The Casuarina Tree
US first edition
|Author||W. Somerset Maugham|
|Cover artist||Winifred E. Lefferts|
|Genre||Short story collection|
|Publisher||William Heinemann, UK
George H. Doran Company, New York
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
(US first edition)
The Casuarina Tree is a collection of short stories set in 1920s Malaya by W. Somerset Maugham that came out of travels he paid for by working for the British Secret Service as a spy. It was first published by the UK publishing house, Heinemann, in 1926.
Explanation of the title
The Casuarina tree of the title is native to Australasia and Southeast Asia, often used to stabilise soils. In Maugham's foreword, he says the title was a metaphor for "the English people who live in the Malay Peninsula and in Borneo because they came along after the adventurous pioneers who opened the country to Western civilisation." He likens the pioneers to mangroves reclaiming a swamp, and the expatriates to Casuarinas, who came later and served there. He then learned that his idea was incorrect botanically but decided it would suggest the planters and administrators who for him, were in their turn the organisers and "protectors" of society. The book and the author are true to their times but express views and language that are considered politically incorrect today.
- Before the Party
- P. & O.
- The Outstation
- The Force of Circumstance
- The Yellow Streak
- The Letter
The major themes are class division, racial difference, adultery, personal competitiveness, and human nature in reaction to fate.
The strong thread running through the stories is alienation and contrast – between people and cultures. For most of the characters, after a crisis in their circumstances, life seems to take up where it left off and closes over the revelations that brought on the drama.
People who are regarded as sane and level-headed, reliable and "well brought-up" show their unexpected real character in a crisis, their inner workings become exposed in reaction to surprise events. The exceptional circumstances are about being away from the England of law and order, in a wild, unfathomable foreign country where they may be misled, misunderstood, faced with life-or-death decisions, physically and mentally at risk, or beyond the scrutiny of their peers.
Before the Party
The upper-class Skinner family is preparing to attend a party. Among them is silent older daughter Millicent, mother of a young child and widowed when her husband, a colonial administrator, died of fever eight months earlier while they were living in Borneo; she and her child have returned home to England to live with her parents and sister. During this era, the early twentieth century, when propriety dictated a strict period of mourning, it is one of Millicent's first social appearances since her husband's death. While the Skinners are gathering to leave, after one question too many from her younger sister, who's heard a rumour that her brother-in-law was a drinker and didn't die of fever after all, Millicent tells the true story of her husband's death. Explaining her discovery that he was an incorrigible drunk with a well-known reputation within the colony, and that he had married Millicent while on home leave largely because he'd been warned he'd be sacked if he didn't find himself a wife who could keep him in line, she describes her dogged attempts to reform him—and to preserve her marriage. (Both Skinner sisters had grown old enough to be considered spinsters, and Millicent in particular had been anxious to marry; she had not imagined herself in love with her husband, but it is a blow to discover just how far from in love with her he had been.) After having been impressively sober for some months and an attentive husband and father—just when he'd given Millicent reason to believe she had triumphed—he relapses badly, and the discovery is so stark and so bitter that she stabs him to death with the ornamental native sword hanging above the bed where she found him drunk. It was easy to conceal the true cause of death from the local council, and by now the jungle has reclaimed the body in its entirety, so there's no danger whatsoever that her crime will be discovered, Millicent tells her family in conclusion. Her proper parents and sibling are aghast; her father, a lawyer, considers his duty; but the overall impression is that her family is stunned by the impropriety of Millicent's deed. It simply was shockingly bad form.
P. & O.
Two people are returning home to the British Isles from the Federated Malay States: a woman who's leaving her husband after many years of marriage, and a middle-aged man heading back to Ireland and retirement after 25 years as a planter. Mrs Hamlyn is forty and has left her husband not strictly because he betrayed her—it is not her husband's first dalliance—but because this time her husband really cares for the woman, and has refused to give up his mistress. Things aboard ship are merry, as the various passengers plan a Christmas party, until the planter, Mr. Gallagher, develops incurable hiccups. His assistant, Mr. Pryce, becomes exasperated with the doctor's ineffectiveness, confiding to Mrs Hamlyn that the native woman Gallagher left behind put a spell on him: he will die, she swore, before reaching land. Despite a witch doctor's efforts to beat the curse, Gallagher does die at sea, and through his death Mrs Hamlyn becomes aware of the importance of living. She writes a letter of forgiveness to her husband.
A story of brinksmanship follows two incompatible rivals, the precisely disciplined Resident officer, Mr Warburton, and his newly arrived, uncouth assistant, Mr Cooper. In a battle of class differences, the feisty Cooper, despite his competence in his job, manages to repel his more refined boss and to make enemies of the native helpers. Each man is extremely lonely for the company of another white, but their mutual dislike is such that each wishes the other dead.
The Force of Circumstance
Guy meets and marries Doris in England while on leave from Malaya; she returns there with him much in love and ready to make a home for him in the same house where he's been the resident officer for ten years. When a native woman lurks about the compound with her small children and makes an ever-growing nuisance of herself, Guy at last reveals the woman's connection to him, one he had believed Doris need never discover, since residents usually were not sent back to their old posts after returning from home leave. Such domestic arrangements as he had with the native woman are common and expected among unmarried white men in the colony, he assures Doris, and the native women expect the arrangements to end as casually as they begin; there was no love between them, nor any expectation of any; and the woman was paid well to go away and is unusual in her refusal to be gone. Despite loving Guy and knowing he loves her, despite her appreciation of his loneliness so far from home without white companions, Doris is repelled by the discovery that he lived with a native woman and fathered her children.
The Yellow Streak
"The Yellow Streak" is an internal story of class snobbery, racism and frail human nature in the face of death. Izzart is an insecure snob with a secret who is put in charge of the safety of Campion, a mining engineer hired by the Sultan of fictional Sembulu to discover mineral possibilities in Borneo. Drink, vanity, carelessness and self-doubt bring Izzart to cracking point when an incident with a tidal wave on the river means it's every (white) man for himself. Not only his weakness, but his inner torment is clear to the more experienced Campion.
The author contrasts outward appearances with inner passions in Singapore between the Wars through the characters of a suave lawyer, Mr Joyce, and the rustic rubber planter, Robert Crosbie. Crosbie's cool and proper wife, Leslie, who "wouldn’t hurt a fly," is awaiting trial for the murder of popular ladies' man Geoffrey Hammond. Leslie admits shooting Hammond—she actually emptied a revolver into him—but claims self-defense; he had been attempting to rape her, she says. The white colonials' discovery following his death that Hammond had been living with a Chinese woman badly damages his reputation and helps them to believe him capable of having forced himself on Mrs. Crosbie. Lawyer Joyce is defending Leslie, and all appears to be on course for an easily obtained verdict of acquittal, until Joyce's cool Chinese assistant brings him a copy of a letter to Hammond imploring him passionately to come to Leslie's house that night while Robert is away. The letter was written the day of Hammond's death, and the original—in Leslie's handwriting—is in the possession of Hammond's Chinese mistress.
In the postscript Maugham explains choosing imaginary names for anywhere outside of Singapore because he based a lot of his material on personal experiences though the characters are composites. In his disclaimer he recounts that while the people are imaginary, an incident in The Yellow Streak was "based on a misadventure" of his own.
- "His collections of short stories entitled South Sea Stories and Casuarina Tree are directly attributed to travels afforded by his intelligence (work)".
- Casuarina Uses
- The Casuarina Tree, W. Somerset Maugham, Heinemann (1966), Introduction p viii
- The Casuarina Tree, p188
- The Casuarina Tree, p231
- The Casuarina Tree, p232
- W. Somerset Maugham, The Casuarina Tree – Six Stories, The Collected Edition, Heinemann, London, 1966 (first pub. 1926).