By Jim Tuck
The Greatest Short Story Ever Written
With due respect to Poe, Maupassant, O. Henry and other masters of the art, my nominee for outstanding short story writer of all time is Somerset Maugham. For one thing, Maugham had the advantage of longevity, living longer than Poe and Maupassant put together. Ask any Maugham aficionado the title of his finest piece of short fiction and almost certainly the answer will be Rain. Enormously successful, Rain was staged on Broadway and filmed twice. Taking nothing away from it, I would nonetheless rate it Number 2, with top honors going to The Outstation. My choice is based on a conviction that The Outstation presents the reader with a character study far more complex—and in the end more interesting than the somewhat simplistic theme of an austere cleric who becomes infatuated with a prostitute.
Locale of the story is British North Borneo and principals are Warburton, the Resident, and Cooper, his assistant. The two are polar opposites and an intense hatred eventually develops between them. Warburton is a ferocious snob who has taken the colonial post only because he went broke gambling. An incurable namedropper, he never tires of informing bored listeners that he once played baccarat with the Prince of Wales.
Cooper, on the other hand, is a rough-hewn colonial who detests Warburton’s snobbery —to say nothing of Warburton’s obvious perception of him as a social inferior. The tone of their relationship is set at the very beginning. Cooper comes to dinner in shorts and encounters Warburton in white dinner jacket and black tie. Incredulously, he asks Warburton if he always dresses for dinner. Warburton frostily replies that he does. Cooper: “Even when you’re alone?” Warburton: “Especially when I’m alone.”
Another exchange gives Maugham the opportunity to display his gifts as a master social satirist. At dinner with Cooper, Warburton “told a little anecdote, of which the only point seemed to be that he knew an earl.”
By now the reader is fully prepared to loathe the snobbish Warburton and feel sympathy for Cooper. It’s at this juncture that Maugham springs his trap and the story takes on an entirely new dimension.
Though a snob, Warburton is no racist and his relations with the Malays are excellent. By contrast, Cooper’s egalitarianism begins and ends with the white race and he harbors an ugly prejudice against people of color.
This brings on another confrontation between the two men. To Warburton’s comment that he respects well-born Malays every bit as much as he does their English counterparts, Cooper boorishly replies that to him all Malays are “niggers.” In the end, Cooper’s blue-collar bigotry has fatal consequences. He beats up Abas, his houseboy, and that night Abas slips into his bungalow and stabs him to death.
The story ends with Warburton’s reaction to Cooper’s murder. Talk about not a wet eye in the house! Dutifully, he tells Abas’s uncle that Abas should turn himself in. The uncle hesitates. Will the tuan hang Abas? Reassuringly, Warburton says Abas will serve a short term of imprisonment and then he himself will take him on as a houseboy.
Abas shouldn’t have killed tuan Cooper but, he adds comfortingly, “the provocation was very great.” His pleasure mounting, Warburton looks forward to a congratulatory letter he plans to write his friend, Lady Ormskirk, who has just given birth.
To the best of my knowledge, The Outstation was never filmed. Hollywood really dropped the ball on that one.