Somerset Maugham's "The Ant and the Grasshopper": The Literary Implications of Its Multilayered Structure

By Sopher, H. | Studies in Short Fiction, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Somerset Maugham's "The Ant and the Grasshopper": The Literary Implications of Its Multilayered Structure


Sopher, H., Studies in Short Fiction


As a linguist I have been interested in the function of structure in literary works. The question I seek to answer in each case is: what does the story's structure contribute to its total meaning? Some time ago I published a structural analysis of John Collier's short story "The Chaser," a story whose interpretation presents some difficulty (Sopher 328-33). My purpose was to demonstrate that a careful analysis of the story's structure could provide clues to its symbolic meaning with respect to the human situation the story portrays. The complex structure of Somerset Maugham's short story "The Ant and the Grasshopper" seemed meaningful to me and, so, to invite analysis. I propose, in this paper, to investigate the literary implications of the story's multilayered structure.

"The Ant and the Grasshopper" is a frame story. It differs, though, from other frame stories in that the inner story (the story of George and Tom) is itself subdivided into (1) a frame, and (2) a flashback. In effect, it has three distinct levels - an Outer Frame (henceforth OF), an Inner-Story Frame (henceforth IF), and a Flashback, of which the last two levels together constitute the inner story - as illustrated by the following diagram:

I propose in this paper (1) to analyze the structure of the story, and (2) to assess the literary implications of its multilayered structure.

I. STRUCTURE ANALYSIS

The three components of the story's structure - the two frames and the flashback - are distinguished from each other by a change of topic, participants, time of action, scene of action, focus, and register. In addition, the text contains linguistic signals that mark the transition from one section to another.

Transition Markers. The Transitions, from one section of the story to another, are in each case clearly marked.

(1) The first transition - from [OF.sup.1] to [IF.sup.1] - occurs at the words "I could not help thinking of this fable when the other day I saw George Ramsay lunching by himself in a restaurant" (par. 6 [95]; emphasis added).(1) This sentence introduces a new topic (see diagram), a new participant (George, who is also the new focus of interest), a specific scene (the restaurant), and a specified time ("the other day").

(2) The second transition - from [IF.sup.1] to Flashback - occurs at the words "I suppose every family has a black sheep. Tom had been a sore trial to his for twenty years" (par. 12 [96]; emphasis added). These works introduce a new topic (see diagram), a new focus (Tom), a change of time, and a change of register - from dialogue to narrative.

(3) The third transition - from Flashback to [IF.sup.2] - occurs at the words "Poor George! I sympathised with him" (par. 18 [97]; emphasis added). These words bring the reader back to the restaurant scene of [IF.sup.1], and focus again on George. [IF.sup.1] and [IF.sup.2] present a single continuous action.

(4) The fourth and final transition - from [IF.sup.2] to [OF.sup.2] - occurs at the words "George never forgave me" (par. 29 [98]; emphasis added), which take us away from the restaurant scene and very much forward in time. The very next sentence, as well as all the following sentences, are in the present tense, which is a further indication of time change: "But Tom asks me to excellent dinners. . . ."

While both [OF.sup.1] and [OF.sup.2] follow the Inner Story with respect to time, they are not contemporaneous. [OF.sup.1], which introduces the story, takes place a few days after the restaurant scene (as we gather from the words "the other day" in par. 6 [95]), while [OF.sup.2], which concludes the story, occurs long after the restaurant scene (as we gather from the word "never" in par. 29 [98]).

II. LITERARY IMPLICATIONS.

The story's complex structure is both an end in itself and a means to an end. It is an end in itself in that it is sophisticated, and sophistication is always pleasing to the cultivated mind. …

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