Robin Maugham's The Servant is best remembered by Harold Pinter's 1963 film adaptation, also titled The Servant, directed by Joseph Losey. The film is quite different in content and approach, mainly because it was produced during a very different era. Maugham's novel is a grim depiction of post-war London; a squalid city where both the privileged and underprivileged must struggle to carve a place for themselves in society. Rules have changed, however, as the world has turned upside down.
As with F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the story of Tony and his relationship with his manservant Hugo Barrett is told through the point of view of an observer, an old army buddy of Tony's. It is through Richard's eyes that we witness Tony's steady decline. Unlike The Great Gatsby's Nick Carraway, however, Richard understands Tony's background and is aware of his current dilemma, and tries actively to intervene and change the course of Tony's descent.
The novel opens with newly retired yet still young World War II army officer Richard Merton beginning a new job at a publishing firm. Not particularly a literary man, the job is an attempt at remaining productive and a functioning member of modern society. The war is over and the officer's previous role has become obsolete.
The Servant is well conceived and well written. It is a short book with a plot so simple that there appears to be no plot at all. The progression of character decline is believable and Richard is a straight character with some subtly revealed flaws. What Maugham is expressing about post-war London is that society has transformed so intensely that the world seems to have turned upside down. Servants act like masters and masters lose control over their desires, becoming themselves enslaved. There is a powerful scene when Tony, defending his overly generous attitude toward his manservant, accuses Richard of hypocrisy when the latter explains that the flaw in military reunions is that the officers are separated from the average soldier. Richard argues that there is equality among men rather than among those of rank, though he refuses to believe that one's manservant can be on equal footing with the homeowner.