Archive for January, 2011

The Colonel’s Lady, by Somerset Maugham

January 5, 2011

What’s it about? A husband who doesn’t understand his wife. His wife’s pursuit of alternatives to passionless marriage, which results in an affair and then a book of poetry about it. Did they have marriage counseling back then? (The story was written in 1946.)

The theme reminds me a little of Flannery O’Connor (in a very different setting). The colonel is too narrow for his own good, but well-intentioned. His assumptions about the world seem mainly intended to please the ego. Like all such assumptions, they can only remain intact by a careful tailoring of circumstance, which he perpetrates until his wife’s book forces a confrontation with some unsettling truths. That’s the gist of the story. His denial of reality never disappears, however, as the ending makes clear. Where O’Connor tends to tell stories about the consequences of inflexibility, this story is more of a study of how ingrained in human nature it is.

It’s sort of feminist, which is interesting. Some of the colonel’s character flaws can be attributed to a patriarchal culture. He is patronizing toward his wife. He assumes all the flaws (that he perceives) with the marriage are his wife’s fault (such as a lack of children). Maybe the feminism is dated, however. I wonder how a contemporary re-telling might differ. It might hold the wife more accountable, or at least explore the topic of her accountability. What did she contribute to the marriage? We know she had an affair. She surreptitiously wrote poems about it, and surreptitiously published them. Neither partner is shown contributing to the marriage. The circumstance of the times, and the slant of the narrative, cast blame on the colonel. What light would modern circumstance, and a balanced narrative, cast on similar events?