A Friend in Need by W. Somerset Maugham
In A Friend in Need by W. Somerset Maugham we have the theme of appearance, hopelessness, friendship, desperation and connection. Taken from his Collected Short Stories collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Maugham may be exploring the theme of appearance. The narrator like many people believes that you cannot judge an individual’s character based solely on how someone might look. To emphasis his point the narrator highlights some of his friends that he has known for a long time yet he would consider that he knows very little if anything about these friends. Something that many readers would find understandable. It is difficult if not impossible to formulate a knowledgeable appraisal of another individual based solely on how they might look. Each individual will be different even if some may look similar in appearance. Maugham also appears to be exploring the theme of friendship though in reality all the characters mentioned in the story would merely be acquaintances of each other. Which may be the point that Maugham is attempting to make. He may be suggesting that things might have been different for Lenny Burton should he have had a friend in Yokohama.
Lenny’s reliance on Edward ended up costing him his life and the reader senses that Edward does not really feel anything when it comes to Lenny’s death. Rather than simply offering Lenny a job (even though there was no vacancy) Edward decides upon issuing Lenny with a challenge. How desperate Lenny may have been is noticeable by the fact that though he knows he is physically out of condition he still nonetheless attempts to do the swim. For many readers this would be a warning sign into Edward’s character however the narrator himself through judging Edward by appearance considers Edward to be a good man. Though both Lenny and Edward were merely acquaintances Edward should have known better than to issue the challenge to Lenny. It is as though life is a game to Edward. Should Lenny have been successful he still may not have gotten a job from Edward as there was no vacancy. There is also no doubting that Lenny needed help. His circumstances had changed dramatically due to his lifestyle yet the reality was he did not know anybody well enough that might be able to help him. Hence Lenny reaching out to Edward.
It is also possible that Maugham is asking the reader to define what friendship is. In the story there is no real connection between any of the characters apart from periods when they may be drinking or playing bridge together. The reader never really gets to know what makes each character tick. Which may be important as Maugham may be suggesting that friendship is elusive. You might think you know somebody, as the narrator thinks he knows Edward, but the reality may be very different. Just as you can incorrectly judge somebody by their appearance. Similarly you may not necessarily know somebody just because you spent a brief moment with them. It can take time to know who a person is. You need to see a person at their best and their worst before you can not only formulate an opinion about the person but also to see if there is the possibility that you might become friends with the person. This may have been the mistake that Lenny made. Through desperation he thought that perhaps Edward might be able to help. However the reality is Lenny and Edward were no more than two individuals who happened to play cards together.
The end of the story is interesting if not shocking as the reader really gets an insight into how Edward thinks. He is cold and lacks compassion when it comes to Lenny’s death. He does not consider himself to be responsible in anyway nor does he suffer from any guilt. As mentioned life is a game to Edward. It did not bother him that someone he knew came to him seeking his help. As Edward did not view Lenny as being a friend. Something which ended up costing Lenny his life. The fact that Edward chuckles when asked by the narrator did he know that Lenny would drown is also interesting. As in many ways this sums up Edward’s reaction to Lenny’s death. A desperate and hopeless man has lost his life and Edward views what happened as no more than a business transaction. A transaction which the reader suspects that Edward looks upon favourably. Despite the narrator telling the reader that Edward ‘looked at me with those kind and candid blue eyes of his.’ The reader is left suspecting that not only Lenny but the narrator too have been fooled by Edward’s appearance. He is not the man that he appears to be and he is most definitely not a friend to either Lenny or the narrator.