In Korean society, appearances are important. There is even a joke among Koreans that we tend to value one’s physical beauty over one’s inner beauty. Perhaps that is why cosmetic surgery is so fashionable and rampant in Korea, and why there is such high demand for expensive designer-brand handbags, dresses and shoes that display the logos of Chanel, Hermes, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada. It is no wonder that stores selling such expensive brands are so prosperous. Hence, it is not too farfetched to say that if you are pretty or handsome, you will thrive in Korea; and if you are not, you will be doomed to perish.
However, appearances can be deceptive. That is why, as the saying goes, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Unfortunately, many Koreans seem to judge people by appearances. The problem is that such a tendency will eventually make people’s minds shallow and society superficial. As we know, physical beauty is evanescent; it fades as the person gets old. On the other hand, inner beauty and a charming personality last forever.
Max Kelada in Somerset Maugham’s “Mr. Know-All” is such a charming person, despite his unfavorable looks. “I was prepared to dislike Mr. Kelada even before I knew him.” Thus begins the story. The narrator does not like Kelada even before he meets him, because his name is not of apparent British origin, even though Kelada carries a British passport. He also dislikes Kelada simply because of his appearance. He is “short and of a sturdy build, clean-shaven and dark skinned, with a fleshy, hooked nose. His long black hair was sleek and curly.” The narrator continues to regard Kelada’s appearance disdainfully: “He spoke with a fluency in which there was nothing English and his gestures were exuberant. I felt pretty sure that a closer inspection of that British passport would have betrayed the fact that Mr. Kelada was born under a bluer sky than is generally seen in England.”
The narrator’s prejudice blinds him so much that he detests and despises everything Kelada does. He does not think of Kelada as a gentleman because he thinks the latter is a verbose type, who shows off. The narrator even abhors Kelada for his neatness and tidiness, which are definitely positive traits for a gentleman. In the eyes of the narrator, Kelada must be disliked by others as well, who call him “Mr. Know-All” because he seems to meddle in everyone’s affairs with his superb knowledge.
The story takes place on an ocean liner sailing from San Francisco to Yokohama. The narrator happens to share a cabin with Kelada. Also on the ship is Mr. Ramsey who works in the American Consular Service in Japan. He brings along his pretty wife who has stayed in New York City on her own for the last year while her husband was away in Kobe.
One day, the conversation drifts to the pearl business. Kelada reveals that he is in the trade and therefore an expert on pearls. Ramsey asks Kelada to give him an estimate of the price of the pearl chain his wife is wearing. Kelada says, “On Fifth Avenue, around thirty thousand dollars.” Ramsey snorts, “You’ll be surprised to hear that Mrs. Ramsay bought that string at a department store for fourteen dollars.” Then Ramsey challenges Kelada, saying, “Will you bet on it? I’ll bet you a hundred dollars it’s imitation.” “Done!” Kelada agrees.
Kelada takes a magnifying glass and examines the pearl closely. A smile of triumph gradually spreads over his face. As he is about to declare the truth, he notices that Mrs. Ramsey is about to faint, terrified. Her eyes hold a desperate appeal. At that moment, Kelada realizes that she received the pearl necklace from a secret lover in New York City. At that crucial juncture, Kelada decides to protect Mrs. Ramsey at the cost of his own reputation. That is to say, he honorably chooses his own ruin to save another’s marriage. Kelada announces that he is wrong and it is an excellent imitation.
Later when the narrator retires to the cabin with Kelada, an envelope is pushed under the door. Opening it, Kelada takes out a $100 bill from the envelope. It is from Mrs. Ramsey. Kelada tells his companion, “No one likes being made to look a perfect damned fool.” When the narrator asks, “Were the pearls real?” Kelada answers, “If I had a pretty little wife, I shouldn’t let her spend a year in New York while I stayed at Kobe.” The story ends with the narrator’s statement, “At that moment I did not entirely dislike Mr. Kelada.”
The story of “Mr. Know-All” reminds us that we should judge a person not by his appearance, but by his reactions and behavior in times of crisis. Despite his negative appearance, Kelada turns out to be a truly decent man of honor. He remains one of the coolest guys in literature. Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and visiting professor at Kyunghee Cyber University. He can be reached at email@example.com -- Ed.