The opening line of the story is simple yet enigmatic. Without contextualizing the cryptic line, the narrator moves into a biographical sketch of Salvatore, the protagonist, who he describes using third-person narration. The effect is that Maugham leaves the statement as a lingering curiosity in the reader's mind, encouraging one to read through to the end, at which point the narrator reveals the "it" in question.
I knew Salvatore first when he was a boy of fifteen with a pleasant face, a laughing mouth and care-free eyes. He used to spend the morning lying about the beach with next to nothing on and his brown body was as thin as a rail. He was full of grace.
Moving from the cryptic opening line to a portrait of Salvatore, the narrator emphasizes in this passage how the boy looks and behaves. This passage is significant because it establishes Salvatore's smiling, pleasant face and carefree comportment—qualities he retains even as he grows older and endures adversity. As the narrator updates the portrait throughout the story, Salvatore never loses his good-natured smile.
I started by saying that I wondered if I could do it and now I must tell you what it is that I have tried to do. I wanted to see whether I could hold your attention for a few pages while I drew for you the portrait of a man, just an ordinary fisherman who possessed nothing in the world except a quality which is the rarest, the most precious and the loveliest that anyone can have.
The final paragraph returns to the opening line to give it context. Having moved away from the first-person voice for several pages, Maugham re-introduces first-person narration and the question that opens the story: whether he could hold the reader's attention with a simple portrait of an ordinary man. The line is significant because it answers the lingering question from the opening line while simultaneously justifying why Maugham's narrator has bothered relating the life of a man of no particular significance.
Heaven only knows why he should so strangely and unexpectedly have possessed it. All I know is that it shone in him with a radiance that, if it had not been unconscious and so humble, would have been to the common run of men hardly bearable. And in case you have not guessed what the quality was, I will tell you. Goodness, just goodness.
In the closing lines, the narrator justifies his reason for telling the story of Salvatore's life by revealing that he wanted to describe a man who possesses the ineffable and unconscious quality of goodness. The line is significant because it adds context to the portrait of Salvatore, labeling in retrospect the virtuousness that shines from the man's spirit through every hardship he endures. Rather than turn toward bitterness and resentment, Salvatore maintains a sense of contentment and moral fortitude from youth to adulthood.
He was sent here and there, to Spezzia, to Venice, to Ban and finally to China. Here he fell ill of some mysterious ailment that kept him in hospital for months. He bore it with the mute and uncomprehending patience of a dog. When he learnt that it was a form of rheumatism that made him unfit for further service his heart exulted, for he could go home; and he did not bother, in fact he scarcely listened, when the doctors told him that he would never again be quite well. What did he care when he was going back to the little island he loved so well and the girl who was waiting for him?
During Salvatore's military service, he falls ill with rheumatism. But in an instance of situational irony, he is overjoyed to learn that he has a debilitating autoimmune disease because his poor health means he can travel home to Italy. This passage is significant because it shows how much Salvatore misses the island of his birth and the girl he loves. It is also significant because it sets up Salvatore for the heartbreak he will face upon his return.
It was a hard enough life. All through the fishing season towards evening he set out in his boat with one of his brothers for the fishing grounds. It was a long pull of six or seven miles, and he spent the night catching the profitable cuttlefish. Then there was the long row back again in order to sell the catch in time for it to go on the early boat to Naples. At other times he was working in his vineyard from dawn till the heat drove him to rest and then again, when it was a trifle cooler, till dusk. Often his rheumatism prevented him from doing anything at all and then he would lie about the beach, smoking cigarettes, with a pleasant word for everyone notwithstanding the pain that racked his limbs. The foreigners who came down to bathe and saw him there said that these Italian fishermen were lazy devils.
In this passage, the narrator details Salvatore's exhausting work routine as a night fisher and daytime vine grower. When his painful rheumatism makes it impossible to work, Salvatore lies on the beach to rest and chat amiably with locals. Vacationing foreigners with a prejudice against the Italian working class see him resting and assume he must be lazy, not knowing of his medical condition. The passage is significant because it reveals the difficulty of having others understand the seriousness of invisible disabilities like rheumatoid arthritis.
Salvatore Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Salvatore is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.