‘Mr. Know-All’ by William Somerset Maugham: Short Story Analysis
‘Mr. Know-All’ is a heart-rending story of a big talker who saved the marriage of a modest woman. The story is penned by one of my favorite short story writers, William Somerset Maugham. Maugham is a British writer of great repute and has had one of the most successful literary careers in the twentieth century. This story titled ‘Mr. Know-All’ takes place on a passenger traffic ocean liner. Maugham was traveling from San Francisco to Yokohama when he happened to share a cabin with a certain Mr. Kelada. Although Mr. Kelada claims to be a Britisher, Maugham is not inclined to believe him. There are certain racial comments made by Maugham about Kelada’s dark skin color and his so-called ‘oriental’ habits and personality, but we can ignore them as the story is so well written. This same Kelada will save the reputation of a promiscuous wife of an officer in the American Consular Service. Thus, he will privately win the approval of his cabinmate Maugham by his act of humility.
Apparently, Maugham in this story was troubled by the person called Kelada. He did not like the way Kelada interfered in everything and with everyone on the ship. Kelada was a very happy braggart, always ready to talk and give his opinion about everything. However, no one even knew why Kelada was going to Japan. Kelada was unusually silent about this part of his itinerary. It is only when the topic arises about the culture pearls Japan was invested in creating that Kelada reveals that he was in the trade of pearls and knew how to recognize a genuine set of pearls from a fake one. He has a heated argument on this matter with Ramsay the officer in the American Consular Service. Kelada’s gaze falls on a set of pearls Mrs. Ramsay is wearing. He on mere assumption declares them to be real but Mrs. Ramsay, as well as her husband, insists that they are fake. Both husband and wife claim that the pearls were bought not in any fancy jeweler’s shop but at a departmental store and that the pearls were worth only eighteen dollars.
The point in this story is that Kelada was right and Ramsay was being deluded. His wife had cheated on him and indeed the pearls were genuine and very expensive. It was a gift from a lover as Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Ramsay stayed apart from each other for great lengths of time. There is also a very sexist remark made by Kelada in the last part of the story where he says that if he ever had a pretty wife like Mrs. Ramsay, he would not allow her to stay alone in New York while he stayed in Kobe which is in Japan. The gregarious, jovial, and big talker Kelada was about to literally rip the scales from Mr. Ramsay’s eyes regarding the genuineness of the pearls until he sees the beseeching face of Mrs. Ramsay. Though throughout the story, Maugham paints Kelada in a terrible light, we see that even he has a human side to himself. He realized that Mrs. Ramsay was begging him not to divulge that the pearls were expensive otherwise she would be discovered and her marriage would be ruined. Thus, Kelada, a man who never liked to claim that he was wrong remarked that he was ‘wrong’ and that the pearls were not genuine. He thus forfeits the penalty of a hundred-dollar bill to Mr. Ramsay to keep the modest Mrs. Ramsay’s dignity intact.
Maugham who is a witness to all this surmised that Mrs. Ramsay was cheating in some way on her husband. He was glad that Kelada did not allow his pride and his big mouth to ruin an overall decent woman’s personal life. Maugham even witnesses the good lady’s gift of gratitude to Kelada when she slips the hundred dollar note in an envelope under their shared cabin door. This was her way of showing gratitude to a man who spoilt his name to save her dignity in front of her husband. This was indeed a tender story about compassion and true empathy for a person in need.
Otherwise, Kelada is a person with a big mouth. He is always busy talking to people on the ship and butting his nose into everything most of the time even where he is not wanted. That is why he gets the nickname on the ship of ‘Mr. Know-All’. People call him this nickname to his face but he still never seems to take the hint to tame his lively extroverted spirit. He is also a Mr. Know-All because he ‘knows’ how to keep quiet when it is necessary to do so as in the case of Mrs. Ramsay, even if it entails rubbing his nose in the ground. Kelada may not be a Britisher, but he knows how to preserve the dignity of a woman. He puts a sort of ‘false front’ of a person who doesn’t have feelings, but indeed, he does have feelings like everyone else.
This brings me to the second aspect of this short story, Maugham’s absolute and almost racist attitude towards Mr. Kelada. Maugham makes quite rude statements in this story about Kelada’s background, one main theme centering around the fact that Kelada can’t be British at all. Maugham even sees the passport of Kelada and yet is suspicious. He makes a statement indicating that:
“…. the fact that Mr. Kelada was born under a bluer sky than generally seen in England.”
Maugham calls Kelada a ‘dark-complexioned’ man. He repeatedly calls him a Levantine. A Levantine is a person living in the Mediterranean region. Now, the question in my mind is that was Maugham trying to show to the world that even ‘Orientals’ have a heart or that all big talkers can never be British but most of the time are people from Asia, Africa, or wherever? This brazen racist message is disturbing to read, especially when Maugham seems so keen on visiting places in these ‘oriental’ continents. Let’s forgive him because he was not the first and he won’t be the last.
Here are some of the takeaways you can dwell on in this short story:
- Maugham on just reading the surname ‘Kelada’ was certain he was going to have a terrible cabinmate. He had not yet met Kelada.
- Maugham with his usual ‘white man’s burden’ attitude and persona sits down to play a card game of ‘Patience’ when Mr. Kelada first comes up to him. It seems like Maugham was trying to have ‘patience’ with the ‘oriental’ cabinmate. If it is supposed to be funny, well, maybe it was in Maugham’s day and age.
- The story takes place when there was Prohibition in England and the ‘so-called’ British braggart Kelada is the only person with alcohol on the ship.
- Kelada is a total extrovert. He loves to talk about extroverted things like plays, pictures, and politics. He conducted games and other activities on the ship trying to keep everyone happy and busy.
- Maugham makes a mention that he prefers being addressed as ‘mister’ if he is in the company of a stranger and did not like Kelada addressing him directly by his first name. I guess he felt that unbecoming in Kelada ‘the Levantine’ but even Americans don’t refer to strangers as ‘mister’ or ‘miss’. Different rules for different races?
- There is a mention in the story by Maugham that he didn’t like his country’s flag ‘the Union Jack’ being flourished by a gentleman who looked like he was from Alexandria or Beirut. This is certainly a very cutting statement and the problem is nothing has changed for over a century. In fact, we have Brexit.
- If you notice, all the men in this story are very much misogynists.
Although the racial remarks are very sharp in this story, it is still a good piece by Maugham. I can’t say I’m closer to Mr. Kelada because he was quite a braggart and a sexist and I can’t stand either. But the idea was unique and I’m sure it will seem a good read if read with discernment.
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