This post is about the meaning of impropriety is the soul of wit, as found in Maugham’s work.
The popular quote: “…impropriety is the soul of wit…” is from the novel “The Moon And Sixpence” written by William Somerset Maugham.
Obviously, this line is a take-off on “…brevity is the soul of wit…” from the play “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare.
So, what about ‘impropriety is the soul of wit’ mean?
To start off, the word ‘impropriety’ use in this line means indecency or obscenity.
‘The soul’ means the key.
In this quote, the word ‘wit’ means a natural aptitude for using words and ideas in a quick and inventive way to create humor.
It simply means appropriateness.
Impropriety Is The soul Of Wit Meaning
Now, let’s analyze it in more detail:
The line is from the passage in chapter four of the novel.
It was describing a group of friends (all writers) having luncheon and cheerfully engaging in lively conversations.
…we were in a good humour. We talked about a hundred things.
The first-person narrator of this story, continued telling us about what some of the characters were chattering about.
The quote is taken from this line:
Mrs. Jay, aware that impropriety is the soul of wit, made observations in tones hardly above a whisper that might well have tinged the snowy tablecloth with a rosy hue.
From the description above, we can tell that this female character, Mrs. Jay is an audacious and saucy person among them.
The line, ‘Mrs. Jay, aware that impropriety is the soul of wit’ means she knew that by sharing salacious stories or jokes (impropriety) would enliven the conversation.
‘Made observations in tones hardly above a whisper’, means Mrs. Jay shared her improper conversation in a soft voice (a little louder than a whisper).
When writer Maugham stressed that Mrs. Jay was speaking softly is to imply the inappropriateness or salaciousness of her words in public.
To further accentuate Mrs. Jay’s words were so indecent or vulgar, Maugham wrote ‘that might well have tinged the snowy tablecloth with a rosy hue’.
In other words, Mrs. Jay’s words were so obscene it would definitely make the pristine white tablecloth blushed with embarrassment.
Maugham brilliantly exploited the literary device called imagery; with the help of the setting of the story.
The tablecloth, to be precise.
Remember the characters were having a rousing luncheon.
So, he took the opportunity to made use of the snow-white luncheon tablecloth of their dining table, that usually got smeared from red wine or food during meal time.
In short, we could metaphorically say: dirty talk with dirty tablecloth.
*Here are quotes from A Writer’s Notebook by Somerset Maugham.