Written 1861 (12 - 15 April)
Published 1861 (28 December), Public Opinion
Published in a book 1863 (February), Tales of All Countries: Second Series, Chapman and Hall
I seem to have lost whatever initial comments on this story there were, we will break in upon the thread after it has gotten started. It appears that several people had written in to say they disliked the story.
Date: Mon, 16 Feb 1998 09:46:14 -0500
Subject: Short Stories: George Walker at Sea
Before we leave last week's stories I wanted to second what I gather is the feeling that "George Walker at Suez" wasn't one of Trollope's stronger efforts in the short-story line.
And I say this even though, right at the beginning, I was smiling and disposed to be charitable toward it. I liked George's comment about what made Suez so vile, unpleasant, and wanting in interest. You notice that in his list of Suez's defects, pride of place goes to the fact that there are no women there. He says this even before he adds that there aren't water or vegetation in the town either. And I was grinning to myself and thinking "Ah, comrade, I appreciate how this would rob any place of its savor..."
Also there were a couple moments where I liked George's recurring references to the vexatious Judkins, and to the familiar comforts of Friday Street. Strains of Gilbert and Sullivan ran through my mind at least once, in this latter connection.
But those were the only times when I felt especially in charity with the narrator. Ellen asked recently whether we readers may incline to care least for the stories that involve first-person narrators, and I'll confess that this certainly was true for one observer, in the story in question. Reading it, I felt much the way I feel when I'm at a party and somebody's telling what purports to be a joke, but it takes at least two beats after the punch-line before I deduce that yonder must've been the crux of the tale. "George Walker" feels too much like a lame joke that the author evidently thought funny.
Okay, so there's a famous George Walker who's not the same as our George Walker, and a foreigner assumes that our George is the famous one, and invites him on a big outing. And then is too embarrassed to cry off in person when he realizes his mistake.
Probably there's potential humor in there somewhere, but either Trollope didn't carry it off well or his sensibilities as regards humor were much different from mine. If we're to be drawn into Walker's plight, Trollope needed to get us to care enough about the fellow that there's room to feel sorry for him or embarrassed on his behalf. Or at least room to feel that embarrassment in the character wasn't unreasonable. I'll grant that this wouldn't have been easy in a short story, but mostly what I felt about the main character was impatience. George comes off as whiny, overearnest, and not terribly bright. He doesn't like being in Cairo, so he agrees to try Suez. Then he's not happy in Suez either. Then a foreigner pays him a flattering amount of attention and all is wonderful for a time. But then the attention turns out to have been a mistake, and all is ashes in poor George's mouth.
Okay, got it. There's maybe the raw material here for a two-minute anecdote. But Trollope has his Walker character complain twice about how the Vice-Consul acted when he came around to explain the mix-up (saying first that he was too abrupt, and then that he didn't linger over his explanation, and personally didn't invite Walker to breakfast). Why the Vice-Consul would have been obliged in either direction wasn't clear to me, nor why our Walker then emphasizes twice in two paragraphs that he "crept" back to his bed-room once in possession of the sad facts. The reaction was all out of proportion to the gravity of the offense. Probably this was supposed to drive the humor, but for me there wasn't much humor there to start with. And what there was lost something in the translation by being presented in the first person. I acknowledge that there ARE people like George Walker in the world. But I spend no more time with them than I must in real life, and don't see why I should put up with them during my leisure-time hours.
At a guess Trollope was trying to personate one of the class of Englishmen who are not good travelers and probably shouldn't ever take the trouble or expense of going abroad. And we see again a motif that has come up before in the travel stories, where the traveler feels unmoored when he doesn't have companions to whom he can talk. But while laughing at the rubes (or even describing them, deadpan) can be an amusing ploy when the description is on the outside looking in (think of the Damers in "An Unprotected Female" for example--or even the Greenes from "The Man Who Kept His Money in a Box"), it didn't seem as effective in the first person.
Date: Mon, 16 Feb 1998 15:49:05 EST
Subject: Short Stories: George Walker at Sea
I agree with John that this story is not one of my favorites, but I view it slightly differently from him. In the beginning the protagonist revealed quite a lot about himself when he described himself as a man who " ... had a hankering after the homage which is paid to greatness. I would fain have been a great orator, feeding myself on the incense tendered to me by thousands; or, failing that, a man born to power, whom those around him were compelled to respect, and perhaps to fear." He was obviously a thorn in the side of his coworkers, who couldn't wait to get rid of him for a few months, with the assistance of the good doctor, who succeeding in scaring him with the possible consequences of a sore throat. Aw, c'mon! Sounds like the guy was a hypochondriac, too!
More self revelation came with his reaction to meeting an acquaintance from home. "Elsewhere I should not have cared to meet with John Robinson, for he was a man who had never done well in the world." I also was annoyed by the frequent reference to "Christians" as seemingly the source of all civilization. Somehow George Walker felt that his superiority to all the vermin about him should be apparent to all with eyes to see. "At Cairo I had not received that attention which certainly had been due to me as the second partner in the flourishing Manchester house of Grimes, Walker, and Judkins."
I regarded this story to be about the comeuppance, of the worst sort of "ugly Englishman" (as opposed to the American variety). See George preen with gratified self regard, "As I passed out, the porter greeted me with a low obeisance, and walking on, I felt that I stepped on the ground with a sort of dignity of which I had before been ignorant."
When George Walker found that he was not supposed to be the recipient of Mahmoud's hospitality, did he withdraw with a rueful smile? No, he was indignant, and felt cheated, even though he must have known that he was not deserving of the lavish entertainment. But this is my point; he never did realize that he was not deserving. He felt it was his due. " ... I own that I like civility. In Friday street I can command it, and in Friday Street for the rest of my life I will remain." George's treatment of the natives was anything but civil, but apparently he felt only he was deserving of this courtesy.
Perhaps the point of the story was the irony in the "civility" denied George, when he denies it to everyone else.
Then I wrote as follows:
February 16, 1998
Re: First Person Narrative in Trollope
I spent some time today catching up on those stories in Volume I of Sutherland's Early Short Stories which I hadn't been able to get to during the weeks they were "on our plate." They happened to be "Miss Sarah Jack, of Spanish Town, Jamaica," "John Bull on the Gaudalquivir," "George Walker at Suez," and I've just begun one of my favorite of Trollope's short stories, "Journey to Panama." I was struck by the difference in tone and feel of the stories with the first person narrative as opposed to the third person. Myself I like "A Ride to Palestine" very much, but I noticed on this list it was not liked; also we had some objections to "The Relics of General Chassee" and "The O'Connors of Castle O'Connor, County Mayo," in a vein which made me feel the objectors thought them "unworthy" stories, not art at all, and certainly in some ways slightly distasteful. Not everyone was amused by "The Man who Kept His Money in a Box."
Now people don't like "George Walker" and I am wondering if readers today do not care for the persona or character type Trollope takes on when he writes in the first person. The character is usually someone who is slightly dense, who is jocular and outgoing, very very sensitive inside--it is an parody of some aspects of Trollope himself as he appeared to the outer world. His stories in the third person with him commenting on the side in an unnamed impersonal vein are also more shapely in some ways. They don't depend upon dramatic ironies as the basis of the structure of the story. Comments anyone?
I'd also like to remark that I know several people on this list have read all Trollope's novels. I was wondering if any of Trollope's full length novels (novellas, 1 and 3 and 5 volume novels too) use the first-person technique. I can't think of any I have read. However, I once counted and found I had not read about 11. Trollope does intersperse letters in his novels, but no novel is epistolary or of the memoir type. Can anyone among those on the list who have read all the novels say if any is in the first person? I'd be curious to know which and to read it.
[No one answered my last question. I later found out -- when writing my book that Trollope has two first person narrative novellas: The Struggles of Brown, Jones, and Robinson: By One of the Firm and The Fixed Period. Neither of them is much liked; the second one, The Fixed Period is a Swiftian ironic satire which is not well understood.]
Date: Mon, 16 Feb 1998 18:45:18 -0500
Subject: Short Stories: George Walker Still Wet
Jill Spriggs writes, on 2/16:
"I agree with John that this story is not one of my favorites, but I view it slightly differently from him. In the beginning the protagonist revealed quite a lot about himself when he described himself as a man who " ... had a hankering after the homage which is paid to greatness. I would fain have been a great orator, feeding myself on the incense tendered to me by thousands; or, failing that, a man born to power, whom those around him were compelled to respect, and perhaps to fear." He was obviously a thorn in the side of his coworkers, who couldn't wait to get rid of him for a few months, with the assistance of the good doctor, who succeeding in scaring him with he possible consequences of a sore throat. Aw, c'mon! Sounds like the guy was a hypochondriac, too! "
Yes, of course: his self-description makes him sound, at best, adolescent in his outlook, and at worst deplorably self-absorbed. Exactly the sort of personality with which I do not care to spend time, in sum. To me this gets at the weakness of the story as told in first-person narrative: we spend too much time looking over the shoulder of a dull, self-righteous prat of a man. If the author's intention is to let us laugh AT such a one, then let us not have the story FROM such a one. If the narrator's voice is at one with the character's, then we lose the amused tone of the narrator in describing what really are some over-the-top sentiments.
"More self revelation came with his reaction to meeting an acquaintance from home. "Elsewhere I should not have cared to meet with John Robinson, for he was a man who had never done well in the world."
I agree that this is irritating: an attitude that further turns us away from sympathy with the narrator. It's as though Trollope is busily engaged in poisoning the very well he expects readers to drink from. Amusement at the thought processes of this kind of person is possible when delivered in the third person, but I at least found the process muddied by Trollope's use of the first person.
"I also was annoyed by the frequent reference to "Christians" as seemingly the source of all civilization. Somehow George Walker felt that his superiority to all the vermin about him should be apparent to all with eyes to see. "At Cairo I had not received that attention which certainly had been due to me as the second partner in the flourishing Manchester house of Grimes, Walker, and Judkins."
A deference that, I submit, he would not have enjoyed even in Manchester. Not to equal what he seems to have expected to receive in Cairo or Suez, at all events. And not to equal what anyone with even half a talent for circumspection ought to have expected, realistically.
"I regarded this story to be about the comeuppance, of the worst sort of "ugly Englishman" (as opposed to the American variety). See George preen with gratified self regard, "As I passed out, the porter greeted me with a low obeisance, and walking on, I felt that I stepped on the ground with a sort of dignity of which I had before been ignorant."
But this doesn't happen, not really. Our George Walker is discomfited, but he blames foreign climes and foreign mores for everything. He comes to no increased self-awareness, and doesn't imagine for a moment that he's been acting like a jerk the whole time. So I don't see that he truly gets his comeuppance. Do you?
"When George Walker found that he was not supposed to be the recipient of Mahmoud's hospitality, did he withdraw with a rueful smile? No, he was indignant, and felt cheated, even though he must have known that he was not deserving of the lavish entertainment. But this is my point; he never did realize that he was not deserving. He felt it was his due. " ... I own that I like civility. In Friday street I can command it, and in Friday Street for the rest of my life I will remain."
Yes, except we know that in Friday Street he isn't in the habit of talking to vice-consuls either (or, I deduce, with persons of equivalent rank on the domestic front). I agree that our George imagined, somehow, that being overseas ought to entitle him to more distinction than he enjoyed at home. But I find him as self-righteous and as little self-aware at the end of the story as he seemed at the beginning. He made an error, but doesn't seem to have learned anything by it. I expect Trollope saw this Anglo-centric attitude many times during his own foreign travels, and was amused by it. But I think his casting this story from George's point of view got in the way of his object, if his object was to share a joke with his readers. And if this wasn't his object, then what do you think Trollope meant to do with the story?
"George's treatment of the natives was anything but civil, but apparently he felt only he was deserving of this courtesy."
Yes: and felt this way throughout the story. So there's no growth, no increase of self-awareness. George was a dolt at the start, and remained one at the close. Maybe that's all the writer can be expected to achieve, within the confines of so brief a story. But as a reader I'm not satisfied: why has Trollope wasted my time by telling this story in the first person? A story I might accept as Really Embarrassing if experienced by a 14-year-old isn't convincing as a moment of mortification in an adult's life.
"Perhaps the point of the story was the irony in the "civility" denied George, when he denies it to everyone else."
Maybe this was the end Trollope had in view. But, if so, do you consider that he was successful in executing his plan? And might he have been more successful if George hadn't been the viewpoint character? This was the question Ellen posed a few days ago, in general terms, and I suspect she may have been right.
February 17, 1998
Re: Trollope's Alter Egos?: John Bull, George Walker, Archibald Green, Mr Smith, and Mr Robinson
To John Hopfner and Jill Spriggs and anyone else interested in this question of these short first-person narratives:
The interesting question to me is, Is Trollope making fun of himself or the type of Englishman represented by John Bull? If so, to the extent that Trollope is criticizing the type, that far are the stories redeemable. I think the problem we have is that once Trollope gets into his story he seems so strongly to identify with this unpalatable dense egotist.
February 17, 1998
Re: Short Stories: "George Walker Still All Wet"
I'd like to agree with Jill when she writes that "AT used his short stories as an opportunity to be adventurous; to try out new approaches which would have been too risky in the novel form." We have had stories based on bawdy jokes, stories which delve into the ambiguities of sexual encounter in very frank ways, a story of a woman who left her husband in a community of people some of whom are apparently living with people outside marriage, others who are unfaithful, and the lady herself a tease; stories of primal violence; stories of the desperately poor ("Malachi's Cove" would have startled readers because it is about a class of people who normally hardly ever made it into a novel; even when they appear in Dickens, they are usually on the margins of the story); stories of crime. Trollope would not have dared spend the time nor risk his reputation on a long frank novel using the matter we have found here.
I suggest that Trollope had tried to break the mould of the book about middle class English people with his novellas which take place in other countries and delve things like bigamy, seduction, abandonment, and pregnancy (An Eye for an Eye), the first three of which he published anonymously. Maybe something of the same experimental nature is going on here.
As to "George Walker of Suez" I have to agree it's one of Trollope's failures for all those reasons Jill and John Hopfner have adduced. As to my knowledge of the books, I have read all but 10 of the novels at this point, and not one I have read is in first-person narrative. So it was a form that Trollope did not reach for when he worked at length, and in this volume of early short stories it does not always serve him well. I agree that "John Bull" is a better story because the narrator is clearly in the wrong, clearly has a comeuppance, and is clearly humbled. It even has a sweet tone at times.
Subject: Short Stories - Trollope's First Person Narrators
I agree that AT used his short stories as an opportunity to be adventurous; to try out new approaches which would have been too risky in the novel form. He could kill off heroines, have an ending where the deserving nice guy does not get the gal (actually, he did do this in Small House At Allington, but then Johnny Eames was not spotless, either), and have a first person protagonist be an ass. This technique did work better with "John Bull On The Guadalquivir", but I think it did work because Pomfret had the decency to be embarrassed when he realized his gaffe. I still feel anyone who would pull something like that (treating the lavishly dressed man as though he were a mannikin) in the first place is an asshole, but his gentle and genteel wife would, I hope, have a civilizing influence on him. This technique was not effective in "George Walker At Suez", but AT's successful stories far outweighed his clinkers.
Re: Trollope's First Person Narrators
I like the idea of using a first person narrative in such a way as to have a character condemn himself out of his own mouth. To me such a strategy worked really well in Ring Lardner's short story, "Haircut", and in a novel I recently read called My Search for Warren Harding (I can't remember the author). I believe this was what Trollope had in mind in his story. I will agree that this didn't quite work in Trollope's story. I suppose that Trollope's contempt for George Walker made it difficult for him to make George's point of view believable. He needed a touch more sympathy or empathy or something. I'll admit when I read the story, I kept thinking, "OK, I get the point. Enough already."