Salvatore by W. Somerset Maugham
About the author .. Rarely has English literature produced such a prolific short story writer, playwright, and novelist as Dr. Somerset Maugham(1874-1965). This literary genius, born in a family of legal luminaries, spurned a career in law, although it offered him assured success. He studied medicine, and qualified as a doctor, but rarely practiced what he had been trained for. Except a stint with the Red Cross, Somerset Maugham never took to treating patients. However, his encounter with many poor suffering patients during his medical education had a profound influence on him. He began writing when he was in college studying to become a doctor. His first novel, ‘Liza of Lambeth’ dealt with infidelity prevalent among middle class men and women during those times, and the painful consequences of such unfaithfulness among spouses. The book soon flew off the shelves, giving Maugham a flying start to Maugham’s literary ambitions.
Maugham was born in France, educated in England, and lived in Spain. He travelled extensively throughout South East Asia and India observing the ways of the Eastern societies. In his six decades of writing life, he turned out many spectacular novels, short story collections and even thrillers. ‘The Magician’ (1908) captivated thriller-loving readers. At one time, London’s four opera houses were simultaneously running four of Maugham’s plays. This speaks volumes about the way the readers loved Maugham’s writings.
Maugham had a flawed romantic life, that raised eyebrows in the contemporary Victorian society, but his literary brilliance overshadowed this little distortion.
About this story ‘Salvatore’ .. This short story is set in a tiny remote fishing village in Italy. It centers around Salvatore, a young 15-year-old happy-go-lucky lad who had grown up in a fisherman’s family. He whiled away his time blithely in the sea beach. Salvatore had two young siblings, who gamboled in the shallow waters of the sea. When they went a bit far, Salvatore used to yell at them to come ashore.
Salvatore found his sweet-heart, but draft duty came first …The scrawny Salvatore stepped into his adulthood sooner than later. He was enamoured of a girl from Grande Marina who bore her charm with dignity. The courtship went on, but Salvatore couldn’t marry his sweetheart. He had to complete his conscription in the navy, before he could settle down. It was a daunting, but inescapable obligation that made Salvatore nervous and fearful. It was not the horrors of battle, but the prospect of leaving home that made Salvatore anxious.
Aboard the naval ship, in a sailor’s uniform, Salvatore gazed at the horizon and remembered the sunset over Ischia that he used to watch every evening. This island situated to the north of the Gulf of Naples looked majestic when the sun dipped into the horizon. Salvatore yearned for Marina. The pangs of separation from her filled his mind with gloom. Salvatore was very forlorn.
In far away China, lonely and sick …His ship passed through Spezzia, Venice, and Bari before reaching China. Misfortune awaited Salvatore at China. He was afflicted by a debilitating disease, and had to be admitted to a hospital in that distant country. The doctor said that Salvatore had contacted a virulent strain of rheumatism, and wouldn’t be able to do heavy manual work for the rest f his life. The hospital’s findings came as bolt from the blue for Salvatore, but it brought huge relief to the home-sick and love-sick young man. He knew he would be discharged from the navy forthwith. That meant deliverance from the battleship, and most importantly, an early return to his lady love. It cheered Salvatore to the point of being ecstatic.
Back home, but ‘no show’ by his girl ..Salvatore headed home. In the final lap of his journey, he was rowed ashore to the beach where his parents, friends, and a whole crowed waited for him. Salvatore looked at them gleefully, but there was one person missing. The Grande Marina girl was not there to welcome her darling home. It puzzled Salvatore. The waiting crowd kissed and hugged Salvatore, but he missed the kiss of his most wanted. His fiancee’s absence filled Salvatore’s mind with angst.
Hard realities bite and the young lady slips away .…..Salvatore’s mother said that she had not seen the girl for two or three weeks. It added to his anxiety. He couldn’t wait any longer. As dusk fell, he went to his beloved’s house the same evening to meet her. To his great distress, he got a cold stare from her. She stood detached. He asked her if she hadn’t received the letter he had written about his return. He told her reassuringly that the doctor’s diagnosis was a bit exaggerated, and he would soon be fit and fine. Again, the maiden showed no emotion. Salvatore looked quizzically into her eyes, but she remained aloof. Finally, she dropped the bombshell. In clear terms, she told Salvatore that he was crippled, and couldn’t work hard enough to earn a living. So, she had decided to go by her father’s decision that she must marry someone else fit enough to be the bread earner of the family. She told that it was her family’s unanimous decision. Her father simply couldn’t give her to a man who can’t slog like an able-bodied fisherman.
Salvatore trudged back home with the grief gnawing at his heart incessantly. Back home, he discovered, to his dismay, that his family members were aware of the girl’s decision, and they had held back the news from him.
Salvatore was broken, but not bitter ..Clearly, Salvatore was devastated. He let his tears wet his mother’s bosom. But, the rancor and the indignation were not there in his mind. Unlike what most young lovers would do, he didn’t blame her for her decision to abandon him. He understood marrying a semi-crippled young man would have been untenable for a working class fishing family. He bore his misfortune with remarkable fortitude.
Months rolled by. Salvatore resumed his toil in his father’s vineyard and fishing trips. He soon came to terms with his life without Marina.
His mother had a news to break for her lonely son. She said there was a young woman by the name Assunta in the community who was willing to marry him. Salvatore’s initial comment about the girl was rather disparaging. She had no great looks, and was older than him. Her fiancé had died in battle somewhere in Africa. Assunta was ready to tie the knot, if Salvatore agreed.
Assunta stepped in to mend Salvatore’s broken heart .…Apart from this, his mother disclosed that Assunta had some money with her. After marriage, she could buy a fishing boat and rent a vine yard, so that the couple could make a living with ease. Moreover, Assunta had developed a fascination for him after she saw him at the festa.
Salvatore decided to see the girl. The following Sunday, he dressed himself smartly in black to look robust, and sat in a vantage point in the Church from where he could see Assunta properly. Salvatore agreed to make Assunta his wife. He told his mother about it.
The duo settled down ..The couple lived in a tiny white-washed cottage at the middle of the vine yard. Salvatore had become a stout, jolly, and hard-working guy. He had retained his childlike air, his pleasing eyes, and his cool demeanour. He, accompanied by his younger brother, went into the sea at evening, caught the lucrative cuttlefish, and rowed back early so that he could sell the catch to the ships bound for Naples. During the days he didn’t go out fishing, he worked in his vineyard from dawn to dusk, with a short break in the afternoon.
The rheumatism returned sporadically making it very hard for him to work. He would then indolently lie on the beach, smoking cigarettes and gazing at the sea. He bore the rheumatic pain stoically, and had a friendly chat with those passing by him.
Salvatore was as jolly as ever …On some occasions, he brought his children to bathe them in the sea waters. The two boys abhorred being pushed into the waters. The elder demurred lightly, but the younger one screamed with fright. Salvatore was a genteel loving father who poured affection on his two sons. It was remarkable how the trio enjoyed their beach outings with warmth and togetherness.
Maugham’s account of Salvatore has no heroics, no chivalry, no melodrama. Yet, Salvatore’s character exudes the values that make a person adorable. His life, very ordinary and mundane, radiates goodness, at every step.
Look into Salvatore’s life through Maugham’s eyes, and discover the goodness of his character that impressed the author.
W.Sommerset Maugham was a humanist. Almost all his writings have strong undertones of human suffering – from broken marriages, devastated families, poverty, and colonial exploitation. Salvatore is another such story that portrays the travails of a young man who has suffered great setbacks in life, but has managed to re-build his life through astounding forebearance and equanimity.
Salvatore went on naval duty to far-off China when he had never gone out of his village even once. When the war duty came, he was an adolescent. He had been gripped by the first flush of intoxicating romance with a local girl. The conscription call tore him away from his village and from his girl. He didn’t rage, nor did he try to evade. He fell in line, like any other young man with a sense of responsibility and patriotism. In far-away China, he was crippled by rheumatism – a deadly misfortune to befall a young man from a working class family. Again, he took the misfortune in its stride.
When he couldn’t spot his beloved in the shore among the crowd gathered to welcome him back, he was shocked, but the deadliest blow came when she told him plainly that the marriage had been aborted due to his physical disability. Salvatore didn’t remonstrate, didn’t curse her, didn’t decide to end his life. Unlike most jilted lovers, he returned home dejected, but not the least vengeful. The wound in his heart was oozing blood, but he managed to hide it from public view. He remained quiet.
After his marriage to Assunta, he never looked back. He became a loving husband and a doting father. He toiled to make his living. In the midst of his two children and his wife Assunta, he found bliss and fulfillment.
In more ways than one, Salvatore emerges as an ideal young man. Spite, revenge and cursing don’t touch his heart. As a young recruit, and later as Assunta’s husband, he remained committed to his duty. The story doesn’t have a spectacular end, but the uneventful end imparts a rare goodness to the character of Salvatore.