The title of Somerset Maugham’s short story The Lotus Eater appears to have its origin in a short episode of the Homeric epic Odyssey, in which the great Greek hero, Odysseus, in course of his return journey after the Trojan war, came across a strange island, the land of the lotos eaters, a race who lived on the strange fruit of lotos. The two members of his crew who took the lotos, given by the inhabitants of the island, were drugged and possessed with a sense of lethargy and felt disinclined to return to their ship anymore. They wanted to stay and browse on the lotos fruit, and to forget and evade their previous life of unending toil and trouble. They preferred indolence and rest on the lotos-land to hardship and struggle on the wide sea for their venturesome return to their home-land.
The title of Maugham’s story, however, seems more closely related to Tennyson’s celebrated poem, The Lotos Eaters, based on the same Homeric theme. In Tennyson’s poem, the mariners of the great Greek hero Odysseus (Latin name, Ulysses) more fully express the effect of eating the lotos, which is one of indolence and inaction. Under the influence of the lotos fruit, those mariners, in their chroic song, express their resolve to live idly in the hollow land of the lotos, amid natural beauty, plenty, and serenity, away from the din and bustle of towns and cities, ‘far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.’
Maugham’s story The Lotus Eater has a thematic association with Tennyson’s poem, The Lotos Eaters. Of course, the title of his story is in the singular number The Lotus Eater, unlike the plural sense in Tennyson’s poem, The Lotos Eaters. Again, the spelling in Tennyson is lotos, whereas in Maugham, this is lotus. But the lotus eater of Mauham’s story and the lotos eaters of Tennyson’s poem are found to have the same mental drive to live in leisure and peace in the bosom of nature, away from the hard toil and struggle of life.
The lotus-eater of Maugham’s story is Thomas Wilson who is the hero of the story. He is rather strange in his outlook and preference, but has nothing uncommon in his appearance, dress, or conduct. He appears an odd character, no doubt, in his daring and interesting decision to leave a regular life of work and wages to taste the bliss of natural beauty and solitude. He is fascinated by the allurement of nature and haunted with the dream of happiness to settle down and live unwearied in the midst of perfect natural beauty and quietude.
Wilson, originally the manager of a bank, has passed a long eighteen years in the dry, humdrum material activities of a commercial house. He is almost accustomed to a life of unending monotony and drudgery, although his own family life is tragic enough to divert his mind from such continuous boredom. But he carries on with his life of work and wages till he visits Capri, near the Bay of Naples. The lovely place, with its romantic historical association and wonderful natural setting, captures his mind and brings about a drastic change in his feeling and thinking. His mind remains occupied with the memory of the place even after his return to his wooden desk and daily dry routine.
But Wilson cannot long grapple with the temptation of Capri that calls him constantly. The call is clear and irresistible. He takes a drastic resolve to live there forever in absolute peace and leisure, free from enforced action and mechanical motion. He resigns, collects his gratuity, sells his property and, with whatever savings he has made, manages to arrange for an annuity that will enable him to live in comfort and ease for the next twenty-five years in the soothing bosom of an ideal natural setting.
Wilson settles down in his place of dream, in a humble cottage, and begins to live in leisure and pleasure. He values this life as priceless, this natural beauty as irreparable and seeks nothing of the renown or reward of the material world. His ideal is to live here idly, to see the far-off beauty of nature and to spend his hours in a perfectly leisurely manner, without the regular worries of the work-a-day world.
This is also the ideal of the lotos eaters of Tennyson’s poem, the effect of browsing on the lotos fruit, as expressed in their choric song Maugham’s hero, Wilson, is here truly the lotus eater of Tennyson’s conception. Unfortunately, he has his own tragic miscalculations and the last phase of his life is nothing pleasant or honorable. Yet, he remains loyal to the ideal of his life, the ideal of the lotos eaters to live in ease and indolence in the blissful world of nature. He dies, perhaps in course of his enjoyment of the natural beauty of the sea and the stars under lovely moonlight, and this is finely stated in the conclusion of the story— “It was full moon and he must have gone to see them by moonlight. Perhaps he died of the beauty of that sight”.
This is the simple yet touching story of Wilson who at least knows what he should choose and what he really likes. The story of his life is rather reminiscent of the Choric Song of the Lotos Eaters of Tennyson’s poem.
Of course, Wilson has no song of frustration or escapism, but his life, wedded to the love of natural beauty and free leisure is itself a song. Viewed from this angle, the title appears extremely apt and expressive of the theme as well as the spirit of Maugham’s story.