Study Guide to
"The Appointment in Samarra"
(as retold by W. Somerset Maugham [1933])
It's best not to read further in this study guide until you have completed your first reading.  After you've read the savored the story a few times, give some thought to the following issues.

(1)  In whatever way we might decide to tell this story, Death would have to be a character in it.  But Maugham has decided to have Death be the narrator of the story as well.  And Death here is not an omniscient narrator.  (A narrator that knows everything can certainly arrange to spring surprises on the reader; but such a narrator is incapable of being surprised himself or herself.)  At what moment does the reader realize that Death is not an omniscient character?

How does the fact that Death is affected this way contribute to the overall effect of the story?
(2)  Death here appears to the servant as a woman in the Baghdad bazaar.  The servant is "jostled" by this woman.  Does Death do this intentionally, or does it just happen?  (What are the relevant clues?)
Why is a market perhaps a good place for Death to be strolling around in?

What explanation does Maugham provide for the merchant's being present in the market on that day?  (Is this important in any way, however slight, or might it just have well been some other reason?  What would change if, say, the servant had been lingering in the market in order to avoid going home and doing some work?  Or suppose the servant had gone there of his or her own will, in his/her free time?  Or suppose the servant were to be represented as having just made a bad business deal on the master's behalf?  Or as having just filched something from one of the stalls (an apricot?  a bracelet?), without paying?

Incidentally:  does this telling of the story accept a reader's insistence on taking the servant to be a woman?
What might be the connotations for a person in the position of a servant in medieval Baghdad of being jostled in the market by a woman?  (Is there more than one possibility?)  Does this fact contribute to the effect the narrative had upon you?
(3)  Is it open to us to imagine Death as actually a male character, who adopts the disguise of a woman in the market on the occasion on which the servant happens to see him?  Is it open to us to imagine Death as female in fact, i.e., fundamentally?  That is, does the narrative Maugham has decided upon include any clues that, if we notice them, direct us to imagine the situation in one way or another?  Or has Maugham carefully avoided committing the story to either of these characterizations?
For Maugham himself, of course, the choice was open in any case.  In your view, is the story more effective if we imagine Death as gendered in one way or another -- i.e., as male, or as female, or as neither?
(4)  What do you notice about the way the merchant approaches Death towards the end of the story?


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   Contents copyright © 2000 by Lyman A. Baker.

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  This page last updated 21 August 2000.