Most of Somerset Maugham’s short stories are told by a first-person narration. That is, a narrator is found to narrate in the first person the whole story. Naturally, he is a part of the story, rather a participant in its action and development. He serves to tell the tale, create the environment and produce the necessary effect, singular but touching. This is all true in regard to Maugham’s short story The Lotus Eater. A first person narrator tells the story and indicates the nature of the characters concerned and establishes its emotional effect finally.
Of course, the narrator here is the author himself. The story is his own experience and appraisement of a queer character. But this is not to be taken as autobiographical, for the tale is rather imaginary than real or personal. This is simply a first-person narrative, in which the narrator’s significance appears three-fold. First, the narrator has a role in the events of the story. Second, he is an interpreter of the character of the hero and his situation. Third, he serves to generate the necessary emotional response to the theme of the tale. In fact, it is the author-narrator who is here omniscient and rather omnipresent, too.
Thomas Wilson is, no doubt, the hero of The Lotus Eater. But the narrator is instrumental to the evolution of the story of his life and mind. The three phases of the hero’s life—his routine-bound, commercial existence as a bank manager, his happy living in leisure and pleasure at Capri, and his suffering and death in wretchedness and humiliation are all shown and made known through his effort. His determination and insistence to know the entire strangeness of Thomas Wilson’s choice from his own mouth build up the plinth of the story. Again, his patient attempt to develop his intimacy with him and elicit the secret of his resolution strengthens the structure of the plot. Lastly, it is his sympathetic interest in that man’s ultimate fate that shapes and trims the end as well as the emotional appeal of the tale. Indeed the narrator’s role, as presented by Maugham, is formidable. There would naturally be no story without him.
In the second place, the queer interior of the apparently commonplace exterior of the hero is brought out by the narrator. The extraordinary nature of an ordinary personality is the striking element in The Lotus Eater and gives it a rarity. The mind of that man is unfolded with patience and labor by the narrator. But that is not all. He is also an interpreter of the hero’s character and situation. While appreciating the hero’s bold and rare venture, he is not blind to its loopholes. He feels quite alarmed to think what will come forth after the lapse of twenty-five years and all their ease and amenities. He rightly detects what is a gross error in Wilson’s plan that is seemingly satisfactory.
In the third place, the narrator expresses the feeling of compassion for the hero’s unfortunate suffering following his hamartia. He thereby adds tragic grandeur to the story of a plain man with a queer resolve. His friend blames Wilson for what has befallen him. But the narrator pities his lot and points out what is painful and horrible in it. He also draws a consolation for him in his quiet death amid moonlit beauty and serenity in his favorite spot— “Perhaps he died of the beauty of that sight.”
Finally, there is something explicitly personal of the author that comes out in the narrator. These are Maugham’s fondness for all that is queer in man and nature and his instinctively compassionate and sympathetic nature. The narrator’s liking for a queer character and his human feeling and sympathy for suffering humanity are all explicit.
Also read: Estimate Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Lotus Eater’ as a good short story