Mr Know-All – Literary Analysis
For our information page on this story, click here.
We are told that the story takes place on a passenger ship sailing from San Francisco to Yokohama, shorty after the end of the First World War. The importance of the ship is that it is a closed environment. On land the narrator could have easily avoided Mr Kelada. On a ship, this would be impossible. The significance of World War One is twofold:
- First, it explains why the narrator and Mr Kelada had to share a cabin: The war had just finished and the passenger traffic in the ocean going liners was heavy. Accommodation was very hard to get and you had to put up with whatever the agents chose to offer you. You could not hope for a cabin to yourself and I was thankful to be given one in which there were only two berths. The suggestion here is that the narrator would have preferred a single cabin, but was forced to share with someone that he did not know.
- Second, it may help to explain the narrator’s use of the word Levantine in describing Mr Kelada. The term, which means “Eastern Mediterranean” in French, was originally a positive one used to refer to the (mostly French and Italian) Christian Europeans who settled in the old Ottoman Empire to conduct trade. To understand why the narrator may have viewed the term in a negative context, read our comments under “Themes” below.
The major theme of the story is prejudice. From the very first paragraph, the narrator expresses his negative feelings about the man with whom he must share a cabin on the ship. Later, we learn that he dislikes Mr Kelada’s name, his belongings, his appearance, his manners and even his pride in being British.
One of our recent stories, Shooting an Elephant, dealt with prejudice due to differences in class. In this story the prejudice has little to do with class. The narrator and Kelada are sharing a cabin in the same passenger class, and both are given the honor of sitting at the “doctor’s table” at dinner.
As the story develops, the narrator changes from referring to Kelada by name to using the term “Levantine”. When Britain took over part of the Levant at the end of the First World War, some in the new government used the term “Levantine” as an insult to local people of mixed Arab and European blood. This suggests that the narrator’s prejudice against Mr Kelada is an example of racism, which is supported by the fact that he also refers to Kelada’s oriental smile and possible birth in Alexandria or Beirut.
A suggestion I have seen on another website is that Maugham could actually be describing religious prejudice. At the time the story was written, the word Levant was apparently a code word used to refer to people who were Jewish. Kelada’s great pride, forceful personality, and description as being dark-skinned, with a fleshy, hooked nose all fit with what may have been the then popular stereotype of a successful Jewish businessman.
There are two possible minor themes in the story, which may or may not have been in Maugham’s mind as he wrote. These are:
- Jealousy: The narrator’s comments about the number of travel stickers on Kelada’s suitcases, the size of his wardrobe trunk, his expensive toiletries and monogramed brush, and even his apparent popularity with other passengers suggest that the narrator may be jealous because Kelada appears to be more wealthy and/or sophisticated than he is.
- Snobbery: The narrator was clearly disappointed about not being able to get single cabin. This, coupled with the way he puts other characters down in the story, may indicate that he is a snob. He labels the doctor as lazy for not joining in Mr Ramsay’s arguments with Mr Kelada over dinner, where it was clearly the doctor’s job to try to “keep the peace” at his table. Later, he describes Mr Ramsay as a great heavy fellow from the Middle West, with loose fat under a tight skin, (who) bulged out of his ready-made clothes, and dismisses Mrs Ramsay as a very pretty little thing, with pleasant manners and a sense of humor… (who) knew how to wear her clothes.
“Mr Know-All” is a narrative written in the . A very important part of reading a story like this is trying to understand the narrator’s position in relation to the story being told as quickly as is possible. In Mr Know-All, the whole meaning will be lost if the reader fails to see the narrator’s prejudice about Mr Kelada’s ethnic origins from the very first paragraph of the story. The language (tone) of the story is formal and many of the descriptions of what it means to be British are sarcastic.
- : The Narrator. Although his main problems are with Mr Kelada, the narrator is at times critical of each of the other characters with the notable exception of Mrs Ramsay. It is only in the last sentence that we see a grudging respect develop towards Mr Kelada for his actions over Mrs Ramsay’s necklace, but one wonders how long this will last.
- : Mr Kelada. Kelada is a successful, widely-traveled businessman. It is therefore difficult to believe that he does not understand the normal conventions of polite “British” behavior. His ship-board informality can perhaps be put down to trying a little too hard to be liked and accepted socially by other passengers.
- Minor Characters: Mr and Mrs Ramsay, the doctor.
- Internal Conflict: 1. Mr Kelada’s struggle with himself in not telling the true value of Mrs Ramsay’s pearls. 2. The Narrator’s struggle with himself in putting aside his prejudices about Mr Kelada.
- External Conflict: 1. The Narrator’s dislike for Mr Kelada. (Man vs. Man) 2. Mr Ramsay’s arguments with Mr Kelada at the doctor’s table. (Man vs. Man) 3. Mr Kelada pushing himself to be accepted by the passengers. (Man vs Society) 4. The debate over cultured pearls. (Man vs. Nature)
- : The Narrator’s problems with Mr Kelada and the daily arguments between Mr Kelada and Mr Ramsay over dinner are explained. Mood: Calm and at times Humorous
- : Mr Kelada and Mr Ramsay have a heated argument about cultured pearls. At last something that Ramsay said stung him (Mr Kelada), for he thumped the table and shouted. Mood: Tense
- : Mr Kelada examines Mrs Ramsay’s pearls and declares that they are not real. She was staring at him with wide and terrified eyes. They held a desperate appeal; it was so clear that I wondered why her husband did not see it. …Mr Kelada stopped with his mouth open. He flushed deeply. You could almost see the effort he was making over himself. “I was mistaken,” he said. Mood: Suspenseful
- : Other passengers make fun of Mr Kelada. The story spread over the ship as stories do, and he had to put up with a good deal of chaff that evening. It was a fine joke that Mr. Know-All had been caught out. Mood: Amused
- : The truth comes out and the narrator changes his opinion of Mr Kelada. At that moment I did not entirely dislike Mr. Kelada. Mood: Enlightened
The climax of the story develops from an argument over pearls, and Kelada’s claim that the newly developed cultured pearl industry would not reduce the value of those produced naturally. In this he is correct as nowadays natural pearls are very rare and very valuable. However, the cultured pearl industry has grown to be much larger than the natural pearl industry, and over 99% of the pearls sold around the world today are of the cultured variety.
- : 1. Tell them you’ve got a pal who’s got all the liquor in the world. 2. He was everywhere and always. 3. They’ll never be able to get a cultured pearl that an expert like me can’t tell with half an eye.
- : 1. Mr Kelada is forced to say that he was wrong about the pearls, when in fact pearls are the one thing he could truly be said to “know all” about. (Situational) 2. Kelada, who is originally presented as a pushy person concerned mainly with appearances, turns out to be sensitive, considerate and noble. Mrs Ramsay, who is described as modest and possessing a quiet distinction, turns out to be a shallow, selfish adulteress. (Situational) 3. The name Mr Know-All, given to Kelada by the people on the ship. (Sarcasm)
- : Mr Kelada was born under a bluer sky than is generally seen in England.
- : 1. …the best hated man in the ship. 2. Ramsay smiled grimly. 3. …a perfect damn fool.
- : 1. …my heart sank. (also an idiom) 2. …a row of flashing teeth. 3. It shone in her like a flower on a coat. It is interesting to consider here just what the “it” is. Most comments I have read say that it refers to “modesty”, because this what the narrator suggests. However, a first person narrator does not necessarily see things as they really are. Rather than modesty, I think it more likely that what really shone in Mrs Ramsay was a quiet feeling of self-assurance that came from knowing she had seduced or been seduced by a millionaire and owned a pearl necklace which in today’s terms would be worth well over $250,000.
- : …like a flower on a coat.
- : 1. The most important symbol in the story is pearls, which represent the idea that appearances can be deceptive. On the outside, all pearls look the same. Some (natural pearls) are pure on the inside, while others (cultured pearls) are not. You don’t know which is which until you examine them further. 2. Another symbol is mentioned in the first paragraph: It (Mr Kelada’s name) suggested closed portholes and the night air rigidly excluded. This refers to the uncomfortable atmosphere and limited conversation that the narrator believes will exist in their shared cabin during the voyage.
An Unanswered Question
At the end of the story we are left with an unanswered question. An envelope containing $100 was pushed under Mr Kelada’s cabin door. It was addressed in block letters, so that no one would know who did it. Who left the envelope?
If it was left by Mrs Ramsay, the fact that there is no thank you note inside indicates that she is a shallow character with little concern for others. She does not understand or appreciate the sacrifice that Mr Kelada made for her, and regards the $100 simply as a loan to be repaid.
Alternatively, the envelope could have been left by Mr Ramsay after learning the truth about the necklace from his wife when he went back to their cabin the previous evening. In those days, $100 would have been more than Ramsay’s monthly salary. Giving back the money, which he should not have won, would indicate an element of honesty on his part. However, a truly honest man (if he had the money) would have included $200 in the envelope as Mr Kelada should have won the bet.
In literature, the time(s) and place(s) in which a story happens.
(n: theme pl themes) In literature, a central idea that is communicated in a story. Note that a theme may be an idea that the writer wishes to convey, or another idea that a reader or group of readers interpret into the story. Most themes are implied through the plot rather than stated directly. (หัวข้อ) 4000
(n: point of view) A way of looking at or thinking about something; viewpoint. Even if you disagree with her, you should try to see things from her point of view. (มุมมอง)
In literature, the position of the storyteller (narrator) in relation to the story being told. The two most common points of view in short stories are 'first person' [where the narrator is a character in the story] and 'third person' [where the narrator is not part of the story].
(n: tone, pl tones) In literature, the attitude or feeling of a writer toward a subject or an audience. It is generally expressed through the writer's choice of words. The tone can be formal, informal, serious, humorous, sarcastic, bitter, sad, cheerful, pessimistic, optimistic, or any other attitude or feeling.
(n: First Person) In literature, a writing style where a story is told by one character at a time, using 'I' and 'we' as subject pronouns and 'me' and 'us' as object pronouns when speaking for and about themselves. The reader sees the story through the character's eyes and shares his or her opinions, thoughts, and feelings. When reading such stories, it is important to remember that we only see other characters through the narrator's eyes, and that nobody is 100% correct in everything they think or see. The reader sometimes needs to question and look beyond what the narrator says in order to fully understand the story.
(n: conflict pl conflicts) A struggle or state of opposition between persons, ideas, forces or emotions. 2000
In literature, there are four main types of conflict:
- Internal conflicts, where a character experiences two opposite emotions or desires (Man vs Self); and
- External conflicts, where a character is set against another character (Man vs Man), the views of society (Man vs Society), or the forces of nature (Man vs Nature)
(n: protagonist pl protagonists) The main character in a story, play, movie, etc. whose conflict starts the plot in motion. Often but not always the hero or "good guy". (ตัวเอก) 12000
(n: antagonist pl antagonists) The character or force with which the main character in a story is in conflict. Often but not always the villain or "bad guy".
(n: dramatic structure) In literature, the classification of dramatic works into stages.
In literature, the atmosphere of a piece of writing; the emotions or feelings that a selection causes in the mind of a reader.
(n: exposition pl expositions) 1. The act of explaining something; a clear explanation. 2. [abbr. expo] A public show or exhibition. 11000
In literature, the part of a story where the characters are introduced and the plot begins to develop; usually at the beginning of a story.
(n: rising action) In literature, the part of a story where the conflict or conflicts develop and the characters try to resolve them; usually associated with building suspense.
(n: climax pl climaxes) The most interesting and exciting part of something; the high point. The climax of a career/movie/play/tournament. 7000
In literature, the most important point in a story where the action reaches a turning point and interest and excitement reach their peak. It usually occurs at or near the end and influences the final outcome of the story.
(n: falling action) In literature, the point after the climax where the action begins to drop off and the events of the plot may be explained or become clearer.
(n: denouement pl denouements) The final part of something such as a book, a play, or a series of events.
In literature, the part of the story where loose ends are tied up and the final situation becomes clear; also called Resolution.
In literature, a method used to express meaning through the use of special forms of language. Most authors don't simply come out and say things plainly in their works. They use literary techniques to communicate meaning in different ways and make their stories or poems more interesting. (เทคนิค วรรณกรรม)
(n: hyperbole pl hyperboles) A literary technique where something is described as being bigger, better or more important (or smaller, worse or less important) than it really is in order to stress a point or create a strong feeling. (อติพจน์) 12000
- Verbal Irony: The use of words that mean the opposite of what you really think, especially in order to be funny. “What a beautiful view,” he said, as he looked out the window at the wall of the building opposite. The use of verbal irony to achieve a positive change or outcome is called satire. The use of verbal irony to insult or hurt someone or something is called sarcasm.
- 2.Situational Irony: A situation that is strange or funny because things happen in a way that seems to be the opposite of what you expected. He worried so much about his health that he made himself sick.
- Dramatic Irony A situation in a movie, book, play, etc. where the audience knows something that the characters in the story are not aware of. One of the best examples of this is where, in Romeo & Juliet, Romeo kills himself because he thinks Juliet is dead whereas the audience knows that she is only sleeping.
(n: metaphor pl metaphors) A comparison between two unlike things that share similar qualities. A word or phrase for one is used to refer to the other in order to show or suggest that they are similar. The comparison is indirect in that it does not use the words "like" or "as". He was drowning in paperwork. He's a tiger when he's angry. (อุปมา) 7000
(n: oxymoron pl oxymorons) A literary technique where a combination of words are used that have opposite or very different meanings. e.g. cruel kindness; deafening silence; living death. (ปฏิพจน์)
(n: personification, noncount) In literature, giving human-like qualities to animals, objects or ideas. Lightning danced across the sky. Time flies and waits for no one. (บุคลาธิษฐาน) 11000
(n: simile pl similes) A direct comparison between two different things, showing similarities with the help of the words “like” or “as”. (อุปมา) 13000
(n: symbolism, noncount) In literature, where a real object is used to stand for a thought, idea or feeling. The dove is the symbol of peace. (ด้วยสัญลักษณ์) 3000