Narrated in the past tense by an unnamed first-person narrator, W. Somerset Maugham’s short story “Salvatore” opens with the narrator saying, “I wonder if I can do it.”
Without contextualizing the opening line, the narrator proceeds to tell the story of Salvatore, an Italian fisherman the narrator has known personally since Salvatore was a fifteen-year-old boy. The narrator describes the young Salvatore as having a pleasant face, a laughing mouth, and carefree eyes. Salvatore spends mornings lying on the beach with nearly no clothing on, his tanned brown body “thin as a rail.” The narrator comments that Salvatore is graceful. Salvatore swims in the sea and then lies on the beach again. When he swims, it is with a clumsy but effortless-looking stroke that most fishermen use.
Salvatore scrambles up the jagged rocks with no shoes on. He never wears shoes except on Sunday. He then throws himself in the water, screaming with delight as he takes the plunge. Salvatore’s father is a fisherman who owns a small vineyard. Salvatore takes care of his two younger brothers. He shouts at them to swim back when they go too far out and makes them put their clothes on when it is time to walk up the hot, vine-covered hill to eat their frugal lunch.
The narrator comments that boys in southern parts of Italy grow up quickly; soon Salvatore is madly in love with a pretty girl who lives on the Grande Marina. Her eyes resemble pools of water in forests and she behaves as though she is a descendant of the Caesars. Salvatore and the girl become engaged to marry, but they can’t marry until Salvatore finishes his military service.
When Salvatore joins King Victor Emmanuel’s navy and leaves the island he has lived on his whole life, it is the first time he has left; he cries like a child. Salvatore finds it difficult no longer being free as a bird, having to follow orders. It is also difficult to live on a battleship with strangers and not his white vine-covered cottage.
It is also uncomfortable for him to go ashore in different cities where the streets are so crowded he is afraid to cross them; he is used to mountain paths by the sea. He used to take for granted that he could look at Ischia every evening to see what the weather would be like the next day, and at Mount Vesuvius at dawn. Without the familiar landscape near him, Salvatore becomes very homesick.
Most difficult of all is being apart from the girl he loves. In his childlike handwriting, he writes long poorly spelled letters to her. In the letters he tells her how he thinks of her constantly and how he longs to return. The navy sends Salvatore to Spezzia, Venice, Ban, and China. In China, he becomes ill with a mysterious ailment and spends months in hospital. With the patience and ignorance of a dog, he waits to get better. Finally he learns that he has a form of rheumatism—inflammation of the joints—that means he is not fit to serve in the navy any longer.
The news of his poor health fills his heart with glee because he can now go home. Salvatore is so happy that he barely listens when the doctors tell him he will never fully recover from the illness. Salvatore doesn’t care because he is going back to the little island he loves and to the girl who is waiting for him.
The opening paragraphs of “Salvatore” establish the major themes of economic hardship, work, disability, and virtuousness. Starting with a cryptic opening line, Maugham introduces the reader to the presence of a first-person narrative voice before quickly shifting into a more removed, third-person sketch of the eponymous protagonist. The effect of not explaining what “it” is that he wonders if he can do is that the reader is motivated to read on, waiting for the narrator to answer the lingering question.
Although the narrator speaks of meeting Salvatore when he is a boy, the narrator never enters the story as a character who interacts with Salvatore. Instead, the narrator seems to observe Salvatore from a distance, as though the narrator is a foreign tourist who frequently visits the Italian island of Capri and watches Salvatore grow up.
The narrator begins his sketch of Salvatore by emphasizing his pleasant smiling face, carefree nature, and slim body. Although he is a poor fisherman’s son, Salvatore seems perfectly content with the life he has. This picture of happiness and contentment despite economic hardship is significant because of the contrast it provides against Salvatore’s later development. It also establishes the unconscious virtue Salvatore emanates throughout his life.
Salvatore’s carefree existence is shaken when he joins the navy and is forced to leave Capri for the first time in his life. The noisy unfamiliar places, made vivid by Maugham’s use of auditory imagery, contrast sharply against the quiet, serene landscape of Salvatore’s childhood. First growing homesick, Salvatore is soon waylaid by the physical ailment of rheumatism (a blanket term for autoimmune diseases characterized by painful inflammation of joints, tissues, and muscles).
But in an instance of situational irony, Salvatore is delighted by the news that his rheumatism means the navy has to discharge him. Salvatore ignores the doctor’s grave diagnosis because he can be reunited with the girl he loves and the island he has always known. He is oblivious to how his disability threatens to radically alter his life by limiting his ability to work.