Maugham’s work was one of my favourite short stories during the semester. So it was out of question which story I would like to write about.
The Force of Circumstance has touched me very much even when I read it for the first time. It was easy for me to understand in two senses. Firstly, Maugham’s language usage is very clear and understandable. Secondly, he tells a tale about a perpetual problem in connection with trust. Though the story takes place in a far and exotic country, it can happen anywhere, anytime and with any of us. So this story is everlasting and it remains relevant in every era.
It is about the collapse of a marriage between Doris, an English girl and Guy, a man from Sembulu. They were made one after only a short acquaintance. They moved into Guy’s home and they seemed to be very happy. But something happened. A native woman appeared and everything went wrong. It turned out that before Doris she had belonged to Guy and they had three children. Doris asked for time to think over things but finally she left Guy and went home. As she stepped out of his house, the native women and the children moved back to the man’s home.
After a very short summery I would rather not dwell on retelling the story any longer whilst I think it is not the series of events itself what is the most important but the emotional line: the feelings, the relationship among the characters and of course the force of circumstance.
In order to reveal these things I would like to begin with the introduction of the heroes.
There are three main characters in the short story. They are equally considerable in respect of the plot. Maugham portraits his characters with few but effective words and he uses the literary instruments consciously and deliberately. His heroes are not too complicated features whose psychological imagery is moderate but not negligent1.
First of all, let’s see Doris. She is a typical English woman with typical English customs. In my opinion, this insistence to her nation’s habits can originate in her deep homesickness. And it mixes with a strong loneliness, too. Namely, how should a young woman who was torn out of her roots, family and friends feel? It has a lot of evidences in the story. The first is when Doris waiting for her husband thought of the English blackbird and missed it right at the start. Then she expressed her loneliness: ‘I loved the country at once, although I’m alone so much I don’t think I’ve ever once felt lonely.’ The last example I would like to mention is when Doris being full of pains talked to Guy and said: ‘I know what the loneliness is here.’
After being mentioned several times let’s get to know the other main character, Guy. You can see him with Doris’ eyes. ‘He is a round man, with red face like the full moon and blue eyes…’ and ‘he was a gay, jolly little man, who took nothing very solemnly, and he was constantly laughing. Ha made Doris laugh too. Doris could not help loving you. She loved him so much that she had left her widowed mother and moved to a foreign country. So she made sacrifices for him. Of course, in return, Gay had to tolerate his wife’s English customs. I am inclined to think that he just put up with them. For instance, he did not welcome that Doris had changed his all life and territory with rollick.
The third member of the triumvirate is a mysterious Malay woman who is indirectly blamed for the collapse of Doris and Guy’s marriage. This woman appeared several times in their life in order to make Guy tell the truth. When she visited them for the fourth time, she achieved her aim and Guy admitted all things to Doris. I guess the Malay woman carried on physiological warfare against Doris and Guy too. She did not make do with money; she wanted to get back her old life. And she paid no attention to the other woman. Her own happiness was the most important. I suppose that this behaviour is general among a certain group of women.
Doris behaving patterns can be said to be also universal. Lots of women would take action in a same way if they were in Doris’ shoes. I have to remark here that in spite of being a man, Maugham depicts the tangles and the incalculable risk of a woman’s soul very well.
The more times the native woman appeared, the more things went wrong. The initiative idyll changed to a hell little by little. At first only small signs referred to the problem. For instance, the man’s smile changed. It became insincere. Sometimes Guy gave by-pass answers or simply did not give answer. Of course, no answer is an answer too. And if you pay enough attention to it, you can draw thorough conclusions. Finally Guy became tense, frustrated and anxious. Doris sometimes noticed these signs but not always. She fully realised that something was in the air only in the last moment. But at that time she had nothing to do but to listen to her husband’s confession.
I have to tell some words about the title here because it refers to that circumstance which was mentioned in Guy’s ‘plea agreement’. I guess everybody can agree that it is a fantastic, effective and very-very expressive title and it boils down the essence in only three words.
But what is that force of circumstance exactly?
Firstly Guy considered only Sembulu his home, he felt himself a stranger anywhere else in the world. So he could do nothing but he persuaded Doris to go with him to Sembulu.
Secondly Guy was a talkative, even-smiling young man about town, so he could not stand being lonely. His own boy, Abdul run to help him and brought a native girl who Guy could spend his leisure. He did not reject this offer and even he paid for it.
Thirdly Guy lived in such a society where a man can work up on the social ladder if he marries a white woman. So Guy obeyed to that custom and went to England to marry a white woman after he spent away the native girl in cold blood. And because of that the depth of his love is very difficult to be adjudged. It is sure that Doris loved Guy with real love. But it is doubtful whether it was a mutual feeling or not. The marriage with Doris seems to be conceived and charge. Would he be such a lucky man that he goes to marry somebody and he fells in love desperately? I can not believe it entirely, although he wanted to insist it. The only real sign of his real feeling was a single tear drop which was crumbed when he let the native women. It is an other question why he returned to his old life immediately. Would it be only a new force of circumstance?
Finally he did not talk to Doris about all of these because he knew it would shock her and he did not want to lose her. This fear is likely to be right. And Guy acted so that many of us would have acted. He told nothing because it is not a lie; it is only a gracious thing which has to be done in the interest of everybody’s peace of mind but mostly in the interest of his. I suppose that these kinds of actions are just selfishness. Of course, if Guy had not been sent back to the same post, the whole case would not have come to light and they could have lived happy ever after. But it was not to be and Guy had to go back. It can be considered also as a circumstance which he had to face with and which overcame Guy and Doris, too.
And yes. Doris also complied with the force of circumstance; when she moved to Sembulu with Guy because of her deep love; when she became cold and were making conversation with a stranger because this behaviour could ease her situation and lower her pain; and when she finally decided to go away because even the thought of Guy and the native woman’s common life was unbearable.
Besides the circumstance there are two imperative forces, two basic oppositions between them. On the one hand, they differ from each other because they were woman and man. From time immemorial there are differences between the two sexes. For example, men as Guy too can forget the past but women can not get over it. Men can decolonise the sensual pleasures from the real feelings, women can not. In some case men can cut themselves adrift from the fact that they have children. For a woman it is very difficult and it can be frightful. Although because of these differences sometimes women and men can understand each other with difficulty, they are superable. But there are also cultural differences between Doris and Guy which deepen the problem insolvably. They could have never understood really each other because they come from different countries with different preferences and scales of values. And it proved to be fatal…
Only a question remains finally whether the force of circumstances or other forces can absolve anybody from the responsibility of her or his actions which hurt another people or not?
Maugham, W. Somerset. The Force of Circumstance. In The Penguin Book of English Short Stories, edited by Christopher Dolley, 129-156. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1967.