Thursday, July 24, 2014

For Your Eyes Only | "Quantum of Solace"

Originally published in Cosmopolitan a couple of months after Goldfinger, "Quantum of Solace" is the one short story in For Your Eyes Only not based on a plot outline for CBS's scrapped Bond series. Instead, Fleming wrote it as an homage to W Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage, Ashenden: The British AgentThe Razor's Edge), one of Fleming's favorite authors. According to the British Empire website, Maugham enjoyed writing about "the remote locations of the quietly magnificent yet decaying British Empire" and the people who worked and lived there. He was a master at juxtaposing "realistic depictions of the boredom and drudgery" of plantation life or civil service with "the desire and trappings of what [British citizens who lived in those places] would regard as civilisation."

Fleming evokes all of that in "Quantum of Solace". It's an odd Bond story in that Bond is only there to serve as an audience as the British Governor of the Bahamas relates the story of Philip and Rhoda Masters, a tragic couple who lived on the island earlier. "Quantum of Solace" opens after a dull dinner party where Bond and the Governor are the last remaining attendees. The two men have nothing in common with each other and each is completely uncomfortable. Bond is in the area after blowing up a boat full of contraband weapons. He's bored by the Governor, a lifelong civil servant who values quiet and routine. Desperate to get the conversation going somewhere interesting, Bond makes an intentionally offensive comment about wanting to marry an airline hostess if anyone at all. The Governor refuses the bait, but is reminded about the Masterses because Rhoda was an airline hostess when Philip met her.

The bulk of "Quantum of Solace" is the Masterses' story, a tragedy of betrayal brought on by the boredom and drudgery that Rhoda feels towards life in the Bahamas. She wants the trappings of a proper British life, but can't get them out in the colonies, so she acts out, hurting her husband enormously. The story's title refers to a theory of the Governor's: that bad marriages can endure if each member can offer the tiniest amount of comfort to the other. Rhoda was unable to do that and in the end it damaged her as much as Philip.

It's a powerful story of heartbreak, not a rousing Bond adventure, but that's the point it's trying to make. I have to spoil it to talk about it adequately, but Bond ultimately learns that Rhoda was in fact a very dull woman he'd sat next to during dinner. He realizes that he misjudged her and that what he's always thought of as an adventuresome life has been empty of the emotion and meaning - however tragic - that filled hers. For that reason, it's an important story in Bond's character development, second so far only to Dr No. Bond continues to be confronted by his own self-absorption and to grow from those experiences.

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