“Rain” (1921) by W. Somerset Maugham is a fish-out-of-water story, in which characters wholly unsuited to their environment become marooned somewhere due to external circumstances. As a result, they undergo many trials and change as a result… or they don’t, if it’s a tragedy.
In this case we have Christian missionaries hellbent of converting native Pacific Island culture into something foreign and entirely unsuitable (Protestant, puritanical, cold climate culture). It’s worth remembering that the mainly white, Christian audience of Somerset Maugham’s contemporary readership had to be converted themselves to the view that this was not acceptable.
These characters get stuck on an island because of a travel ban due to a measles outbreak, which is deadly for local populations if not to themselves. By the time we’re told there’s no hotel for them at Pago Pago, we despise them so much we are glad to see them suffer.
SETTING OF “RAIN”
Somerset Maugham does a good job of placing us geographically within the first few lines of story:
It was nearly bed-time and when they awoke next morning land would be in sight. Dr. Macphail lit his pipe and, leaning over the rail, searched the heavens for the Southern Cross.
From that we know that it is dark > our characters are on a ship > on the deck of a ship > they are in the Southern Hemisphere > nearing a landmass.
I deduce that because this person is looking for the Southern Cross, they have traveled from the Northern Hemisphere (otherwise it would be a fact of the skyscape and unremarkable). Perhaps they are about to arrive in New Zealand or Australia or one of the Pacific Islands.
Another deduction: They are travelling a lengthy journey by ship that this takes place in the early 20th century or before, and that the person smoking is male, because smoking was a masculine thing to do in this era.
We are soon told that they are about to reach Apia, which is the capital of Samoa. In the background, a war is going on.
Pago Pago is the territorial capital of American Samoa. Somerset Maugham stopped here in 1916. The ship will stop there, some passengers are supposed to disembark, the rest are supposed to travel to Apia.
LANGUAGE IN “RAIN”
- propinquity — the state of being nearby
- carp — to go on complaining about trivial matters
- Samoari — seems to be an outdated word for Samoan, which seems to have been only used by Christian missionaries e.g. the book The Samoari Culture and the Christian Gospel.
- yaws — a contagious disease of tropical countries, caused by a bacterium that enters skin abrasions and gives rise to small crusted lesions which may develop into deep ulcers.
- Mother Hubbard — a storyteller character in children’s tales from way back, and here it means clothing reminiscent of her. A long, loose-fitting, shapeless woman’s dress or undergarment.
- hooch — inferior or illicit whiskey
- obsequious — obedient or attentive to an excessive or servile degree
- copra — dried coconut kernels, from which oil is obtained
- chafing dish —A chafing dish (from the French chauffer, “to make warm”) is a kind of portable grate raised on a tripod, originally heated with charcoal in a brazier, and used for foods that require gentle cooking, away from the “fierce” heat of direct flames.
- ducks — pants made of duck fabric, a kind of strong linen which is also used for sails.
- burg — an ancient or medieval fortress or walled town
CHARACTERS IN “RAIN”
An Englishman. ‘It was not like our soft English rain that drops gently on the earth’. We don’t know much else about him. Was he lurking unseen at the same establishment?
With his tall, spare form, and his great eyes flashing out of his pale face, he was an impressive figure. He worked in the Solomons for five years before he met his wife. She had been a missionary in China, and they had become acquainted in Boston, where they were both spending part of their leave to attend a missionary congress. On their marriage they had been appointed to the islands in which they had laboured ever since. He was a medical missionary, and he was liable to be called at any time to one or other of the islands in the group. He has done his ‘missionary’ work by issuing fines to locals minding their own business.
Described like a bird, with her small frame and shrill voice. She seems to turn a blind eye to the violence of her husband. “When he is on the Lord’s work I never ask him questions.”
A little more open-minded than the Christian missionaries he hangs out with. Is able to see the funny side in situations. Smokes a pipe. Treats locals for their tropical diseases and whatnot. Dr. Macphail was a timid man. In the war, he had never been able to get used to the hurtling of the shells over the trenches.
Mrs. Macphail is shy, and in the habit of doing what her husband bade her. She spends all her time making comforters for the war effort.
Miss Sadie Thompson
Also gets marooned on the island. Described by the missionary women as ‘fast’ which is probably more a comment on her lower socio economic status. Loud and cheerful voice. Dresses in a white frock, and her shiny white boots with their high heels, her fat legs bulging over the tops of them. Of all of them, fits in best with the locals. Mr Davidson concludes she boarded the ship from Hawaii, where she worked in the sex trade.
Owner of the place where they’re staying. A ‘half-caste trader’.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “RAIN”
Who is the main character of “Rain”? Reverend Davidson is the main focus of the narrator’s point of view. Normally, the main character is the character who has the anagnorisis. Because he gets killed, the reverend gets no revelation, though he may have realised something before he died. (However that death happened.)
The reader is let in on only one side of Reverend Davidson’s desires—the desire to punish others for what he considers human failings.
The part of his desire kept back as a reveal is that he is the worst of the lot.
This second part of his psychology isn’t much of a surprise, and I wonder if the modern reader is more jaded, and if a contemporary of Somerset Maugham would’ve been genuinely surprised that a reverend (even a fictional one) would behave in such a way. The fairly recent history of reverends and priests as above human infallibility is very recent.
The group’s opponent is Sadie Thompson, as she doesn’t conform to their high moral standards. They dislike her for her corrupting influence and perhaps because of fears of contagion — sex workers are considered dirty, because they can be a vector of sexually transmitted disease in a time when people don’t understand how these things work.
Davidson’s other opponent is the doctor, who the audience sympathises with. The doctor is a non-confrontational, laidback sort of man, so not exactly a formidable opponent. He gives up trying to keep Sadie being sent back to San Francisco, where she will serve time in prison, presumably for the crime of sex work.
The reverend plans to send Sadie Thompson to San Francisco and sets that up very effectively, by strong arming. First he plans to do sex to her, and then she’ll be safely gone, so she’ll never tell.
The doctor has ‘counterattack’ — to try and persuade people with reason not to enforce Sadie’s return to San Francisco, but to allow as she wishes — to find straight work in Sydney. This plan is ineffective.
Someone else — the murderer — has a different plan. Either Sadie kills him, the reverend’s wife kills him, or else she somehow finds out, leading the reverend to kill himself.
Leading up to the big struggle we have a ‘big struggle-state-of-mind’ in which the author describes the weather, the surroundings, in an ominous, restless kind of way:
[Dr Macphail] scratched his mosquito bites. He felt very short-tempered. When the rain stopped and the sun shone, it was like a hothouse, seething, humid, sultry, breathless, and you had a strange feeling that everything was growing with a savage violence. The natives, blithe and childlike by reputation, seemed then, with their tattooing and their dyed hair, to have something sinister in their appearance; and when they pattered along at your heels with their naked feet you looked back instinctively. [sideshadowing] You felt they might at any moment come behind you swiftly and thrust long knife between your shoulder blades. You could not tell what dark thoughts lurked behind their wide-set eyes. They had a little the look of ancient Egyptians painted on a temple wall, and there was about them the terror of what is immeasurably old.
Note that the violence in that paragraph is imagined, and W. Somerset Maugham is making use of sideshadowing when describing what a character thinks could happen.
That paragraph is necessary not only as foreshadowing because the big struggle which leads to a death takes place off-stage.
The ‘twist’ in this tale is that we are first given a false Anagnorisis. (Though if you read it like me, you saw it coming.)
”It’s a true rebirth. Her soul, which was black as night, is now pure and white like the new-fallen snow. I am humble and afraid. Her remorse for all her sins is beautiful. I am not worthy to touch the hem of her garment.”
How do we know this is all fake? Because the narrator has already primed us to not expect a didactic, Christian tale. All this time he has been highlighting the nasty side of the missionaries, and the more Christian they are, the worse they behave.
The revelation, which comes in the last line, and which we are left to deduce (somewhat) is that Rev Davidson was either raping Sadie or offering to pay for sex, all the while hypocritically punishing her for her sins.
The reader is left not knowing whether it is Sadie or Mrs Davidson who killed the reverend. I think the point of withholding this information is to avoid creating a moral hierarchy in the reader’s mind regarding murder — humans are all the same, so we are told. This point becomes underscored when the reader is left to consider that every woman, from a lowly sex worker to a respectable reverend’s wife is a murder suspect.