Central theme of Somerset Maugham’s short story “The Lotus Eater”

Somerset Maugham’s short story The Lotus Eater deals with a striking theme of a somewhat exceptional human experience. In the ideal setting of an Italian natural beauty, he presents the tale of a man who may appear rather queer in the conventional estimation of the world. Basing his theme on the sentiment of the lotus eaters of Tennyson’s poem after the same name, Maugham relates here the tragic story of a man who chooses to shun a life of work, seeks a life of leisure, and wishes to live in the bosom of natural beauty and serenity, free from worldly woes and worries. Maugham’s hero here is a former bank manager, Wilson, who had a monotonous mechanical existence for eighteen years. Losing his wife and only daughter early, he led quietly and patiently a steady life of toil and regularity.

But there was a sudden start in his mechanical existence, as he visited Naples in his summer holidays and saw Capri near the Bay of Naples, under the full moon. He was drugged thoroughly with the charm of Capri, with its moon and sky, with its sea and two rocks. The whole scenery haunted him ‘like a passion’, possessed his mind and heart, and tempted him to live there forever in rest and happiness, ‘far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.’ Wilson, no doubt, returned to his home and desk, but could not forget Capri. He made his choice for an easy, happy, leisurely life there, out of the clutch of anxiety and the daily duty. He resigned from the bank and made arrangements for buying an annuity that would enable him to live in ease and comfort for twenty-five years at Capri according to his own inclination.

But there was a dangerous error in his decision. He did not fully apprehend what would happen after twenty-five years, and that was his actual tragedy. After the lapse of twenty-five years, Wilson remained alive, but without any means of livelihood. He could not commit suicide, as originally, stipulated, for his courage and resolve to end deliberately his own life was totally consumed during a long period of happy, easeful, tranquil existence. His half-hearted attempt to take away his own life only worsened the situation for him and made him mentally unbalanced. The rest of his life was, no doubt, one of agony and humiliation. He had to leave his cottage and live miserably with the meager help from his previous maid. He had to do all sorts of mean, manual labour in his old age and mental disorder, but moved all over his favourite Capri, like a haunted animal. Death, of course, came as a relief to his long drawn agony, and he seemed to die in peace and harmony, with his dear natural objects around him, the sea and the rocks, the sky and the moon.

This is the tragedy of a man who preferred a life of happy rest to that of a lucrative action. His tragedy, deep no doubt, resulted from his own hamartia, for he brought his own misery and suffering by his own error, omission, and miscalculation. He acted rather imprudently and, as a natural consequence, suffered miserably.

Wilson had no high mission or noble pursuit of life. He had a very commonplace life, and he cared for nothing but his own peace and happiness. He might appear here selfish, and his suffering seemed the inevitable effect of his own folly. To the conventional judgment of the world, Wilson would look surely like a selfish fool who deceived himself by his strange craving for a happy, leisurely, and quiet living.

Yet, Wilson at least knew his own mind and chose sincerely what he had truly considered the pleasure of his life. In the worldly opinion, he might be despised as a wretched fool, but to himself, he was quite happy and satisfied. At least for twenty-five years, he enjoyed life as he liked. He could drink the wine of life to the dregs and had nothing to complain of or feel discontented with. In the worldly standard, he, no doubt, failed, but from the point of his own aesthetic gratification, he supremely succeeded. He, of course, endured a wretched, humiliated life for six years, but only after his delightful and peaceful existence for twenty-five years. That was enough compensation definitely.

He died, certainly in delight and peace, on the mountainside from where he enjoyed all that he had loved so intensely. It was not a tragic exit of a miserable fool, but a pleasant farewell of one who loved life and had a profound lust for its joy and calm, sought and got happiness to his heart’s content.

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