H. Somerset Maugham’s “The Outstation”


They were like men dwelling in regions of eternal night, and their souls were oppressed with the knowledge that never would the day dawn for them. It looked as though their lives would continue for ever in this dull and hideous monotony of hatred.”

Having recently read H. Somerset Maugham’s acclaimed novel, The Painted Veil, I had no complaints when his short story, “The Outstation,” came up next in my random selection for my short story reading project. This story is a little longer (24 pages) than some others I’ve read in the past week, but hey, it’s Saturday, and I have plenty of reading time. 🙂

(below: Maugham hard at work)


I came to think of this story as more of a character study. Set probably in the 1920s, it deals with the relationship of two Englishmen (and by reading the quoted passage above, you can tell that their relationship is not a good one) who serve their country’s empire in one of its remotest locations – on the island of Borneo. Mr. Warburton is the established presence at the outstation, having already served there some twenty years when we find him at the beginning of this story awaiting the arrival of his assistant, a Mr. Cooper. Warburton has some misgivings about Cooper’s arrival, even though another man is needed, since it means of an intrusion on what has become sort of his private domain; he is respected and admired by the natives – a man of power and importance. They get off to a rocky start, too, when Cooper shows up not “dressed” for dinner and professes surprise that Warburton has retained that custom. (“I always dress for dinner.” “Even when you’re alone?” “Especially when I’m alone.”)

You see, Warburton is a “snob” and has always been so, even though he inherited HIS money from a father who was a frugal hard-working commoner, indeed only to lose it through gambling and speculation. (Upon gaining that intelligence about Warburton, you would think the reader’s sympathies would reside with the younger man, Cooper, but that position became untenable for me, when I saw how poorly he treated the natives.)

Cooper is from “the colonies” (in his case, Barbados) and has no respect for the old system of privilege and class consciousness. In short, he has a chip on his shoulder. Over a dinner, Cooper offers the opinion,

” ’Well, at all events the war has done one good thing for us,’ he said at last. ’It`s smashed up the power of the aristocracy. The Boer War started it, and 1914 put the lid on.’
’The great families of England are doomed,’ said Mr. Warburton with the complacent melancholy of an emigre who remembered the court of Louis XV.”

Is it any surprise that these two won’t get along?

In spite of their differences, the unlikely pair struggle on and do their duties for some time, even as their antipathy grows. Things erupt into “bitter hatred” after an incident that occurs when Warburton returns to his office after being absent three weeks on an assignment. During his absence, Cooper has gone through Warburton’s mail and separated the newspapers he receives from home. Thinking it no big deal, Cooper unpacks them and reads them. Warburton is furious. Cooper doesn’t know, and Warburton doesn’t feel the need to explain to him, that meticulously reading the papers, in order, is one of Warburton’s “great pleasures” and a link to the civilized world of which he is no longer a resident. Later in the story, Warburton feels “on a sudden discouraged with life. The world of which he was a part had passed away, and the future belonged to a meaner generation.”

The story left me a little sad too. Two very different characters, out of place in the “normal world” of others end up in a remote region of the world (& I liked how, earlier in the story, Maugham refers to how Englishmen, when they’d run out of other opportunities “went out to the colonies.”) where they perhaps could find a home (indeed Warburton had done just that before Cooper’s arrival) but each other’s presence prevents them from living happily even there. The story is worth reading, though, even if it is not among my recent favorites. It can even be read “for free” on line at: http://maugham.classicauthors.net/outstation/