The short story ‘Salvatore’ by Somerset Maugham, apparently a narrative about the life of a young Italian fisherman, is actually a masterly character-sketch of the protagonist.
The story is set in a tiny remote fishing village in Italy. Salvatore is a young boy of fifteen years of age, happy-go-lucky and has grown up in a fisherman’s family. He loved spending time bathing on the sea beach. He acted as a nurse-maid to his two younger brothers who played in the shallow waters of the sea. On going too far, Salvatore used to yell at them to come ashore.
Soon, Salvatore stepped into his adulthood and was enamored of a girl from Grande Marina. She bore her charm with dignity. The courtship went on but Salvatore couldn’t marry his sweetheart. He had to complete his service period in the navy before he could settle down. So, he went on to become a sailor in the navy of King Victor Emmanuel. It was daunting but an inescapable obligation that made Salvatore nervous. It was not about the horror of the battle but the prospect of leaving home for the very first time in the life that made him anxious.
Aboard the naval ship, in a sailor’s uniform, Salvatore gazed at the horizon and remembered the sunset over Ischia which he used to watch every evening. Salvatore yearned for home and missed his lady-love. The pangs of separation from her filled his mind with gloom.
Salvatore’s ship passed through Spezzia, Venice and Bari before reaching China. It seemed as if misfortune awaited Salvatore in China. He fell ill of some mysterious ailment and had to be admitted to a hospital for months. He bore it with uncomprehending patience. He was said to have contacted with a virulent strain of rheumatism, hence wouldn’t be able to do heavy manual work for the rest of his life. The hospital’s findings came as a bolt to him but brought huge relief to his home sick and love-stuck heart for he knew he would be discharged from the navy forthwith that meant deliverance from the battle ship, and most importantly an early return to his lady-love. It cheered Salvatore to the point of being ecstatic.
On marching home, Salvatore was welcomed by everyone including his parents, friends, the locals, everyone except his lady-love. This puzzled Salvatore. On enquiring, Salvatore’s mother told him that they had not seen the girl for about three weeks. This added to his anxiety and he couldn’t wait any longer. As dusk fell that evening, he went to his beloved’s house to meet her.
To his surprise, the lady gave a cold welcome to Salvatore. She sat aloof, without any display of emotions. Finally she revealed that she couldn’t marry him any longer for he was now crippled and couldn’t work hard enough to earn a living so, she said that she has decided to go by her father’s decision of marrying a fitter person who could provide things sufficiently. She told that it was her family’s unanimous decision. Her father couldn’t give her to a man who can’t slog like an able-bodied fisherman.
Salvatore was heart-broken. His heart grieved incessantly. Back home he discovered that his family was already aware of the girls’ decision and that they had held back the news from him. Clearly, Salvatore was devastated but he did not behave like most lovers do. He didn’t blame her for her decision to abandon him. He understood the reality that marrying a semi crippled young man is untenable for a working class fishing family. He bore his misfortune with remarkable fortitude.
Months rolled by. Salvatore directed his mind toward working on his father’s vineyards and continued with the fishing tricks. He soon came to terms with his life, accepting the failure in love with utmost dignity. Eventually as time passed by, Salvatore’s mother told him about a young woman named, Assunta, who was willing to marry him. Salvatore’s initial comment about the girl was rather disparaging. Assunta had no great looks and was older than him in age. Her fiance had died in the battle, somewhere in Africa. Hence, she was ready to marry Salvatore, if he agreed. His mother also revealed that Assunta had some money with her. After marriage she could buy a fishing boat and rent a vineyard so that they can make a living with ease. Moreover, she was fascinated by Salvatore after seeing him at the fiesta, so love is expected to bloom.
Salvatore decided to see the girl first on the following Sunday, he dressed himself up and sat at a vantage point in the church from where he could see her properly. Later, after church, Salvatore expressed his willingness to marry the girl.
Eventually, Salvatore and Assunta got married and lived in a tiny white-washed cottage in the middle of the vineyard. He grew into a stout, jolly and a hard-working guy. He retained his child like air, his pleasing eyes and his cool demeanor. Assunta was sweet at heart and a clever lady too. A completely devoted wife, she never ceased to be touched by his gentle sweetness. But she despised the girl who had cheated over her husband, hence had nothing but harsh words for her. Eventually, they became family with children blessed to them.
As a routine, all through the fishing season, Salvatore would go into the sea, accompanied by one of his brothers, catch the lucrative cuttlefish and would row back early in order to sell the catch to the ships bound for Naples. During the day, he used to work in his vineyard from dawn to dusk, with a short break in the afternoon. The rheumatism often made it difficult for him to perform any physical activity. He would then indolently lie about the beach, smoking cigarettes and gazing at the sea. He bore the pain stoically and often had a friendly chat with those passing by him.
At times he would bring his children down to the beach to bathe them in sea-water. The two boys abhorred being pushed into water. The elder demurred lightly but the younger one would scream with fright. Salvatore was a genteel loving father who loved his sons dearly. It was remarkable how the trio enjoyed their beach outings with warmth and togetherness. He would be as candid as his munchkin.
Maugham concludes the essay with specifying the innate quality within Salvatore’s personality. There was nothing heroic in him; no chivalry or melodrama. Yet, Salvatore’s character exudes the values that make a person adorable. He would be about the beach, smoking cigarettes, with a pleasant word for everyone not with standing the pain that racked his limbs.
Hence, one needs to understand that it is Salvatore’s best quality that he possesses; “a quality which is the rarest, the most precious and the loveliest that anyone can have”. We as readers need to imbibe this quality of “goodness” within us in order to lead a happy and contended life.