June 19, 2002
AGS 4760: Senior Seminar I
Is W. Somerset Maugham a Racist?
Websters Ninth Collegiate Dictionary defines racism as a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race(1). Racism can also be defined as prejudice or animosity against other races (2). In W. Somerset Maughams short story, Mr. Know-All, the narrator displays racism on at least three different occasions throughout the story.
The first occasion is when the narrator prejudges his cabin-mate, Mr. Kelada, by his last name. The narrator decided that he would not like Mr. Kelada, but would have liked him more if he had a more English last name, such as Smith or Brown. His heart (the narrators) sank upon hearing that name because he associated the name with a particular region and subsequently referred to him as a Levantine. Mr. Kelada tells the narrator from the beginning that he is English, however the narrator ignores him and uses the term Levantine to refer to him. A Levantine is someone from the eastern Mediterranean region comprising modern-day Lebanon, Israel, and parts of Syria and Turkey (3). The narrator also imagined that his cabin-mate would stink. This was clearly an example of racism because the narrator held some animosity toward his cabin-mate based upon his name.
Secondly, the narrator displays his racism in his physical description of Max Kelada. According to the narrator, Mr. Kelada was short and sturdy, had a hook nose and liquid eyes. Mr. Kelada also had dark skin and long black hair that was sleek and curly. This added to the narrators theory that this man was merely a Middle Easterner attempting to pass as an Englishman. The narrator states that " a closer inspection of that British passport would have betrayed the fact that Mr. Kelada was born under a bluer sky than is generally seen in England (p. 14)." In other words, Mr. Kelada was born in a much more tropical region, namely the Middle Eastern region, especially for him to have the "dark skin" that he possessed. Just because Mr. Kelada had dark skin, it did not mean that he was not born in England. His parents could have come to live in England and he could have indeed been born there. Again the narrator is assuming that from his physical features that maybe Mr. Kelada had a fake passport. The narrator shows his belief that race determines human traits.
Lastly the narrator shows his racism by judging Mr. Kelada simply by calling him Mr. Know-All. He dislikes Mr. Kelada because Mr. Kelada has something to say about everyone and everything. Mr. Kelada had an answer for everything and he seemed to know everyone. The narrator was agitated by this. According to the first definition of racism stated above, race determines human capabilities. Because Mr. Kelada was not an Englishman, he should not have known everything that he knew. In fact, Mr. Kelada should have never opened his mouth if race alone determined his capabilities because he was from a barbaric country where there is no form of education, except for maybe religious education.
These are just three occasions where the narrator shows signs of being a racist. The important thing to realize is that even thought the narrator displays outright racism, this does not mean that this is the stance of the author. While Mustafah may have been correct in calling the narrator racist, it is unclear that the author of the short story is racist.
1. Websters Ninth Collegiate Dictionary