‘The Hero’ by W. Somerset Maugham

The-hero

Fiction – Kindle edition; Manybooks.net; 211 pages; 1901.

A couple of years ago I read W. Somerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece Of Human Bondage and loved its mix of grim reality, heartbreak and poignancy. I didn’t review it at the time, but it did make my list of favourite books of 2013, and I made a mental note to explore more of his work.

The Hero is probably one of his lesser-known novels. First published in 1901 — fourteen years before Of Human Bondage — it explores social mores, class and morality in Victorian England. And yet there’s something quite modern about the story, which shows how a man’s outlook on life can be changed by worldly experience, and how inward-looking, parochial and claustrophobic small town life can be.

A war hero’s return

The hero of the title is James Parsons, a soldier awarded the Victoria Cross during the Boer War, who returns to his small village in Kent, England, feeling anything but heroic. Five years earlier, he had gone straight from Sandhurst to India and then on to the Cape. Before moving abroad he was betrothed to Mary, who has patiently waited for his return and become much-loved by her soon-to-be parents-in-law in the process.

But when Jamie comes back to England he realises that he has no feelings for Mary. He knows it is his duty to marry her  “and yet he felt he would rather die”. That’s because he is rather obsessed with a married woman he met in India — the wife of his best friend — and though nothing really happened between them he thinks of her all the time.

He paraded before himself, like a set of unread school-books, all Mary’s excellent qualities. He recalled her simple piety, her good-nature, and kindly heart; she had every attribute that a man could possibly want in his wife. And yet—and yet, when he slept he dreamed he was talking to the other; all day her voice sang in his ears, her gay smile danced before his eyes. He remembered every word she had ever said; he remembered the passionate kisses he had given her. How could he forget that ecstasy? He writhed, trying to expel the importunate image; but nothing served.

When he makes the decision to break off his engagement, Jamie unwittingly offends everyone in the village — including his parents — who had only days earlier given him a hero’s welcome.

They had set him on a pedestal, and then were disconcerted because he towered above their heads, and the halo with which they had surrounded him dazzled their eyes. They had wished to make a lion of James, and his modest resistance wounded their self-esteem; it was a relief to learn that he was not worth making a lion of. Halo and pedestal were quickly demolished, for the golden idol had feet of clay, and his late adorers were ready to reproach him because he had not accepted with proper humility the gifts he did not want. Their little vanities were comforted by the assurance that, far from being a hero, James was, in fact, distinctly inferior to themselves. For there is no superiority like moral superiority. A man who stands akimbo on the top of the Ten Commandments need bow the knee to no earthly potentate.

From there, the story twists and turns — will they get back together again? will Jamie track down the woman he truly loves? — as it winds its way towards an utterly shocking and heartbreaking ending.

Romance, war and morality

At its most basic level The Hero is a simple love story gone wrong, which confronts in no uncertain terms the 19th century idea that marriage was a contract between two people regardless of whether they loved one another or not.

On a deeper level, it explores Victorian morality — sexual restraint and a strict social code of conduct under a rigid class system — and shows how it’s not always clear-cut and leads to unhappy outcomes. Jamie’s stance, of doing the “right” thing for him and Mary, highlights the strength of character required to stand up for one’s own convictions in the face of total opposition.

War — and courage — is a metaphor that runs throughout the narrative. From Jamie’s time on the battlefield, he knows that sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good — he applies those same lessons to his love life, even if that means he is seen as being cold and hard-hearted:

The general in battle now is afraid to strike because men may be killed. Sometimes it is worth while to lose men. When we become soldiers, we know that we cease to be human beings, and are merely the instruments for a certain work; we know that sometimes it may be part of a general’s deliberate plan that we should be killed. I have no confidence in a leader who is tender-hearted.

Overall, I really loved this book. The characters, albeit stereotyped, are just wonderful: so parochial and meddling, but with their hearts ultimately in the right place. And it’s written in such a humane way that even though some of them are dreadful busybodies and  full of their own self-importance, you admire their desire to protect Mary’s reputation — at whatever cost.

The Hero is an utterly tragic tale, but Maugham never manipulates his reader’s emotions for effect — instead he builds up a picture of Jamie’s moral dilemma, his inner-most turmoil and the courage required to plough his own furrow — and allows you to come to your own conclusions. It’s a style I like… and I’m delighted there’s so many more Maugham books left for me to explore…

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19 thoughts on “‘The Hero’ by W. Somerset Maugham

  1. Can’t wait to read “The Hero.” Maugham is my favorite. Best of all is his short story “The Lotus Eater.” Brilliant! Have you read it?

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    • Hi Mara! I remember that you are a bit Somerset Maugham fan. I’ve not read his short stories but may have to change that. I’m considering just doing a big buying splurge and buying his entire back catalogue in traditional (not ebook) format. Do you have a favourite novel?

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      • Hi Kim,
        I especially like “The Painted Veil” as well.
        Really recommend “Collected Stories: Volume 4 (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1973” – I bought my copy on Amazon. It contains “The Lotus Eater.” I love that story so much I always assign a cover design to my students (I am a graphic design professor at Parsons School of Design in New York). Fascinating to hear the responses after they have read it. Most are in their 20’s, full of ambition and dreams of “success.” Maugham’s story deals with choices in life. At this point in mine I really appreciate his perspective. I’ve read this story many times and it always fascinates me.
        On another note completely… Have you ever read “The Little Woman” by Gladys Aylward? Years ago I found very old copy on my bedside table in a room at The Rising Sun, (St. Mawes, Cornwall). I started to read and couldn’t put it down. They were very nice to let me take it along when I left the following day. What an inspiring (real) story. Worth a read!

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  2. I have a lovely collected works of Maugham that a dear old friend gave me when she downsized, and I’m always meaning to make a start on it…
    But tell me, I’m curious, what is it that makes you decide to review one book but not another?

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    • I tend to review everything I read but I missed out on Of Human Bondage because I read it on holiday and when I came back work was full on and I had lots of social events happening and I just didn’t have the time to write anything up. Plus, it’s a 750+ page whopper and I didn’t know where to start.

      I didn’t write up all my reads last year (as my reading log page will show) because I fell out of love with blogging for a bit, plus I was moving this blog from Typepad and had 10 years’ of content to clean up, so something had to give, and I’m afraid it was quite a few reviews.

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    • I found this one lurking on my Kindle. I think I must have downloaded it at the same time as Of Human Bondage (freebies from manybooks.net, which is a terrific site for finding older novels out of copyright). Do you have a favourite Maugham? I’m trying to decide which one to read next…

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  3. Now that is interesting as I have had Of Human Bondage on my TBR for ages . The size of it had been putting me off but your positive take on it has given me courage to tackle it .

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    • I read Of Human Bondage on my Kindle so had no knowledge of its physical size — probably just as well because if I had known it was 750+ pages I’d never have gotten around to it. Specific scenes and the overall mood of that book have stuck with me… It’s a brilliant argument for why we should never dismantle/remove the welfare system…

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  4. I’ve also read a lot of Maugham – his clear eyed (not at all starry-eyed) view of marriage is very bracing – but not this one. Will have to track it down!

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    • Yes, he’s quite the realist, I think. I’ve not read enough by him, so can’t spot patterns, but in Of Human Bondage the main character has a love/hate relationship with women and treats one particular woman quite cruelly after she fails to reciprocate his feelings…

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      • Yes, I was thinking of that one. ‘The Painted Veil’ is also rather cruel and yet depressingly realistic about marriage and adultery in those days (and in a colonial environment). Cakes and Ale, The Razor’s Edge, The Moon and Sixpence are all about unhappy marriages – or, rather, the doubt that there is such a thing as a happy marriage. Not surprising, perhaps, given his own biography.

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  5. I’ve read a little Maugham and I don’t think he does cheerful happy endings, does he? Which is no bad thing – I shall look out for this one!

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      • I just finished “The Hero.” I am disappointed.
        However, it’s important to note that it was written in 1901, when Maugham was in his twenties.
        As always, suspense and interesting characters. But I found it wordy and preachy.
        I definitely prefer his later work like “The Razor’s Edge”, “The Painted Veil”, “Cakes and Ale”, “Of Human Bondage.” Most of all, I love his short stories. There are four volumes of available on Amazon.
        Volume Four contains “The Lotus Eater”, perhaps his best work of all. Short, to the point, mesmerizing, and philosophical.

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        • Sorry to hear you were disappointed, but as you point out, he was very young when he wrote it and it is very early on in his career. I really enjoyed it, but only had one other book with which to compare it. I do want to read more by him…

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