The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham

May 27, 2013

Plot summary (from the publisher): The Magician is one of Somerset Maugham’s most complex and perceptive novels. Running through it is the theme of evil, deftly woven into a story as memorable for its action as for its astonishingly vivid characters. In fin de siècle Paris, Arthur and Margaret are engaged to be married. Everyone approves and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves—until the sinister and repulsive Oliver Haddo appears.

Warning: Spoilers below!


  • The hormunculi described in Haddo’s attic were extremely creepy. The description of these creatures was a decent payoff in terms of what Haddo had been building up to all novel long.
  • This book was written early in Maugham’s career and is rather rough around the edges. But for some strange reason, that made it more appealing to me. I liked that it wasn’t mature, refined, and polished.
  • Haddo was a thoroughly disgusting character — which, of course, was the author’s intent. I was repulsed by him (especially as he got fatter and fatter) and could barely wait for the comeuppance that I knew was imminent.


  • Arthur Burdon wasn’t a strong enough protagonist for my tastes. He rather meekly surrendered when Margaret inexplicably ran off with Haddo, and kind of hovered in the background most of the way through until finally being prompted to action after Margaret’s murder. At least he roused himself enough to kill Haddo in the end.
  • Speaking of the end, the one Maugham conjured up (excuse the pun) was less than satisfying. Dr. Porhoet was able to summon Maragaret’s ghost to tell them what happened? Arthur realizes that Susie Boyd isn’t so bad after all? They burn Haddo’s house to the ground to get rid of his body and all evidence of the hormunculi? Sounds like the wrap-up to a bad movie, doesn’t it?
  • The beginning of the book was very slow, especially the parts that talked about Haddo’s history and philosophy regarding magic/the occult. It took a while for this one to get off the ground, but once it did it was rather engrossing.


I’m predisposed to like Maugham, so The Magician would have had to be utterly undreadable for me to give it less than 3 stars. However, I readily admit that it’s not one of his best and there is quite possibly some merit to the claims that the work is highly derivative of novels such as Trilby and others (as alleged by Aleister Crowley). And although I don’t consider this a “must read”, it was still interesting and entertaining enough to warrant 3 stars out of 5.

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