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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Colonizing masculinity : the creation of a male British subjectivity in the oriental fiction of W. Somerset Maugham Holden, Philip Joseph


This thesis discusses the oriental fiction of W. Somerset Maugham in the light of current theoretical models introduced by postcolonial and gender studies. Immensely popular from their time of publication to the present, Maugham's novels and short stories set in Asia and the South Pacific exhibit a consummate recycling of colonialist tropes. Through their manipulation of racial, gender, and geographical binarisms, Maugham's texts produce a fantasy of a seemingly stable British male subjectivity based upon emotional and somatic continence, rationality, and specularity. The status of the British male subject is tested and confirmed by his activity in the colonies. Maugham's situation of writing as a homosexual man, however, results in affiliations which cut across the binary oppositions which structure Maugham's texts, destabilising the integrity of the subject they strive so assiduously to create. Commencing with Maugham's novel The Moon and Sixpence, and his short story collection The Trembling of a Leaf, both of which are set in the South Pacific, the thesis moves to a discussion of Maugham's Chinese travelogue, On a Chinese Screen, and his Hong Kong novel, The Painted Veil. Further chapters explore the Malayan short stories, and Maugham's novel set in the then Dutch East Indies, The Narrow Corner. A final chapter discusses Maugham's novel of India, The Razor's Edge. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Maugham does not even attempt a liberal critique of British Imperialism. Writing and narration are, for him, processes closely identified with codes of imperial manliness. Maugham's putatively objective narrators, and the public "Maugham persona" which the writer carefully cultivated, display a strong investment in the British male subjectivity outlined above. Yet Maugham's texts also endlessly discover writing as a play of signification, of decoration, of qualities that he explicitly associates in other texts with homosexuality. If Maugham's texts do not critique the formation of colonial subjects they do, to a critical reader, make the rhetoric necessary to create such subjects peculiarly visible.

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