I admire their polish -- their youth is already so accomplished that it seems absurd to speak of promise -- I marvel at the felicity of their style; but with all their copiousness (their vocabulary suggests that they fingered Roget's Thesaurus in their cradles) they say nothing to me: to my mind they know too much and feel too obviously; I cannot stomach the heartiness with which they slap me on the back or the emotion with which they hurl themselves on my bosom; their passion seems to me a little anaemic and their dreams a trifle dull.

From W. Somerset Maugham: The Moon and Sixpence

The excerpt can be read at http://www.literaturepage.com/read.php?titleid=moonandsixpence&abspage=8&bookmark=1

How can I interpret “anaemic” here?

When the writer says he cannot stomach the heartiness, it means the heartiness is too much/strong for him. The he goes on to say that their passion seems to be anaemic. “Anaemic” would mean “weak”. This seems to be contradictory.


2 written seeming weak and uninteresting


  • 1
    Understand anaemic here as metaphorically "thin, watery, lacking substance". Maugham is saying that aspiring writers and poets among the youth of his day are all style and no substance by comparison with the literary greats of the past. – FumbleFingers Oct 3 '19 at 11:50

The entire passage is a back-handed compliment to the youth of the day. The author says that these youth are style without substance, all bark and no bite. They appear very intelligent, full of great ideas, and intense passion to accomplish those ideas. But it is all an illusion. The reality is they just use big words, but don't have any meaning, and go through the motions of strong feelings, but don't really feel them.

So there is no contradiction. The actions are hearty, the actual emotions are anemic.


Given the context, for example 'feel too obviously' and 'dreams a trifle dull', anaemic can be taken as shallow and boring. This does fit well with the definition shown.

Remember, dictionaries are descriptive not prescriptive: they describe how a word is used, not how it should be although the difference is subtle. The usage of words does change over time and dictionaries' definitions follow those changes. An example of this is anaemic itself: originally it just meant 'not enough blood circulating'. This word was then used on other circumstances where a lack of something was observed, and one example of that is shown in the example the dictionary has given.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.