Salvatore | The story
Salvatore is a short story by Somerset Maugham that has the ability to charm the reader through its simplicity. No clever plots, no suspense or reliance on wit. The beauty of Salvatore lies in its simplicity and the simplicity derives its integrity through the masterful characterization of the protagonist. The narrator traces the life of a certain ‘Salvatore’ and shows us the goodness of this man playing out in the different aspects of his less than perfect life.
The story opens with the narrator expressing a sense of doubt in what he is attempting:
“I wonder if I can do it“.
Towards the end of the story, his simple ambition is revealed : of holding the reader’s attention for a few pages while he draws the portrait of an ordinary man foreseeing the rare virtue of goodness. And clearly, he has.
Salvatore | Summary
We first come across Salvatore through the eyes of the narrator as a carefree boy of fifteen. Being a son of an Italian fisherman, Salvatore spends most of his time around the beach. This jolly kid with a “pleasant face and a laughing mouth” loves to swim, climb the rocks and frolic around in a carefree fashion. This boy with a body “as thin as as rail” acts as a nursemaid to his brothers, ever watchful of their safety and always makes sure that they do not miss their frugal midday meal.
Salvatore grows up with great rapidity, falls madly in love with a girl from Grand Marina and he desires to tie the knot with her. However, the duty towards his country calls him to join the Navy of King Victor Emmanuel and he has to leave his hometown before they get married.
He “weeps like a child” on finding himself in foreign lands and is terribly homesick, especially when Ischia and Mount Vesuvius are no longer within his sight. Moreover, parting from his lover is the hardest part for him to bear and he resorts to writing long, ill-spelt letters to her. Salvatore is then tossed around from Venice, to Bali, to China and ends up falling terribly ill. He bears his hardship with “the patience of a dog” and is told he’ll never be able to do manual work and is no longer fit for service. Our man is delighted. He can finally return to his lover.
Salvatore is in for a rude shock though. The girl doesn’t show up to receive him when he returns home. Sure, his family members do fawn over him on his arrival. But the girl just isn’t there. Soon, we see him going to the house of his lover only to be rudely jilted by her. His Lady love says that she cannot marry a man “who would never be strong enough to work like a man“. Salvatore is heartbroken. However, despite the tragedy, this spurned lover never breathes a word of malice against his ex: “His smile was very sad and his eyes had the look of a dog that has been beaten, but he did not complain, and he never said a hard word of the girl he had loved so well“.
A few months later, he attracts the attention of a young woman called Assunta whom he immediately declares to be “as ugly as the devil“. However, this seemingly rude remark can be attributed to his directness mingled with a post-breakup irritability rather than pure malice. His mother tells him that she had seen him at the festa and Salvatore ends up marrying Assunta on hearing of her love for him. Salvatore is honest enough to refrain from playing hard-to-get and gentle enough to understand and reciprocate somebody else’s affection.
Soon, he becomes a father and plays his part in a “hard enough life“. He begins providing for his family through fishing and catching profitable cuttlefish by night. This often includes long bouts of rowing to and fro from the fishing grounds to Naples. When not fishing, he occupies himself in the vineyard from dawn till dusk. And when his rheumatism forces him to lie down on the beach and smoke some cigarettes, he has nothing but a pleasant word for everyone despite the nerve-racking pain in his legs. Seeing him thus, the judgmental foreigners who pass by the beach often dismiss the guy and claim that the Italian fishermen are “lazy devils“. Yeah, smarty-pants. Hell yeah.
The fatherly affection of Salvatore is beautifully portrayed in the final paragraphs of the story where we find him enjoying his time with his kids. The sight is replete with love and care of a dutiful father:
He would seat the naked baby on the palm of his hand and hold him up , laughing a little at his smallness, and his laugh was like the laughter of an angel. His eyes were then as candid as his child’s.
The narrator then reveals the intent of his endeavor: to see whether he could “hold” the reader’s attention “for a few pages” by describing a character who possessed a quality “which is the rarest, the most precious and the loveliest that anyone can have”. And the quality of course is “Goodness, just goodness”.
Salvatore | Analysis
The story begins with the speaker expressing his concern in the first person: “I wonder if I can do it.”
This line has the uncanny ability to draw the reader in, to intrigue the reader’s curiosity and make him/her expect something more. It is a very effective tool in arresting the reader’s attention in a form (the short story) where time is limited and the reader’s attention precious. Turns out, he wants to hold the reader’s attention “for a few pages” while drawing a portrait of a man and the rare quality of goodness that he possessed. Needless to say, Maugham is a terrific storyteller and Salvatore is also a lesson on how the writer of the short story may achieve her/his aim within the constraints of time and space the form demands of him/her. Much about this later.
By the time we finish reading the story, we find that our narrator has indeed been successful in arresting “the readers attention for a few pages“. This is not only because the quality of “Goodness” itself is a commendable virtue but also (and more importantly) through Maugham’s skillful representation of the quality’s presence in protagonist’s life. The account of Salvatore is related in the third person by an observant speaker who adopts a conversational tone.
It serves us well to make the virtue of goodness in Salvatore’s life as the central point while analyzing the story. At first glance, it may seem that it is just “goodness” that the narrator seeks to explore through his sketch of Salvatore. However, on a closer look, we discover that the word ‘goodness’ carries with it a world of various qualities that manifest themselves along the narrative as the life of Salvatore unfolds.
One of the first qualities indirectly attributed to Salvatore is responsibility. We are told that Salvatore “acted as nursemaid to his two younger brothers“, ever watchful of their safety and wellbeing and in doing so comes off as a caring brother. This is one of the first among a multiplicity of qualities that go into the making of the admirable unity of Goodness.
He is a passionate lover and remains faithful towards the girl he loves. While on his naval duty, his thoughts are preoccupied with the girl he’s left behind and he constantly writes long letters to his lover. It is a different matter that he doesn’t receive any letter of response from the other end. This quality of giving without expecting anything in return speaks of the sincerity of his love and the generosity of this human being .
While abroad, Salvatore’s health deteriorates and as if the illness weren’t enough, he returns home only to face the full blow of a blunt breakup. The girl pulls no punches and he clearly doesn’t see it coming. It is a clear knockout:
“He wept on his mother’s bosom. He was terribly unhappy, but he did not blame the girl…he did not complain, and he never said a hard word of the girl he had loved so well.“
This speaks volumes about the character of this man. Despite being wronged, he tries to understand the other person’s situation and holds no grudge against her. This is a magnanimous gesture on his part that is rarely seen in the real world.
Therefore, each instance of Salvatore’s life is marked by the display of one quality or the other.
When we analyse the brief account of Salvatore’s life , we find such qualities scattered along his journey from childhood to fatherhood. Salvatore has the rare quality of goodness because one glance at his life-history shows that he is loving, carefree, humble, patient dutiful, responsible childlike, empathic, forgiving, gentle, hardworking, well mannered, magnanimous, caring, honest and above all has the tendency to do good despite the hardships he has endured and the unfairness with which he has been dealt with. In short, he is a man above his circumstances he’s trapped in and the ‘goodness’ which resides in him refuses to be shaped by the hardships of life. Whether it is his care for his brothers, his duty towards his country, his forgiveness for the woman who rejected him, his acceptance of another who loved him, his hardworking nature, his affection for his children and his sheer strength of character, all go into the making of this quality which sets him apart from his fellow men – the quality of goodness. And above all, this goodness is tempered with humility. As the narrator explicitly states :
All I know is that it (goodness) shone in him with a radiance that, if it had not been unconscious and so humble, would have been to the common run of men hardly bearable “.
Maugham is known for his economy of words and quick paced, direct narratives. Salvatore, the life story of a man from his adolescence to fatherhood which covers different aspects of his life as a kid, his relationship with his brothers, his first love, his duty in the navy, his experiences abroad, his unfortunate breakup, his marriage, his role as a father and the breadwinner of the family – all account for no more than a couple of paragraphs.. The sheer ease with which the story is condensed is commendable. And the manner in which the quality of “Goodness” is unpacked in such a fast paced story is positively intimidating. For after all, brevity isn’t just the soul of wit. It is also the soul of a short story.
The economy of words with which this feat is achieved is also cemented by the strategic use of imageries, similes and metaphors that reveal more by saying less. To illustrate, the description of Salvatore’s lover (who will eventually discard him off) in the first few paragraphs is of great significance :
” She had eyes like forest pools and she held herself like a daughter of the Caesars“
Not only does the simile conjure an unforgettable image of a beautiful girl, it also hints at her nature. The girl from Grande Marina is pretty and she knows it. Perhaps she thinks highly of herself and accordingly carries herself “like a daughter of the Caesars“. Perhaps she feels she deserves better. On retrospect, it is only natural that she should reject Salvatore. There you have it then, a one-line character sketch which also furthers the narrative.
The story is fraught with plenty of such striking smiles and metaphors that create a strong impression on the reader’s mind. A boy with a body “as thin as a rail” who eats his frugal midday meal must be poor. A man bearing his illness with the “patience of a dog” and a lonely lover whose eyes have the look “of a dog that has been beaten” must wallow in helplessness for some time. Similarly, a grown up man who, in the company of his children laughs “like an angel” and whose coarse hands become “like flowers” while handling his infants forms the impression of a caring father that cannot be easily forgotten.
Another device with which this story providing a biographical sketch of the character is condensed to such a short read is the authorial intrusion in the beginning and end of the story. The speaker muses thus:
“I wonder if I can do it ”
Not only does the first person allow the speaker to express his intention to demonstrate the remarkable quality of “goodness” in the concluding paragraphs, it also allows him to jump directly into the pith and marrow of the narrative thereby relieving him the trouble of creating either a sound background or a clear and coherent conclusion. This drastically reduces the length of the story that is effectively a biographical sketch.
Salvatore, with its depiction of many facets of a worthy quality, its sheer economy of words, its unpretentious style, quick pace and above all, the brilliant character sketch of the protagonist makes it a really interesting read. The story not only captures one’s attention for a “few pages” but overwhelms the observant reader with its form and content.
Salvatore : About the author
Somerset Maugham was a formidable English writer whose mastery over the short story has placed his writing in the topmost rungs of the modern English canon. A British novelist, playwright and short story writer par excellence, Maugham was born on 25th January, 1874 at the UK Embassy in Paris, France. Orphaned at the age of 10, he went to England and was raised by his maternal uncle. Because French was the first language he had learnt, Maugham was bullied in a school for his difficulties with the English language. To make matters worse, he also had a stammer with which he had to struggle for a greater period of his life. Maugham went to Heidelberg (aged 16) where he studied philosophy, literature and German. He practiced medicine for some years which brought him in close contact with the English working class. These experiences would later transpire in his first novel Liza of Lambeth which proved vital in helping him switch to literature. By 1908 he had established himself as one of the most important playwrights of his time. The year saw four of his plays run simultaneously in the London theatres. Of Human Bondage was published in 1915. Largely autobiographical in nature, it has been widely accepted as his masterpiece. His other important works include The Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale, among others.
Maugham was unable to enlist in the army due to his age and height (5′ 6″). However, he drove an ambulance for the Red Cross under its Literary Ambulance Drivers unit which included writers like Ernest Hemingway and E.E Cummings . He even worked as a spy for the British government and was assigned a mission in Russia to offset the Russian Revolution of 1917. Later, he toured around the Far East and various British colonies around the world. After a prosperous career Maugham settled in French Riviera where he bought villa at Cape Ferrat which he had to abandon in 1940 due to Hitler’s German Offensive. He escape to UK before travelling to the US.
As a writer Maugham had a impressive understanding of human nature and a clear, concise style marked by an remarkable economy of words which is seen in the short story Salvatore.
He established the Somerset Maugham Award in 1947. Maugham died on 16th December, 1965 in Nice, France.