“Red” is a short story which appears in Somerset Maugham’s 1921 collection titled The Trembling of a Leaf. The unifying element of that collection—aside from the usual suspects about which Maugham writes—is the setting. All of the stories feature a background in the paradise of the islands in the Pacific Ocean. Irony is a key aspect of these stories in which the perfection of the setting is inevitably undermined by the imperfection of the human animal.
“Red” is, however, an especially notable example of this secondary unifying aspect of dark irony playing out under the warm sum of the yet-to-be-despoiled island settings. Integral to the sense of irony in this case is the loss of that with which humans have yet come closest to attaining an ideal of perfection: physical beauty. It is a tale of two extraordinarily appealing physical specimens falling in love, being ruthlessly separated by fate, and crossing each other’s paths many decades later after both have been removed from the state of perfection by the ravages of time and genetics. The cruel climax pointing out the folly of identifying perfection among the species is one that would barely raise an eyebrow had it been found within a compendium of Roald Dahl’s short fiction. Being found among the fiction of Somerset Maugham is a different thing entirely. It is perhaps because of the ironic contemplation of the dark side physical beauty that the author singled out this particular story as being of his favorites written by his own pen.
Maugham’s carved a career out of possessing perfect pitch for the sound of a true story that could be manipulated into successful storytelling. It was on the very same ship on the very same trip through the Pacific islands that Maugham first heard about the true story that would become the basis for his most famous piece of short fiction—“Rain”—that he also had the good fortune of crossing paths with a young sailor recently discharged from the U.S. Navy in Pago Pago. That young sailor would go on to become immortalized as the title character in “Red.”