Adventure stories were extremely popular during the colonization period. Written for boys and largely peopled by male characters, they addressed boys not as readers but as future servants of the Empire. A journey to an exotic and foreign land, facing a challenge in this land and solving the problems there, and then making a triumphant return to the mother country was the basic structure of a classic adventure story. In a time when colonialist discourse was significantly similar to the language of adventure stories, these stories inculcated, from young age, a desire in boys to set out on “adventures” to foreign, strange lands, and bring back glory for themselves and the Empire. Somerset Maugham’s “The Door of Opportunity”, being set in a colony, becomes a part of the repertoire of writings not only about colonization, but of adventure. In this story, Maugham takes up the format of the adventure story and inverts it to underline the reality of colonial practices and present a critique on colonialism.
Alban in “The Door of Opportunity” is a symbolized as a race marker, an ideological construct to stand for Englishness itself. His interest in literature, love for music, eagerness to learn the language of the natives as well as his physical appearance – the “fair hair”, “blue eyes”, “fine head”, “prominent Adam’s apple” (Maugham 44) – are shown to be distinctively English. He is also pitted against the other officers in Sondurah, and their average minds, petty jealousies, dull pastimes and uncultivated tastes serve to emphasize the idea of Alban as superior. Yet, it is Alban; the same Alban whose wife took for granted will be the governor one day and whose abilities were grudgingly appreciated by the very people who called him Powder Puff Percy; who fails as an imperial agent. Unlike the hero of an adventure story, he does not emerge triumphant from his journey to an exotic country; instead, his is a narrative of loss. Through the characterization of Alban as innately superior to others in the same profession as him, Maugham is perhaps suggesting that the best cannot triumph in an imperialist world: only the brash can. The importance of a careful administrator like Alban as against a forceful conqueror like Van Hasseldt is also ignored by the greed of imperialism.
A conventional adventure story begins with the undertaking of a journey. Maugham begins “The Door of Opportunity” at the point where an adventure story ends: at the time of return. But unlike an adventure story, in Alban’s return, the expected triumphant homecoming is missing. While Alban is visibly excited about returning to London, Anne feels embarrassed by the “friendly little smile” of a woman fellow passenger from Singapore, and notices how nobody will share the train carriage with them. Coming back to the mother country is not a comforting return to a comfort zone nor an arrival back home, but a realization that everything you imagined home to be is a myth. Alban and Anne are in a sense, exiled to London because he has been dismissed from service. In fact, Alban and Anne had been at home at Datkar, an isolated district of Sondurah, where he had been appointed as District Officer. They fell in love with the place from the beginning, and engaged with the people there, discovered that their days were effortlessly filled with activities they both enjoyed and made frequent tours of the district. The place also succeeded in bringing them closer together than before. Datkar was their true home: largely isolated from judgemental eyes of fellow countrymen and accommodative of their shared as well as varied interests. However, Datkar is a part of a British colony, and can never permanently be the home of the colonizer, whose primary function in a colony is to discharge his duties to the glory of the Empire and utilize the resources of the colony for this purpose. Alban and Anne can thus be seen as colonial agents enjoying the perks of the Empire. From this perspective, their relationship is superficial as it is sustained only in a place away from home; during the course of the adventure.
While Datkar can never be a permanent home for Alban, neither can London. His is an adventure story in which he is sent into exile and doesn’t return to rest, comfort and glory. Instead, a narrative of personal, social and political loss is the end result. Because his adventure was unsuccessful, he loses his wife, who is now so ashamed of him that she cannot stay with him, whose love has turned to loathing “the very sight” (Maugham 67) of her husband. Already mocked at for his sense of superiority and cultivated tastes, now he is ridiculed for being a coward and a fake. The people who used to concede grudgingly that he was a good administrator now have tangible proof that he is just a fraud. He also fails as an imperial subject because he lets down the interests of the other colonizers. This, when coupled with Alban’s own limited understanding of Englishness and scorn for his community, renders him totally isolated. Home itself becomes a space for exile, and under the trajectory of an adventure story, all he is is a failure.
Maugham inverts the entire structure of the adventure story. The story begins with a return – a defeated return to be precise. The home can no longer be what it used to be and transforms into a place of exile. The hero of the story in the end does not achieve glory, but instead, is pervaded by a deep sense of loss. By using the very trajectory that was popular to propagandize imperialism, Maugham succeeds in collapsing the myth if a glorious adventure and the national self. Instead, the very idea of the mother country becomes questionable.
Maugham, Somerset. “The Door of Opportunity”. Ed. Bhattacharji, Shobana. Anglo-American Writing from 1930. Delhi: Doaba Publications, 2005. Print.