Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Vessel of Wrath

Lanchester's Miss Jones

For all his limitations Somerset Maugham is still a pleasurable read, and a writer we can gain from. I’ve just read ‘The Vessel of Wrath’ from volume 2 of his collected short stories. It was written in 1931 [and in fact filmed in 1938 by Erich Pommer with an impressive cast including Charles Laughton as Ginger Ted, Robert Newton as the Dutch Contrôleur and Elsa Lanchester as Miss Jones, though for some unfathomable reason it was released in the USA as The Beachcomber] and set on the Dutch controlled island of Baru, principal island of the Alas Islands. Nowadays, these islands, just to the west of the Solomons, are part of Papua New Guinea.

There’s a certain datedness in Maugham’s surface style which is revealing as it preserves attitudes and considerations well. Early on in the story, for example, he writes ‘The population of the [Alas island] group is estimated at about 8000, of whom 200 are Chinese and 400 Mohammedans. The rest are heathen.’ It’s an odd and arbitrary division in which Chinese is apparently counted as a religion, but it’s pragmatic enough. The point being that the vast majority of the populace will provide raw material for the missionary work that is a part of the story.

It’s a story of four white people, set against an amorphous background of restless natives, and Maugham tells his story with an eye for detail and a mordant humour that masks a certain remoteness and lack of empathy. The fat controleur and Ginger Ted the scapegrace are in a sense pitted against the humourless Joneses [brother and sister rather than husband and wife] who are missionaries with a bit of doctoring on the side [or vice versa, I’m not sure]. Miss Jones [her first name isn’t provided] is middle-aged and unattractive but strong-willed and competent, much like her brother, yet the more laid-back controleur and even the drunken Ginger Ted have their practical capabilities, and the author clearly finds this pair the more congenial.

Miss Jones might be described as the stereotypical ‘old maid’, disapproving of but obsessed with sex. Having just watched D W Griffiths 1916 film Intolerance, which features middle-aged matronly do-gooders wreaking destruction on those they regard as depraved, I recognise the zeitgeist out of which these ‘types’ are constructed, but Maugham does at least make us feel sympathy as well as a callous amusement at poor Miss Jones’ self-concocted excitation at the prospect of being raped [she finds herself, in a key scene in the story, forced to spend a night on a desert island with Ginger Ted, who has a reputation for sexual depravity]. We might also feel a grudging admiration for the woman’s final sexual victory, when in the end she wins over the former scapegrace, persuading him to at least give lip service to the missionary position.

In the end, it’s a story about sex. Miss Jones imagines being raped by Ted, and when he doesn’t do so but covers her up instead, she’s able to combine the qualities of a gentleman with those of a sexual conqueror, thereby purefying her lustful thoughts, while still retaining them. Not that it’s likely that Ted will remain totally tamed, or that the missionary position will retain much flavour for too long.

The author’s own view is of course not explicit, he speaks through his characters, variously. Some remarks on god and providence, however, struck me as well calculated. Miss Jones and Ted had become stranded on their island [in an ingenious touch Miss Jones insists on consummating their marriage on this same island] when they were off together fighting a cholera outbreak on outlying islands, in which 600 islanders lost their lives. Miss Jones believes, of course, that the Lord’s will has brought them together:

‘Do you think so?’

Í know it. Don’t you see? Except for the cholera Edward would never have found himself. Except for the cholera we should never have learnt to know one another. I have never seen the hand of God more plainly manifest.’

The Controleur could not but think that it was rather a clumsy device to bring those two together that necessitated the death of six hundred innocent persons, but not being well versed in the ways of omnipotence he made no remark.

These kinds of grotesque arguments are still made by even the most supposedly sophisticated of believers, as Dawkins [God Delusion, chap 2, p64] well illustrates.

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