The Happy Man by W. Somerset Maugham

The Happy Man by W. Somerset Maugham

About the author …… W. Somerset Maugham(1874-19) was possibly the most prolific and the  most adored novelist of his times. ‘A Happy Man’, although written as a fiction, mirrors his uncharacteristic life that saw effusive public adulation, and bouts of intense public disgust. His popularity can be gauged from the fact that there was a time when London’s four major opera houses were staging plays written by him. He was a pacifist, compassionate man, and refrained from criticizing others. In his novels too, he is rather soft towards the villains he created.

Maugham had a unhappy childhood. He lost both his parents in a very tender age, and was reared by his uncle who had a heart of stone. Despite all the setbacks in early life, he managed to qualify as a medical doctor, but fate had other things in store for him. While he was still doing his course in medicine, he wrote Liza of Lambeth that literally flew off the shelves. That success propelled Maugham to literary fame. He chose to become a writer, and gave up the career as a doctor.

Somerset Maugham’s love life was chequered, and brought him much disgrace. He lived during a time being gay was considered immoral and illegal. He had to weather public ridicule for this all his life, but he didn’t much care. He was attracted to women too, and had multiple liaisons. He cuckolded Henry Wellcome, an American tycoon by seducing his wife Syrie Wellcome. Syrie gave birth to Maugham’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth Maugham. Soon after this birth, the Wellcome couple were divorced. Maugham married Syrie. This marriage didn’t last long, and the Maughams were divorced. He worked for some time with the Red Cross as a doctor. Later in his life, Maugham toured the whole world living amidst different cultures, and societies. His experiences provided him with rich materials to weave his novels and short stories with. Towards the later part of his life, he unabashedly led a gay life with male partners.

Somerset Maugham wrote many enduring novels. ‘Of Human Bondage’, and ‘The Mon and Sixpence’ are just two of his stellar works. ‘Cakes and Alley’ and ‘The Razor’s Edge’ are his other works that enjoy universal appreciation.

In a nutshell, Maugham lived life as he felt best. He was an agnostic, and so never felt morally guilty for his romantic aberrations. For short story lovers, Maugham has a treasury of choices. The world will remain indebted to this genius for posterity.

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The story ..

Preamble .. The author was a man of extraordinary literary talent. Deep within, he was at odds with his sexual desires. Disparaging comments, and ridicule wounded his soul. However, he deflected the vilification by remaining aloof, and not venting his anger against his critics. This is one  reason why he disapproved of certain people who assume the role of the conscience keepers of society. At every step, they advise others, pontificate about moral issues, and even excoriate fellow human beings for their ‘so-called’ failings. The author finds such propensity to comment on others matters to be a sign of ignorance and arrogance on the part of the person who proffers the ‘sagely sermons’. He reasons that most people do not know enough even about themselves, so it is hard to understand how they can read the minds and manners of others and suggest them the right conduct. Humans conceal a lot when they speak, and their façade almost always conceals their inner self.

Some examples to illustrate the point .. Hosts in TV talk shows advise us about how to lose weight, live longer, progress in career, buy a property, bake a cake, have a nice sleep, select the right spouse etc. etc. Such advice are very general in nature, and their efficacy is doubtful. They can even prove to be misleading, and fraudulent. In their own personal lives, they could be just the opposite of what they preach. They seldom provide the panacea for our ills, and might even cause us harm. Our political leaders ask us to be honest, patriotic, hard working, and religious. In their own personal lives, they could be just the opposite. In India, we get to see Sadhus in saffron preaching to large gatherings of gullible devotees about the right ways to live ones daily lives. Almost all of these Sadhus have been found to be utterly hideous, and deviant human beings. Some of them are serving jail sentences after their true self unraveled.

Somerset Maugham, therefore claims that giving advice to others is an undesirable trait, especially when the advice giver does not know enough about themselves. Somerset Maugham found it true for his own self. once confessed about his own sexual orientation saying, “I tried to persuade myself that I was three-quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer—whereas really it was the other way around.”

With this understanding about his own self, Maugham assumed that most of us have little sense of what we actually are. With such ignorance, how can one advise others, when most humans rarely reveal their inner self through their manners and speaking?

The summary of the story .. The author lived in a small flat near Victoria Station. in London. One afternoon, a stranger came calling to him. He was received courteously by the author. After some exchange of pleasantries, the visitor opened up about his life. He was a doctor working in the Chamberlin Infirmity. He was brought up by his two aunts. He had been married for six years, but had no children. The man appeared confused and bored with his repetitive job in the infirmary. The doctor asked the author if he could go and settle in Spain instead. He fancied Spain. The job at the infirmary, though high-paying, appeared to him to be a dead end. He asked if he could go and settle in Serville where he could earn just enough to make both ends meet. His wife was willing too to relocate, said the doctor.

The author paused for while and said that he could go if the pleasure of Serville outweighed the prospect of a drop in his earning. The visitor felt relieved and left.

Years rolled by. The author never remembered much about this strange encounter. The occasion came for the author to go to Serville. After reaching there, he checked into a hotel. He was possibly a sight indisposed. He wanted to see a doctor. He gathered the address of an English doctor in Serville from a hotel assistant, hired a taxi, and left for the address. On reaching there, he found the doctor coming out for some business of his own.

The doctor was overly delighted to see the author. The latter couldn’t place him, because he had forgotten about the earlier encounter. After his examination and tests were over, the author rose to pay the fees, but the doctor was not willing to accept any fees. On the contrary, he expressed his profound gratitude to the author for having been instrumental in his decision to come to Serville. The doctor narrated how happy he was in Serville. The decision to migrate was as a result of the author’s advice. He disclosed that his wife had gone back to England. There was another man in the house, found the author.  The shifting to Serville had brought him the joy he had cherished, said the doctor jubilantly. Thus, the author’s intuitive advice had proved to be right.

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Questions for discussion …

  1. Why has the narrator always hesitated to give advice? Ans: The narrator is convinced that most individuals are ignorant about themselves. In other words, one is unsure about the correctness of one’s moral beliefs, political opinions, views on social matters etc. With such ignorance, one can’t lay claim to the ability to preach to others in the society.
  2. “Each one of us ………………….solitary town” How does ……………………………………….. human life? Ans: One’s inner self is ensconced in one’s body. The inner self never gets out of this confine to explore what lies outside. So, one is a prisoner in one’s self. Such seclusion breeds ignorance and life remains a domain of intrigue. When drowned in such depth of incomprehensibility, man can only assume that he lives in a solitary town.
  3. Does the paragraph 1 lead to the story. Where do you find the connection? Ans: The paragraph 1 introduces the reader to the intrinsic fallibility of humans. It also shows that humans are bound by fate, and no matte all the claims of wisdom, a human being flounders, often at the start of life. Thus, the reader is initiated to the complex subject of the essay.
  4. Why did Stephans meet the narrator? What made him do so? Ans: Stephans had called on Maugham in the latter’s house in London. Stephan wanted to learn more about the book on Spain that Maugham had written.
  5. What impression you …………………….? Is he a happy man? Ans: Stephan is a bewildered young man who does not practice law despite having a law degree. He is unhappy with his life and looks forward to escaping the pain and suffering his life has kept in store for him.
  6. Why does he want to go to Spain? Ans: The place has plenty of sunshine, lovely weather, and healthy air. Its balmy weather attracts the speaker.
  7. Would you call him a romantic? Give reasons for your answer, Ans: The author has a non-serious, joyful approach towards life. He loves to wander around and has very little inclination to settle down and earn money,
  8. What does the narrator suggest to Stephan finally? Ans: The narrator recommends that Stephan should go to Spain to fulfill his desire to live a contented life.
  9. Can you guess what would happen net in the story? Ans: The duo could meet accidentally.
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