbor and airport, Papeete is a major tourist destination and a center of transpacific trade. It is also the seat of the Territorial Assembly, which is the legislative body of French Polynesia. The Assembly consists of forty-one members elected by popular vote. French Polynesia is made up of 130 South Pacific islands, which together constitute a French Overseas Territory. Tahiti, the largest island, has been fully in charge of its internal affairs since 1984. The Territory as a whole has benefited from a five-year development agreement with France that from 1994 to 1998 created many new jobs.
  • 1920s: Chicago is a rapidly growing city. In 1920, the population is 2,701,705; by 1930, this figure climbs to 3,376,438. Chicago also gains a reputation as a lawless city, typified by the activities of the gangster Al Capone. During the 1920s, Capone controls the gambling industry, brothels, nightclubs, distilleries, and breweries. His income is reported to be $100 million.
    Today: In 2000, the population of Chicago is 2,896,016. The population had been falling steadily since the 1950s, but it stabilized in the 1990s. The Sears Tower, built in 1973, is the tallest building in North America and the third tallest in the world. It is 1,450 feet tall (a quarter of a mile), with 110 stories. Chicago has three of the fifteen tallest buildings in the world. In addition to the Sears Tower, these are the Aon Center and the John Hancock Center.
  • 1920s: Colonization by European countries of much of Asia and Africa continues to produce literature written by members of the colonizing nations in which they report and reflect on the colonial experience. Writers such as Maugham, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, and E. M. Forster make their mark in this field.
    Today: The age of colonialism is over, and a new genre of literature, known as postcolonial literature, has sprung up. The term refers to literature written mostly by African and Asian authors in the period following their nations' independence from the colonizing European powers. Examples of postcolonial literature include Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India, V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River, and Vikram Chandra's Red Earth and Pouring Rain.

Maugham had long read about the South Sea islands and formed a romantic notion of them before his trip there in 1916. When he arrived in Papeete, he noted a strong English and American influence, although there was also a decidedly French flavor, since the island was a French colony. French, as well as English and Tahitian, was spoken by the native people. Maugham noted that the roads were as well kept up as many roads in France and that the marketplace might have been in any French village.

Maugham and his traveling companion, Gerald Haxton, were shown several paintings by Gauguin at a house thirty-five miles from Papeete, one of which Maugham purchased and took back to France. Maugham's novel, The Moon and Sixpence (1919) was set largely in Tahiti, with a protagonist modeled on Gauguin.

Maugham also took a boat trip to the island of Murea. This is his description of a native dwelling:

The native houses are oblong, covered with a rough thatch of great leaves, and made of thin bamboos placed close together which let in light and air. There are no windows, but generally two or three doors.

The Short Story

Maugham was influenced by the short stories of the French writer Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893), whom he read when he was young. Maugham admired de Maupassant because the French author knew how to tell an interesting anecdote and all of his stories had a beginning, a middle and an end, and they did not wander—qualities that Maugham's stories also possess. Maugham did, however, fault de Maupassant for being weak on character development.

Maugham points out in his writings about his own craft how his work differs from that of the Russian writer Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), one of the acknowledged masters of the short story genre. Chekhov was very influential on many writers at about the time Maugham was writing his South Sea stories. Although Maugham admired Chekhov, he thought he was not a good storyteller, since he wrote mostly about character and atmosphere and so his stories do not have well-developed plots.

Maugham himself was not an innovator, and he did not develop the short story in the way that some of his contemporaries, such as Virginia Woolf or D. H. Lawrence, did. In terms of their form, his stories belong more to the nineteenth century.

Literature of Colonialism

In his South Sea stories and others set in the East, Maugham stands in the tradition of the literature of colonialism. The major writers in this mode before Maugham were Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) and Joseph Conrad (1857–1924). Kipling was a master of the short story, who lived for seven years in India when it was under British rule. He wrote of the problems encountered by the English colonials who lived in India amongst a subject people. Conrad made effective use of his experiences in Malaya and Africa.

Contemporary with Maugham were writers such as George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene, all of whom wrote of the colonial experience from a British point of view. E. M. Forster's novel A Passage to India (1924) also deals with similar issues.

Critical Overview

"The Fall of Edward Barnard," as well as many of Maugham's other South Sea stories, were originally published in a commercial magazine. The story then appeared as one of six in the collection The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (1921). The volume was popular with the reading public and received some critical acclaim. Louise Maunsell Field, in the New York Times, admires Maugham's delineation of character, in which "there is a broader sympathy, a deeper, clearer comprehension, a finer tolerance than any shown in his earlier work." Rebecca West, however, is more critical. Writing in the New Statesman, she censures Maugham for a "certain cheap and tiresome attitude towards life, which nearly mars these technically admirable stories." She accuses Maugham of being cynical for satirizing the earnestness of Bateman Hunter in "The Fall of Edward Barnard."

During the 1920s and beyond, in spite of the fact that Maugham's works in many genres enjoyed huge popular success, he was relegated by the British literary intelligentsia to second-rate status. For a while it became fashionable to denigrate his achievements. However, Maugham was more highly regarded in French, German, and American academic circles.

Maugham's South Sea stories have withstood the test of time well. They are often rated as amongst Maugham's best work, and some modern critics have commented directly on "The Fall of Edward Barnard." Stanley Archer describes it as an "ironic and lighthearted sequel to Henry James's novel The Ambassadors." Forrest D. Burt draws attention to the similarities between three Maugham characters: Edward in "The Fall of Edward Barnard," Strickland in the novel The Moon and Sixpence, and Larry in the novel The Razor's Edge. All three characters reject "standard morality and traditional success in favor of the naturalness and spontaneity of life in Tahiti." Finally, Archie K. Loss, in W. Somerset Maugham, comments that in all of the South Sea stories, "descriptive details are important in establishing both mood and character."


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey points out some parallels to the themes of Maugham's story in other literary works.

In his evocation of the naturalness of life in Tahiti as contrasted with the seemingly artificial, pointless life led by many in Chicago, Maugham takes the side of his character Edward. Any doubt about this can be eliminated by consulting Maugham's reflections on his life and career, The Summing Up (1938). In section fifty-three, Maugham writes of his experience in the South Seas, saying that his encounter with the East supplied him with "a new self." He had been accustomed to thinking that the most important things in life were art and culture (rather like Isabel in the story). But in the South Seas, he entered a new world in which the people were unlike any he had known before. Few of them had any culture, but they had more vitality than people in the West. They lived a more elemental life and did not disguise themselves with the masks of culture:

They had learnt life in a different school from mine and had come to different conclusions. They led it on a different plane; I could not … go on thinking mine a higher one. It was different. Their lives too formed themselves to the discerning eye into a pattern that had order and finally coherence.

This could almost be Edward in the story, trying to explain himself to an uncomprehending Bateman.

In the opposition between nature (Tahiti) and culture (Chicago) that drives the story, "The Fall of Edward Barnard" has many literary echoes. This can be seen not only in the work of other writers of the period who tackled the meeting of East and West (Kipling and Conrad, for example) but also in the themes of the romantic movement in the early nineteenth century. Maugham's back to nature theme might, for example, be illustrated by William Wordsworth's two poems "Expostulation and Reply" and "The Tables Turned" from Lyrical Ballads (1798). These poems, like "The Fall of Edward Barnard," contain a dialogue between two men with opposing opinions. One values culture as preserved in books and counsels hard work. The other, who speaks for Wordsworth, finds his fulfillment not in books but in silent communion with nature. He tells his friend to "Come forth into the light of things, / Let Nature be your teacher."

The debate is couched in different terms by Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his two poems "Ulysses" and "The Lotos Eaters," which were inspired by Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. In "Ulysses," the great virtue is active endeavor. Having returned to his home on Ithaca, Ulysses cannot bear to remain idle. Like the ever-questing, ever-expanding, and progressing Western civilization, he longs to seek out new knowledge and adventures. In "The Lotos Eaters," on the other hand, the people drug themselves into a state of passivity with the fruit of the lotos. They forget their homeland, their own civilization, and are content to rest forever in their calm, dreamy paradise. The two poems illustrate two modes of being, the active and the passive, and in that they resemble the Chicago and Tahiti of "The Fall of Edward Barnard." Interestingly, this is exactly the position Bateman takes when he tells Edward that his infatuation with the island is like that of a "dope-fiend." He tries to convince Edward that when he gets back to Chicago and pursues an active life again, he will feel relieved to have weaned himself from the drug.

In his use of a framing device to tell his story, Maugham creates yet another literary echo, this time of a common pattern in Shakespearean comedy. In a number of these comedies, the action begins in the real world of the city or court (the equivalent of Chicago in the story) and then moves quickly to a "green world" in which life is lived in a purer way (the equivalent of Tahiti). Finally, the action moves back to the city. This is the pattern found in As You Like It, for example. The green world of the Forest of Arden is a place where the characters are freed from their normal social selves and are able to discover deeper values of life, just as Edward and Arnold Jackson do in the "green world" of Tahiti.

The literary echoes in the story are not confined to earlier themes in English literature. The other stories in The Trembling of a Leaf (the collection of stories in which "The Fall of Edward Barnard" appears) also provide valuable commentary, pointing up certain themes in the story, modifying our perception of others. For example, "The Fall of Edward Barnard" is the most optimistic story in the collection, and a reader might well suppose that Edward is set for a happy life with his native bride in his South Sea paradise. But reading "Red" and "The Pool" might lessen the reader's belief that such an intercultural marriage can work. In Maugham's stories, fate does not treat lovers with much kindness, and the ultimate results of the encounters between Western men and Eastern women are rarely happy.

In "Red," a young American sailor named Red deserts from his warship and ends up on one of the islands of American Samoa. Like Edward Barnard in Tahiti, Red is enamored of the island, falls in love with a young native girl, and decides to stay. He and the girl live happily for a while, but when a British whaling ship arrives on the island, Red feels a longing for tobacco. Going onto the ship to obtain some, he is kidnapped by the captain who needs an extra hand on board. Many years later, Red, now ugly and fat, returns to the island for one nostalgic visit to the place where he and his girl used to live. The girl is still there but is now an old woman who does not even recognize him.

"The Pool" has an even more negative outcome. Lawson, a young Scotsman in Samoa, falls in love with the island and with a half-caste girl named Ethel. They marry and like Red, are happy for a year or so. But when Ethel gives birth to a son who is dark and looks like a native child, Lawson realizes that the boy will be discriminated against by the whites on the island, so he persuades Ethel to accompany him back to Scotland. But Ethel cannot settle down in the cold climate of Scotland, and as soon as she can, she returns to Samoa with her son. Lawson follows, but he cannot find work on the island and becomes an alcoholic. When he discovers that Ethel is having an affair with another man, he drowns himself in the pool where they first met.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Maugham's Collected Short Stories (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, Viking Press, 1992), contains every short story that he wrote, including the eighteen that resulted from Maugham's travels in the South Pacific and southeast Asia.
  • In the South Seas (Penguin Classics edition, 1999), by Robert Louis Stevenson, is a travel book that records Stevenson's two-year journey from the Marqueses Islands in French Polynesia to Tahiti, Honolulu, and Samoa in the late nineteenth century.
  • Tales of the South Pacific (Fawcett, 1989), by James A. Michener, won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Set in the South Pacific during World War II, it shows how the people of the region were caught up in the conflict.
  • Rudyard Kipling's classic novel Kim (1901, reprinted by Viking Press, 1992), is set in India during British rule. Kipling's portrait of Indian life is sympathetic, and the contrast noticeable in "The Fall of Edward Barnard" between the active way of life of the Westerners and the more contemplative, spiritual life of the indigenous population is apparent in Kim as well. The story is about the adventures of Kim O'Hara, who grew up on the streets of Lahore, the orphaned son of an Irish soldier stationed in India.

In "Rain," one of Maugham's most famous stories, he develops a theme that is also apparent in "The Fall of Edward Barnard:" a dislike of conventional morality. In the latter story, Arnold Jackson is a man condemned by his society as a cheat and a felon. But Maugham refuses to go along with this judgment. He presents Jackson as a sympathetic figure: kind, generous, and wise. It is the more conventional characters, Bateman and Isabel, who are the object of Maugham's satire.

Maugham's target in "Rain" is the conventional Christian morality of the Davidsons, a missionary couple who are temporarily stranded at Pago-Pago, the capital of American Samoa, on the island of Tutuila. The Davidsons are a dreadful pair. Mrs. Davidson is disgusted by the "natives." She thinks their dancing is immoral, and she and her husband agree that the native dress, a loincloth called a lava-lava, is indecent. That too, according to Mrs. Davidson, encourages immorality, and her husband believes that the island will not be Christianized until every boy over ten years old is made to wear trousers. Eventually he cooks up a scheme whereby the natives are fined every time they "sin," and one thing deemed a sin is not wearing trousers. Maugham's biting irony is in fine form here. Interestingly, the same subject comes up in "The Fall of Edward Barnard." Edward and Arnold Jackson feel comfortable wearing the pareo, a loincloth, which is the native costume. But Bateman is embarrassed by the pareo and insists on wearing his high-collared blue serge suit, which seems inappropriate given the local climate. The contrast is part of the nature versus nurture theme. In the more "primitive" society, there is no shame or embarrassment at showing the body, whereas in "civilized" society the body is always covered.

In "Rain," the racism of Mrs. Davidson, who does not trust the natives to do anything right, draws attention to an element that also appears in "The Fall of Edward Barnard," although it is not given great prominence. That element is the disparaging remarks Bateman makes about the native inhabitants of Tahiti. When he notices that the young man who shows him to his hotel has "a good deal of native blood," he involuntarily adopts a haughty manner toward him. Then he refers to one of the customers at the store where Edward works as a "greasy nigger." The racism creeps into little remarks made by Bateman with no ill intent, as when he seeks to reassure Isabel that Edward is a fine fellow: "He's white, through and through." Bateman's racism is unconscious; he has probably never thought much about it. He simply reflects the attitudes that many white people of his time and place shared. They would no more question their belief in white superiority than they would question whether the sun would rise in the morning.

The Davidsons in "Rain" believe in the superiority not only of their race but also of their religion. They also believe in the absolute rightness of their moral principles. But Maugham shows what happens when people get too high and mighty about their own righteousness. The zealous Reverend Davidson is appalled about the presence of a prostitute in the same house where they are staying; he harries and bullies her and cruelly insists that she be put on a ship for San Francisco, even when he knows that she faces a three-year prison term there. He also indulges in long drawn-out prayer sessions with her in order to convert her. But then, one morning, Davidson commits suicide by cutting his own throat. It transpires that in one of his sessions with the prostitute he had himself fallen prey to lust. Afterwards, he could not live with the knowledge that he had betrayed his own code of behavior.

The moral is that often, underneath the veneer of virtue, lie darker forces that will eventually, when circumstances dictate, rise to the surface. A similar truth emerges in "The Fall of Edward Barnard," although it manifests the other way around. Behind the appearance of vice in Arnold Jackson is a more virtuous self, which life in Tahiti brings to light. Appearances, Maugham seems to be saying, are one thing; reality is another.

On balance, the South Sea stories in The Trembling of a Leaf reveal more of the perils than the pleasures that lie in wait for the white man who ventures into one of these apparent tropical paradises. The final example is "Mackintosh." Unlike Edward Barnard, Red, and initially Lawson, Mackintosh hates the Samoan island on which he is an assistant administrator. He does not like the heat, which he would willingly exchange for some cold winds in his native Aberdeen, Scotland, and he is tormented by mosquitoes. (How different this is from the idyllic setting of Tahiti.) He feels like a prisoner on the island. When his boss is killed by the natives whom he regarded as his children, Mackintosh cannot bear the guilt he feels, since he allowed the killer to steal his gun, and he shoots himself.

Maugham never forgot his travels to the East which continued to provide material for his fiction. As late as 1944, in his novel The Razor's Edge, he returned to the same theme. Larry, an American from Chicago, travels to India in order to find greater meaning in his life. Like Edward Barnard, he rejects materialism and seeks a more spiritual life. But over the long-term, he does not fare well. Perhaps the reader who enjoyed "The Fall of Edward Barnard" and sympathized with its protagonist can be glad that Maugham chose to pursue Edward's story no further than his early dreams of happiness in the South Seas.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "The Fall of Edward Barnard," in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.


Archer, Stanley, W. Somerset Maugham: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1993, p. 26.

Burt, Forrest D., W. Somerset Maugham, Twayne's United States Author Series, No. 399, Twayne Publishers, 1993, p. 106.

Field, Louise Maunsell, Review of The Trembling of a Leaf, in W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, edited by Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987, pp. 148–51; originally published in the New York Times, November 20, 1921.

Loss, Archie K., "W. Somerset Maugham," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 162: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1915–1945, edited by John H. Rogers, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 227–39.

——, W. Somerset Maugham, Ungar, 1987, p. 78.

Maugham, W. Somerset, The Summing Up, in The Maugham Reader, Doubleday, 1950, p. 608.

——, The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands, Replica Books, 2002.

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West, Rebecca, Review of The Trembling of a Leaf, in W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, edited by Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987, pp. 153–54; originally published in New Republic, November 5, 1921.

Wordsworth, William, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, edited by R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, Methuen, 1965, p. 105.

Further Reading

Brander, L. Somerset Maugham: A Guide, Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1963.

This concise guide to the whole of Maugham's work includes a chapter on the short stories. In his comments on "The Fall of Edward Barnard," Brander emphasizes the return to nature theme.

Curtis, Anthony, Somerset Maugham, Macmillan, 1977.

This well-illustrated book attempts to give a broad-brush portrait of the writer and his world.

Morgan, Ted, Maugham: A Biography, Simon and Schuster, 1980.

This is the most reliable and complete biography of Maugham. Morgan discusses Maugham's fiction and plays in detail and shows how the events of Maugham's life are reflected in his work.

Raphael, Frederic, W. Somerset Maugham and His World, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977.

This overview of Maugham's life and work contains 110 illustrations.

Whitehead, John, Maugham: A Reappraisal, Barnes and Noble, 1987.

Whitehead attempts a close scrutiny of all of Maugham's works, declaring that although many of them are ephemeral, Maugham at his best ranks with the great novelists of the early twentieth century. Whitehead also regards Maugham's Eastern stories as his finest and rates them as highly as Kipling's Indian stories.

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The Fall of Edward Barnard

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