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Friday, January 21, 2011


Each term I have about 400 students and 50-100 of them ( sometimes in private) come to me and ask for leniency--azam nomre mikhan-- BUT I CAN'T AND WON'T,because we evaluate ur knowledge not ur problems! be logical and accept the result of ur knowledge!!
Here is the list of ur problems:
1. "ostad man moshkel dashtam natunestam bekhunam"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! very bad excuse and TEKRARI !!
2."ostad man bishtar mishodam , shoma be man kam dadid"!!probably I am crazy!
3.I'm getting married! :-)
4. I am getting divorced!! :-(
5. My father , mother ,cousin ,neighbor,...was ill.
6. I work!
7. I have a child or I am pregnant.
8. I am married.
9. I am divorced or getting divorced!!
10. I don't have a spouse!! :-( :-)
11. I can't study!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
12.My cousin, uncle,father, aunt.... returned from Turkey,Haj,Dubai... and we all went to the airport or couch terminal and spent the night there!
13. I have/had an appointment with my dentist.
14."mikham faghat lisans begiram beram kharej". lisanse bedune study!!!
15."reshtamo dust nadaram"!!! zanam, bacham,shoharam,karam doost nadaram" . bahane baraye farar az responsibility!
16.hamro balad budam vali sare emtehan ghati kardam!!!!!!!!!!funny
17.''shoma jamuno avaz kardid harchi khunde budim yademun raft''


Monday, January 10, 2011

Everyday Use by Alice Walker

Everyday Use by Alice Walker

I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon. A yard like this is more comfortable than most people know. It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room. When the hard clay is swept clean as a floor and the fine sand around the edges lined with tiny, irregular grooves, anyone can come and sit and look up into the elm tree and wait for the breezes that never come inside the house.
(Read More)

l(a by e.e.cummings

l(a l(a le af fa ll s) one l iness --e.e.cummings

Archibald MacLeish "Ars Poetica" (1926)

Ars Poetica
By Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)

A poem should be palpable and mute1
Like a globed2 fruit,
As old medallions3 to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown4—
A poem should be wordless
Like a flight of birds.5............................ 8
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,6
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.7............................ 16
A poem should be equal to:
Not true.8
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.9
For love
The leaning grasses and the two lights above the sea—10
A poem should not mean
But be........................................../...... 24
Line 1—as well as lines 3, 5, and 7—focus on inarticulation: A poem should be . . . mute . . . dumb . . . silent . . . wordless. Here. MacLeish seems to be saying that a poem should not crassly announce what it is about. Rather, like the smell of spices wafting from a restaurant, it should merely suggest.
Use of globed rather than round enhances euphony while also suggesting largeness. Perhaps the object is a melon or grapefruit
Medallions are large medals. The adjective old suggests that the medallions have stories behind them—about war or athletic accomplishments, for example.
One can imagine here a man or woman from a time past propping sleeved arms or elbows on a ledge while he or she looks out the window on a scene of interest. If the stone ledge could speak, what tale would it tell about the observer and the observed?
The "wordless birds" can only suggest what occupies them by the direction of their flight or, in the case of vultures, their circular motion.
If a poem has universality and timelessness, it can move from one moment to the next, or from one age to another, while its relevance remains fixed ("motionless"). Thus, like the moon traveling across the sky, a good poem seems to stand still at any given moment—as if it were meant for that moment. Its content remains fresh and alive to each reader down through the years, down through the centuries.
Lines 15 and 16 repeat lines 9 and 10, creating a frame for the imagery in lines 11-14.
A poem is not a newspaper account, an essay, or a historical document. It is a work of the imagination; it discovers truth by presenting impressions and interpretations, not hard facts.
A poem can concentrate an entire story into an image. Here, the empty doorway suggests the absence of a person who once stood in it—a mother, for example, as she greets a son or daughter. But now the mother is gone, and the gloom of autumn (suggested by the fallen leaf) has replaced the bright cheer of summer.
Here is one interpretation: After death separated two lovers, the cemetery grass grew tall and now leans against a tombstone. Like the two lights in the sky, the sun and the moon, the two lovers will remain forever apart.

"Ars Poetica" (Latin for "The Art of Poetry") is a lyric poem of twenty-four lines. It describes the qualities a poem should have if it is to stand as a work of art. MacLeish wrote it in 1925 and published it in 1926.


The central theme of "Ars Poetica" is that a poem should captivate the reader with the same allure of a masterly painting or sculpture—that is, it should be so stunning in the subtlety and grace of its imagery that it should not have to explain itself or convey an obvious meaning. Oddly, though, in writing that a poem "should not mean / But be," Archibald MacLeish conveys naked meaning, namely: Here is how you should write a poem. In other words, in "Ars Poetica," we are privileged to behold the strange phenomenon of didacticism in the guise of ars gratia artis. Nevertheless, "Ars Poetica" is a wonderful poem that speaks with the quiet eloquence of Rodin's Thinker and da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem:

Simile: Lines 1-8 use like or as to compare a poem to a globed fruit, old medallions, the stone of casement ledges, and a flight of birds.
Alliteration: Line 5 repeats the s sound. (Silent as the sleeve-worn stone.)
Paradox: Lines 9-16 suggest that a poem should be motionless, like a climbing moon. Obviously, climbing indicates motion. However, the figure of speech is apt: A climbing moon appears motionless when it is observed at any given moment.
Metaphor: Lines 9-16 compare the "motionless" poem by implication to universality, the property of a literary work that makes it relevant for people of all ages and cultures. (See "Structure and Content" for further comment.
Metaphor: Line 12 compares night to an object that can snare or capture.
Repetend (Anaphora): The phrase a poem should be occurs five times in the poem.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Literature Websites

The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad

The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad is one of the most intriguing and important modernist
novelists. His writing continues to preoccupy twenty-first-century
readers. This introduction by a leading scholar is aimed at students
coming to Conrad’s work for the first time. The rise of postcolonial
studies has inspired new interest in Conrad’s themes of travel,
exploration, and racial and ethnic conflict. John Peters explains how
these themes are explored in his major works, Nostromo, Lord Jim, and
‘‘Heart of Darkness’’ as well as his shorter stories. He provides an
essential overview of Conrad’s fascinating life and career and his
approach to writing and literature. A guide to further reading is
included, which points to some of the most useful secondary criticism
on Conrad. This is the most comprehensive and concise introduction to
studying Conrad available, and it will be essential reading for students
of the twentieth-century novel and of modernism. (Read More)


A theme in American literature, film, and art that expresses optimistic desires for self-improvement, freedom, and self-sufficiency. Harry Shaw notes that the term can have no clear and fixed expression because "it means whatever its user has in mind a particular time" (12). In general, it has connotations of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in Thomas Jefferson's phrasing. One expression of this is the materialistic "rags-to-riches" motif of many nineteenth-century novels. Here, a young pauper through hard work, cleverness, and honesty, rises in socio-economic status until he is a powerful and successful man. An example here would be the stories by Horatio Alger. Other expressions of this theme focus on more more abstract qualities like freedom or self-determination. Many critics have argued that this dream is in many ways a myth in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, given America's frequent discriminatory treatment of immigrants and its continuing economic trends in which an ever smaller number of wealthy people acrue an ever larger percentage of material wealth with each generation, i.e., "the rich get richer and the poor get babies." Other events, such as the loss of the American frontier, segregation and exclusion of minorities, McCarthyism in the 1950s, unpopular wars in Vietnam in the 1960s, and gradual ecological devastation over the last hundred years, together have inspired literary works that criticize or question the American Dream--often seeing it as ultimately selfish or destructive on one or more levels. Examples of these writing would be Miller's Death of A Salesman, Ellison's Invisible Man, and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

Since the 1920s, numerous authors, such as Sinclair Lewis in his 1922 novel Babbitt, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his 1925 classic, The Great Gatsby, satirized or ridiculed materialism in the chase for the American dream. Within 'The Great Gatsby', Gatsby - the character representative of the American dream was killed, symbolizing the pessimistic belief that the American dream is dead. In 1949 Arthur Miller wrote the play "Death of a Salesman" in which the American Dream is a fruitless pursuit. Hunter S. Thompson in 1971 depicted in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey Into the Heart of the American Dream a dark view that appealed especially to drug users who emphatically were not pursuing a dream of economic achievement.[23] George Carlin famously wrote the joke "it's called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."[24] Carlin pointed to "the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions" as having a greater influence than an individual's choice.[24]

Many counter-culture films of the 1960s and 1970s ridiculed the traditional quest for the American Dream. For example Easy Rider (1969), written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern, shows the characters making a pilgrimage in search of "the true America" in terms of the hippie movement, drug use, and communal lifestyles.[25]

Read more:

The term "American Dream" was originally coined by James Truslow Adams in his book "The Epics of America" which as published in 1931. This dream has always played a major role on immigration to
America due to people perceiving America as the greatest country of opportunity, entrepreneurship and a freedom of spirit that all wish to attain. Around the turn of the 18th century, the promise of the American Dream had begun to lure many immigrants from around the world; Italians, Poles, Irish, Greeks, Russsians all flooded into find work and a new life that they could never hope to attain in the homelands.

There are many books, songs, plays and forms of literature which have defined, explored and denounced the American Dream.

- The American Dream by Edward Albee
- Of Mice and Men
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
- Death of a Salesman
- The Great Gatsby

and many more. The song "American Dream" by the Christian Rock Band Casting Crowns focuses on the idea of the dream, as it implies.

The term "THE AMERICAN DREAM" is a subjective one usually implying success and happiness. It also implies financial security, material goods, fame, exceeding ethnic or social boundaries or simply living a fulfilling life. The term is not easily defined, and has subjective meaning to many who claim it.

So, how has the American Dream impacted on your life? Has it created a new stream of consciousness within your life? Has you found ethnic peace? Are you satisfied financially? The dream in the 20th century has many challenges. The Great Depression comes to mind which caused widespread hardship during the 30's and was a reverse of the deam for those directly affected.

World War 2 springs to mind, young American families from the suburbs who sought to lead a stable life were immediately forced into a new reality. Although the drive waned during this period of time it also brought the American People closer in a way that many have not experienced to this day.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Reading the Novel in English 1950–2000 Brian W. Shaffer

Reading the Novel in English 1950–2000 Brian W. Shaffer

Reading the Novel in English 1950–2000

General Editor: Daniel R. Schwarz

The aim of this series is to provide practical introductions to reading the
novel in both the British and Irish, and the American traditions.


Reading the Modern British and Irish Novel 1890–1930 Daniel R. Schwarz
Reading the Novel in English 1950–2000 Brian W. Shaffer

Reading the Eighteenth-Century Novel Paula R. Backscheider
Reading the Nineteenth-Century Novel Harry E. Shaw and Alison Case
Reading the American Novel 1780–1865 Shirley Samuels
Reading the American Novel 1865–1914 G. R. Thompson
Reading the Twentieth-Century American Novel James Phelan

Reading the Novel in
English 1950–2000

Brian W. Shaffer

© 2006 by Brian W. Shaffer

350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148-5020, USA
9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK
550 Swanston Street, Carlton, Victoria 3053, Australia

The right of Brian W. Shaffer to be identified as the Author of this Work has been
asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording or otherwise, except as permitted by the UK Copyright,
Designs, and Patents Act 1988, without the prior permission of the publisher.

First published 2006 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd

1 2006

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Shaffer, Brian W., 1960–
Reading the novel in English, 1950–2000 / Brian W. Shaffer.
p. cm.—(Reading the novel)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN-13: 978-1-4051-0113-4 (hardback : alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 1-4051-0113-X (hardback : alk. paper)
ISBN-13: 978-1-4051-0114-1 (pbk. : alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 1-4051-0114-8 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. English fiction—20th century—History and criticism. 2. English fiction—Irish
authors—History and criticism. 3. Commonwealth fiction (English)—History
and criticism. 4. English-speaking countries—Intellectual life—20th
century. I. Title. II. Series.
PR881.S53 2006

A catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

Set in 10/12.5pt Minion
by Graphicraft Limited, Hong Kong
Printed and bound in the United Kingdom
by TJ International Ltd, Padstow, Cornwall

The publisher’s policy is to use permanent paper from mills that operate a sustainable
forestry policy, and which has been manufactured from pulp processed using acid-free and
elementary chlorine-free practices. Furthermore, the publisher ensures that the text paper
and cover board used have met acceptable environmental accreditation standards.

For further information on
Blackwell Publishing, visit our website:

To Rachel,
Hannah, and Ruthie


Acknowledgments viii

Preface ix

1 Introduction: Contexts and Concepts for Reading the
Novel in English 1950–2000 1
The Modernist British Novel and After: “Antimodernist” and
“Postmodernist” Reactions 1
It Can Happen Here: The British Novel as a Response to the
Crisis of Civilization 10
Shifting Literary–National Paradigms: From the “English Novel”
to the “Novel in English” 14
A Note on the “Novel” 31
2 Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954) 35
3 William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) 54
4 Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) 72
5 Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) 87
6 Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) 105
7 J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) 121
8 Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) 138
9 Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989) 157
10 Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992) 175
11 Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996) 195

Notes 212
Index 255



I wish to thank in particular two individuals who read early drafts of this
study and offered invaluable feedback: my colleague and friend Jennifer Brady
and my mother Dorothy Shaffer. While all of the volume’s remaining flaws
are of course my own, I cannot overestimate the positive impact each had on
the finished product. Thanks are also due to my colleagues – in particular
Michael Leslie, Cynthia Marshall, Anne Reef, and Lynn Zastoupil – and former
students – Anna Teekell and the students in my spring 2003 Contemporary
Anglophone Novel class – for their helpful feedback on various portions of
this work. The volume benefited from the support I have received as holder of
the Charles R. Glover Chair of English Studies since 2001. Dean Robert R.
Llewellyn also deserves my sincerest thanks for his support of this work and
faculty research and creative activity at Rhodes. Without the help of Mimi
Atkinson and Margaret Handwerker of the Rhodes English Department and
Academic Affairs Office, respectively, and Annette Cates and Kenan Padgett
of the Rhodes Library, this volume could not have come to fruition. I would
also like to thank several editors at Blackwell – Emma Bennett, Mary Dortch,
Karen Wilson, and Astrid Wind – for their expert advice and tireless efforts
on behalf of this volume; and Professor Daniel R. Schwarz of Cornell University
for approaching me to contribute a volume to the present series. As
always, I am deeply grateful to my wife Rachel and daughters Hannah and
Ruth for making everything possible and worthwhile.

An earlier version of portions of Chapter 9 first appeared in Brian W.
Shaffer, Understanding Kazuo Ishiguro (University of South Carolina Press,



Arthur Marwick opens his book British Society since 1945 by observing:
“Nobody has ever said precisely how many ways there are of skinning a cat.
Probably there are about the same number of ways of writing a Social History
of Britain since 1945.”1 The same might be said of the subject of the present
volume, the novel in English, exclusive of the US novel, between the end of
World War II and the turn of the millennium. This vast, rich, spectacularly
heterogeneous field of the British and postcolonial Anglophone novel is only
now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, coming into focus. John
Brannigan cautions in his book on literature in England between 1945 and
2000 that “the period since 1945 is too recent to see anything but its diversity
and complexity, and is too diverse and complex to enable us to construct one
coherent, meaningful narrative of its literary, cultural or historical events.”2
While the present volume is not meant to be a comprehensive literary history
of the field or an exhaustive survey of the novel in English outside the US over
the last half of the twentieth century, Reading the Novel in English 1950–2000
seeks to map out and explore the variety and breadth of novel writing in
English within the relevant period and geographical boundaries.

More significantly, the volume aims to be a practical introduction to the
contemporary English-language novel, with an emphasis on important contexts
and concepts for interpreting and understanding – for “reading” – this
field. In an introductory chapter I address three important contexts within
which the novel of the period takes shape: as a response to literary modernism
and, later, “antimodernism”; as a response to the “crisis of civilization,” in
particular the rise of European fascism, the Second World War, and Hitler’s
death camps; and as a response to the end of the British Empire, the rise of
formerly subject nations, and the phenomenon of reverse patterns of migration,
with peoples from formerly colonized lands moving to the large, industrialized
cities of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Although few



novels in the field respond to all three phenomena, all of them respond to at
least one them.

The chapter closes with a discussion of the novel as a genre that is
open-ended, socially engaged, and exploratory, one that challenges and stretches
the prevailing canons of knowledge, perception, and literary representation
in its bid to picture and probe an evolving contemporary reality. Along the
way this introductory chapter also addresses important rubrics and categories

– including the “modernist,” “postmodernist,” “postcolonial,” and “black
British” novel – under which the fictional texts of the period are commonly
grouped and assessed. Each of these terms is a highly contested locus of
meaning, a protean concept that shifts in sense over the course of the period
under investigation. My goal here is to provide readers with a useful set of
rubrics and terms with which to approach the contemporary British and
postcolonial Anglophone novel.
This introductory chapter is followed by ten more focused chapters, each
of which treats a critically acclaimed and influential, widely read and taught
novel from the period. In each case I provide key contexts for interpreting,
followed by a detailed reading of, the novel in question. There can be no
question of selecting for more thoroughgoing analysis the ten “right” novels
from among the hundreds of obvious, and thousands of possible, choices.
What can be affirmed is that the ten works selected for fuller treatment here
comprise a representative sampling of significant novels from the field, from a
variety of decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and geographical locales:
Canada, England, Ireland, Nigeria, Scotland, South Africa, and the West Indies.


Chapter 1

Introduction: Contexts and
Concepts for Reading the
Novel in English 1950–2000

The Modernist British Novel and After: “Antimodernist”
and “Postmodernist” Reactions

Much of the debate about appropriate form in the English novel since the
[Second World] war has been concerned with the acceptance or rejection of
appropriate or inappropriate models.

A. S. Byatt, “People in paper houses”1
The response to literary modernism in the British novel of 1950–2000 took
two divergent paths, resulting in the adoption of two conflicting novelistic
“models”: antimodernist realism and postmodernist experimentation. Literary
modernism – a transatlantic cultural phenomenon that influenced the
direction of the twentieth-century novel and that engaged with myriad extra-
literary developments of its day – is explored in another volume in this series.
It nevertheless deserves brief treatment here as a key context within which
the post-1950 British novel took shape and to which it responded. Readily
recognizable features of high-modernist novels, which predominated between
the turn of the century (Conrad’s 1900 Lord Jim) and the late 1940s (Malcolm
Lowry’s 1947 Under the Volcano), are easily catalogued: radical experiments
with point of view and with the representation of time and space; the shattering
of the illusion of a unified, omniscient narrator; linguistic pyrotechnics,
textual self-referentiality, and literary allusiveness; and narrative fragmentation,
replete with disorienting stream-of-consciousness and interior monologue


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

narration. It remains to explain why such features evolved, if only to provide
the context within which the post-1950 novel came about.

The enthusiasm with which literary modernists engaged in such radical
narrative experimentation is perhaps best expressed in the American poet
Ezra Pound’s famous charge to his literary contemporaries to “Make It New.”
Pound here meant more than that his fellow artists should break with tradition.
After all, we may presume that all writers in all periods seek to be innovative
in some way, even if it is only to tell a familiar story in a new or modern style.
By “Make It New,” as Malcolm Bradbury argues, Pound meant that “the
modern arts have a special obligation, an advanced or avant-garde duty, to go
ahead of their own age and transform it” – to break “free from the frozen
structures of the past.”2 Pound also expressed this sentiment in a poem, “Commission,”
in which he exhorts his readers to “Be against all sorts of mortmain.”3
By this, Pound meant that we should wage war against the dead hand (“mort/
main,” in his French neologism) of the past. In this same vein, the Norwegian
playwright Henrik Ibsen, who would come to exert a great influence on the
young James Joyce and other literary modernists, remarked that “The great
task of our time is to blow up all existing institutions – to destroy.”4 As the
enlightened millionaire in George Bernard Shaw’s 1905 play Major Barbara
laments, the problem with the world today is that while “It scraps its obsolete
steam engines and dynamos,” it “won’t scrap its old prejudices and its old
moralities and its old religions and its old political constitutions.”5 Collectively,
these passages suggest that George Orwell was misguided to associate
literary modernism with “art-for-art’s saking,” with the “worship of the
meaningless,” with the mere “manipulation of words” for the sake of an art
divorced from “the urgent [political] problems of the moment.”6 Orwell, who
penned this accusation in 1940, was probably thinking of James Joyce, who
a year earlier published Finnegans Wake, a supremely modernist work that
parades, indeed fetishizes, its arcane linguistic and narrative dimensions.

Joyce’s sui generis 1939 text notwithstanding, literary modernism was less
about the joys of experimentation and iconoclasm for its own sake – what
Orwell calls the “frivolous notion that art is merely technique”7 – than it was
about overthrowing literary forms and structures, and by extension social
forms and structures, that were felt to be repressive, outmoded, or constraining.
Novelty and innovation per se were less important than making the new
literature faithful to contemporary social, technological, psychological, epistemological,
and aesthetic realities. Put another way, modernists such as Conrad,
Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence, Woolf, and Yeats were less interested in “art for art’s
sake” than they were in creating works of literature that comported with
their new understanding of the world around them. As Eliot argued in 1921,
modern poets (and we might add modern novelists) “must be difficult”


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

because “Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this
variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility [that of the poet],
must produce various and complex results.”8 In other words, modernist literature
was not meant to be an autotelic or narcissistic retreat from modern life
so much as an attempt to face and depict it unflinchingly.

Perhaps the most important influences on modernism in the novel,
influences to which the novels of our period continued to respond, were a
series of revolutionary ideas in European thought that contributed to a Zeitgeist
within which these novelists wrote. The principal idea was a crisis lamented
by Matthew Arnold in his mid-nineteenth-century poem, “Dover Beach”:
the retreat of the “Sea of Faith” and the seeming disappearance of God,9 an
anxiety that emerges full-blown in W. B. Yeats’s celebrated 1919 poem “The
Second Coming,” with its theologically resonant title (and in which “Things
fall apart; the center cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”).10
Three seminal modern intellectuals – Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and
Sigmund Freud – all speculated that humans created God out of their need
for a protecting father and to explain an otherwise inexplicable, threatening,
chaotic world. Marx saw religion as the “sigh of the oppressed,” the “opium of
the people,”11 as a means for the “haves” of society to keep the “have nots”
mystified and downtrodden; Nietzsche famously asserted that “God is dead.
God remains dead. And we have killed him”;12 and Freud likened our devotion
to the “fairy-tale of religion” to a “childhood neurosis,” and, following Marx,
likened “the effects of religious consolations” to a “narcotic.”13 While some
found the prospect of a God-less universe liberating, others found the absence
of transcendental meaning and teleological human history to be frightening
prospects. Unsurprisingly, this shift in thinking had important implications
for the ways in which novels were written, as many novelists now took it
for granted that the traditional view of the world – one subject to a single
overarching interpretation, corresponding to God’s intention – was obsolete.
Objectivity was an illusion; subjectivity reigned. Many legitimate truths and
perspectives replaced the notion of a single “Truth”; “Reality” was supplanted
by a series of competing realities. In short, how one saw things now was
determined by one’s unique perspective, put in dialogue with other individuals
and their unique perspectives. This notion informed many novels of
the modernist period – for example, Conrad’s Lord Jim, Joyce’s Ulysses, Woolf ’s
Mrs Dalloway, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Lowry’s Under the Volcano – in
which multiple narrators and shifting perspectives force readers to reconstruct
events by negotiating among the various possible ways in which those
events can be understood. Put another way, the multiple points of view in
each of these modernist texts are offered not to impede our grasp of the
novel’s meaning but are the very point of it. As Orwell argues, in seeming


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

contradiction of his indictment of the modernists for their escapist avoidance
of politics,

Ulysses could not have been written by someone who was merely dabbling with
word-patterns; it is the product of a special vision of life, the vision of a Catholic
who has lost his faith. What Joyce is saying is “Here is life without God. Just
look at it!” and his technical innovations, important though they are, are there
primarily to serve this purpose.14

Another development that influenced the modernist novel – and that
which followed – was the late-nineteenth-century emergence of the discipline
of psychology, which further eroded traditional faith in objective norms of
perception, knowledge, and certainty. The year 1890 marked the appearance
of William James’s Principles of Psychology, a work that reoriented our take
on “reality.” Rather than being something objectively given, reality was to
be understood as something subjectively perceived through the “stream” of
human consciousness. If James’s terrain was consciousness and perception,
Freud’s, more radically, was the unconscious, which he defined as that area
of the mind that remains inaccessible to conscious scrutiny, the refuge of
repressed wishes too dangerous, subversive, and conflicted for us to acknowledge
consciously.15 Freud’s impact upon the modernist novel was considerable
and obvious. One critic even went as far as to attribute the “shift in the
basis of characterization in fiction after about 1900” largely to the “revolutionary
impact of Freudian concepts of the unconscious.”16

It is against this background that the British novel of our period took
shape. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the novel tended to reject literary
modernist innovations, reacting against the modernist novel’s conspicuous
complexity. Kingsley Amis, Iris Murdoch, Angus Wilson, and many others
countered in their novels with an antimodernist, anti-avant-garde “neorealism.”
As Bradbury characterizes the mood between 1945 and 1960,

Modernism was over, even tainted; the deaths of Joyce, Woolf, Yeats and Freud
had reinforced the feeling. In critical circles, it was already being historicized,
defined, monumentalized, given its name and structure; it was no longer
avant . . . but arrière.17

While realistic novels continued to be written over the next few decades
and prevail today (consider, for example, the works of Anita Brookner,
Margaret Drabble, John McGahern, Iris Murdoch, and Muriel Spark), a second
and divergent response to modernism and its antimodernist wake in the


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

British novel – the “postmodernist” novel – began to evolve in the early
1970s. Indeed, as divergent in their formal, linguistic, and thematic dimensions
as the novels of Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, A. S. Byatt, Angela Carter,
John Fowles, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, and Graham Swift may be, it is
reasonable to group their fictions under the banner of the postmodern novel.
This novel rejects the antimodernist backlash; indeed, it internalizes many
of the attitudes and perspectives of modernism, yet also takes further and
revises a number of modernism’s tenets. As Gerald Graff argues, “postmodernism
should be seen not as breaking with romantic and modernist
assumptions but rather as a logical culmination of the premises of these
earlier movements.”18 The American novelist John Barth puts the relationship
between modernism and postmodernism similarly: the “ideal postmodernist
author” has “the first half of the [twentieth] century under his belt [even if]
not on his back.”19

It is thus fair to say that the response to literary modernism in the British
novel of 1950–2000 took two divergent paths. The first reaction was blazed in
England in the 1950s by the prickly, antimodernist backlash of traditionalist
novelists such as Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Iris Murdoch (early in her
career), C. P. Snow, John Wain, and Angus Wilson, who rejected both the
narrative and stylistic experiments associated with Joyce and the refined literary
aesthetics associated with Virginia Woolf, either on the grounds that these
were arcane and mystifying or that they had been worthwhile experiments
in a now-exhausted vein. For example, John Wain, writing in 1963, insisted
that the “experimental” novel “died with Joyce.” Since Ulysses, Wain argued,
“there has been very little experimental-writing that strikes one as serious,
or motivated by anything more than faddishness or the irritable search for
new gimmicks.”20 According to C. P. Snow, “Joyce’s way” was “at best a culde-
sac,”21 and the literary “doctrine” of Virginia Woolf and others culminated
in the novel becoming “totally meaningless in a very short time.”22

If there was an antimodernist movement in the English novel of the time
it was to be found in the so called “Angry Young Men” – comprised of Wain,
Braine, Kingsley Amis, and others – whom Amis deemed “reactionaries rather
than rebels” because they sought a return “to the pre-Joycean tradition”23 of
broadly accessible and relevant literary works. Amis was at his most strident
and outspoken in this regard in a 1958 piece in the Spectator. There, he
famously declared:

The idea about experiment being the life-blood of the English novel is one
that dies hard. “Experiment,” in this context, boils down pretty regularly to
“obtruded oddity,” whether in construction – multiple viewpoints and such –
or in style . . . Shift from one scene to the next in midsentence, cut down on


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

verbs or definite articles, and you are putting yourself right up in the forefront,
at any rate in the eyes of those who were reared on Joyce and Virginia Woolf . . .24

However differently Amis’s Lucky Jim, Murdoch’s Under the Net, and Wilson’s
Hemlock and After (all from the early 1950s) respond to literary modernism,
each of these works represents a desire to return the novel to an earlier, more
realistic and linear model.

The antimodernist reaction to modernism in the English novel was
followed by another reaction, beginning in the early 1970s. Born of what
David Lodge characterized as “the pressure of skepticism on the aesthetic and
epistemological premises of literary realism,”25 the postmodern novel of the
final three decades of the twentieth century continued and furthered “the
modernist critique of traditional realism.”26

Just as Amis and other traditionalists of the 1950s and 1960s registered
their frustration with the modernist novel’s lack of accessibility and relevance,
so the early postmodernists, in an anti-antimodernist backlash, registered
their frustration with the realistic, linear novel’s lack of artistic courage and
innovation. The English avant-garde novelist B. S. Johnson, for example, writing
ten years after John Wain had said that the experimental novel died with
Joyce, lamented that while Joyce was “the Einstein of the novel,”27 very few
novelists in Britain now followed his lead. For Johnson,

It is not a question of influence, of writing like Joyce. It is a matter of realizing
that the novel is an evolving form, not a static one, of accepting that for practical
purposes where Joyce left off should ever since have been regarded as the
starting point.28

“Why then,” Johnson demanded, “do so many novelists still write as though
the revolution that was Ulysses had never happened?”29 Johnson concluded
by quoting the French author Nathalie Sarraute’s description of literature “as
a relay race, the baton of innovation passing from one generation to another,”
and then by accusing the “vast majority of British novelists” today with having
“dropped the baton.”30 Johnson’s reference to Sarraute here is telling, as many
avant-garde English novelists of the 1970s gained their inspiration from French
writers and intellectuals, specifically from Sarraute, Samuel Beckett (born
in Ireland but living in Paris and writing in French and English), and Alain
Robbe-Grillet (theorist of le nouveau roman) – rather than from British ones.
John Fowles, for example, the author of one of the earliest important English
postmodernist novels, the 1969 French Lieutenant’s Woman, admits to finding
himself “much more at home in French than in English literature.”31


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

Be this “French connection” as it may, British postmodernist novels – among
them Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), Golding’s Darkness Visible
(1979), Gray’s Lanark (1981), Swift’s Waterland (1983), Barnes’s Flaubert’s
Parrot (1984), Martin Amis’s Money (1984), A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990),
McCabe’s Butcher Boy (1992), and Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1994)

– built upon many modernist novelistic innovations. While “postmodernism”
as a theoretical construct defies easy definition – Malcolm Bradbury has called
the term a “moveable feast,”32 and Hans Bertens has characterized it as “exasperating”
for being “several things at once”33 – it is clear that postmodern
novels, in practice, deliberately blur categories that were formerly thought to
be antithetical. That is, they blur elite and demotic narrative forms, the author
and the reader, fiction and fact, and they attack realistic conventions of representation,
notions of generic purity, and the feasibility of a unified subject.
In his exhaustive The Idea of the Postmodern: A History Hans Bertens
observes that postmodernism

has meant different things to different people at different conceptual levels,
rising from humble literary-critical origins in the 1950s to a level of global
conceptualization in the 1980s. The result was, and still is, a massive but also
exhilarating confusion that has given important new impulses to and opened
new territories for intellectual exploration. If there is a common denominator
to all these postmodernisms, it is that of a crisis in representation: a deeply felt
loss of faith in our ability to represent the real, in the widest sense. No matter
whether they are aesthetic, epistemological, moral, or political in nature, the
representations that we used to rely on can no longer be taken for granted.34

This “crisis” of representation – that representations create more than they
reflect reality – is discernible in the work of the most important French
theorizers of the postmodern, Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard.

To sketch an immensely complex thesis, Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition
(1979; trans. 1984) argues that the condition of postmodernity is one of
“incredulity towards metanarratives”:35 toward those grand, universal, or master
narratives upon which modernity stands, but which have now come to be seen
as “stories that we tell ourselves to convince ourselves of their truth” rather
than as empirically verifiable conceptual foundations that possess the power
to “hold things together.”36 In the postmodern world, universal, overarching
explanatory systems and ideologies – for example, Enlightenment scientific
rationality, capitalist or Marxist economic theory, the Christian or Freudian
view of the human psyche/soul – have come to be seen as narratives that lack
credibility and adequacy. These all-encompassing systems have been replaced
with a plurality of more credible if limited petit recits, discrete micronarratives


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

of only local and particular applicability. In an equally involved argument
that I will only sketch here, Baudrillard defines postmodernity as an “age of
simulation” and “hyperreality,” in which the “actual” and its “representation”
are impossible to distinguish, and in which representations therefore can only
be understood to refer to other representations and not to any underlying
“reality.” In his Simulacra and Simulation (1981; trans. 1994) Baudrillard holds
that the postmodern world – unlike the modern one, which is “organized
around the production and consumption of commodities” – is “organized
around simulation and the play of images and signs,”37 and in it “hyperreality,”
constructed in the virtual world of free-floating images and mediatized events,
has become the only knowable reality. Baudrillard sees the hyperreal as providing
“experiences more intense and involving than the scenes of banal
everyday life,”38 what he calls the “desert of the real.”39 Although these French
theories of the postmodern had little direct influence on the British novels of
the period, they nevertheless contributed to a postmodernist intellectual and
artistic climate out of which the novels evolved.

In The Postmodern Turn, Steven Best and Douglas Kellner explore post-
modernist literature within the context of this wider postmodernist climate
forged by Lyotard, Baudrillard, and many others. Although Best and Kellner
view postmodernism as less of an outgrowth of modernism than I do here,
they nevertheless concede that “some of the stylistic techniques of postmodern
literature were defining features of modernism itself,” motivated by its revolt
against “realism, mimesis, and linear forms of narrative.”40 That said, Best and
Kellner make useful distinctions between modernist and postmodernist works
of literature.

[W]hile high modernists defended the autonomy of art and excoriated mass
culture, postmodernists spurned elitism and combined “high” and “low” cultural
forms in an aesthetic pluralism and populism. Against the drive toward militant
innovation and originality, postmodernists embraced tradition and techniques
of quotation and pastiche. While the modernist artist aspired to create
monumental works and a unique style . . . postmodernists were more ironic
and playful, eschewing concepts like “genius,” “creativity,” and even “author.”
While modernist art works were signification machines that produced a wealth
of meanings and interpretations, postmodern art was more surface-oriented,
renouncing depth and grand philosophical or moral visions.41

Indeed, for Best and Kellner, postmodernists “abandon the idea that any
language – scientific, political, or aesthetic – has a privileged vantage point on
reality; instead, they insist on the intertextual nature and social construction
of all meaning.”42 The postmodernist novel’s “self-reflexive and nonlinear


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

writing” counters both “realist theories of mimesis, depth psychology and
character development” and notions of “the author as a sovereign subject in
full command of the process of creation.”43 Finally, “postmodern writers
implode oppositions between high and low art, fantasy and reality, fiction and
fact. Spurning ‘originality,’ postmodern writers draw on past forms, which are
ironically quoted and eclectically combined.”44 As the poet and critic Andrei
Codrescu puts this last point, “where the modernist Pound had commanded
‘Make It New,’ the postmodernist imperative is ‘Get It Used’.”45

It is also worth emphasizing that postmodernist narrative experimentation
in the novel, like that of modernist experimentation before it, was undertaken
not in the spirit of absurdist antirealism, as many assumed, but in the spirit of
hyperrealism, one which accounts for the new theories of perception, knowledge,
and consciousness alluded to above. What Virginia Woolf argued of the
modernist Joyce and other novelists of his ilk is also true of the postmodernist
Fowles and other authors of his ilk: they all attempt, in their fictions,

to come closer to life, and to preserve more sincerely and exactly what interests
and moves them, even if to do so they must discard most of the conventions
which are commonly observed by the [realist] novelist. Let us record the atoms
as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the
pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight
or incident scores upon the consciousness.46

Woolf ’s point is clear: Joyce and other modernists wrote out of a sense of
fidelity to things as they are subjectively and fragmentarily experienced and
known rather than out of an unfeasible stance of objectivity and omniscience.
As Woolf hints here, Joyce’s use of interior monologue narration worked as
a means of plumbing the depths and shallows of character as never before, a
device allowing for the direct representation of the psyche in action. However,
one important difference between the modernism of Joyce and Woolf and the
postmodernism of Fowles and Swift is that, as one critic argues, whereas “the
Modernist aimed at providing a valid, authentic, though strictly personal view
of the world in which he lived, the Postmodernist appears to have abandoned
the attempt towards a representation of the world that is justified by the convictions
and sensibility”47 of any single individual consciousness or historical
account. Indeed, such observably “postmodern” novels as Fowles’s French
Lieutenant’s Woman, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Swift’s Waterland, and
Byatt’s Possession deconstruct traditional notions of subjectivity and history,
and problematize the distinction between fact and fiction, in ways that go
beyond what Joyce and other modernists envisioned. Another clear difference


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

is that postmodernist novels tend to be far more demotic and less elitist in
orientation than their modernist forerunners. John Carey’s observation that
the literary intelligentsia in the years leading up to 1939 was distinctly elitist
and anti-democratic – hostile to the “large reading public” that came into
being after “nineteenth-century educational reforms”48 – no longer holds sway
in our period, as the postmodernist novel’s abundant use of popular cultural
discourse suggests. It is difficult, given the postmodern novel’s demotic orientation,
to imagine its practitioners defining their art in the terms hazarded by

D. H. Lawrence: “[B]eing a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint,
the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet . . . The novel is the one bright
book of life.”49
It Can Happen Here: The British Novel as a Response
to the Crisis of Civilization

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
George Orwell, “England your England”50

The novel, with its emphasis on the depiction of human societies and social
interaction, is an inherently dialogic, richly social literary genre, one which
necessarily represents and critiques the social world of its production and
initial consumption. The novel of our period is of course no exception to this
rule; it too engages with the socioeconomic and political, not only with the
artistic, trends of its time. Numerous cataclysmic and revolutionary events
were occurring in European as well as in world politics in the years leading
up to and away from 1945: the rise of European fascism in Spain, Germany,
and Italy; the horrific carnage of World War II and Hitler’s genocidal “Final
Solution” and death camps; the dropping of two nuclear bombs in Japan;
Stalinism and the purges and gulags in the Soviet Union; and the Cold War
between America and Russia, which held out the continuing threat of global
nuclear obliteration. As Bradbury sums up the importance of World War II
as an historical watershed, “There was no doubt that the Second World War
was as terrible a fracture in the twentieth-century experience as the First
had been,” and that “its impact on world history, human consciousness, and
artistic expression was ultimately far greater than that of the conflict of just
twenty-five years before.”51 In a similar vein the novelist Iris Murdoch, as late
as 1961, affirmed that “We have not [yet] recovered from two wars and the


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

experience of Hitler.”52 Given the apocalyptic intensity and global reach of the
above events, and the ever-present threat of totalitarian regimes and genocides,
it is no surprise that sociopolitical trauma would make its way, in one
form or another, into the British novel of the period. Specifically, the growing
realization that the barbarity of mid-twentieth-century historical events
emanated from within “civilized” Europe rather than from outside it, as captured
in Orwell’s line above, soon became an unavoidable conclusion.

In his 1967 Language and Silence, for example, George Steiner observed that
the “political bestiality” of our age was a barbarity of our own making and
that we learned that one “can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening[,] can play
Bach and Schubert, and [then] go to . . . work at Auschwitz in the morning.”53
Moreover, according to Steiner, the eruption of barbarism in mid-twentiethcentury

did not spring up in the Gobi Desert or the rain forests of the Amazon. It
rose from within, and from the core of European civilization. The cry of the
murdered sounded in earshot of the universities; the sadism went on a street
away from the theaters and museums. In the later eighteenth century Voltaire
had looked confidently to the end of torture; ideological massacre was to be a
banished shadow. In our own day the high places of literacy, of philosophy, of
artistic expression, became the setting for Belsen.54

This insight concerning our involvement in the darkness that descended over
Europe in the twentieth century – more than depicting the battlefields of
World War II – became an obsession of the British and Anglophone novel of
our period, from Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947) and Orwell’s Nineteen
Eighty-Four (1949), to Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) and The Inheritors
(1955), Robin Jenkins’s The Cone-Gatherers (1955), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso
Sea (1966), Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Graham Swift’s
Waterland (1983), Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989), Pat Barker’s
Regeneration trilogy (1991, 1993, 1995), Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs (1992), and
Mark Behr’s The Smell of Apples (1995), to name only a few examples. Put
simply, the idea that “civilized” persons could abide – indeed, could conspire
in and advance – apartheid and murder against dehumanized enemy “Others”
became a recurring trope in the novel of the period.

This notion of “civilized barbarity” was not new; indeed, it was anticipated
in H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel Allan Quatermain, in which “Civilization”
is said to be “only savagery silver-gilt”,55 and in Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart
of Darkness, in which the Company chief accountant helps make possible the
plundering, enslaving, and murdering of the native Congolese yet remains


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

apparently oblivious to his crimes and contentedly “devoted to his books
[the company accounts], which were in apple-pie order.”56 The realization
that “civilized” Europeans were capable of perpetrating the most atrocious
barbarities underwent something of a renaissance in the British novel of our
period. In particular, the Holocaust of European Jewry captured the imagination
of much British writing after 1945; genocide could no longer be dismissed
as the practice solely of “primitive” tribes but rather was to be understood as
the deliberate policy of “civilized” European peoples.

In his provocative and penetrating study Modernity and the Holocaust (1989),
the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman theorizes the relationship between modern
civilized society and genocide. In contrast to the naïve belief that the two
phenomena are antithetical, Bauman argues that modernity makes possible
two parallel processes that enable genocide: the “division of labor” and the
“substitution of technical for moral responsibility.”57 For Bauman, in the
modern corporation “Technical responsibility differs from [and supplants]
moral responsibility in that it forgets that the action is a means to something
other than itself.”58 Morality now “boils down to the commandment to be
a good, efficient and diligent expert and worker”59 above all else. This leads
to the “dehumanization of the objects of bureaucratic operation” because it
is now possible “to express these objects in purely technical, ethically neutral
terms.”60 The result of this moral distancing between the bureaucrat and
the object of bureaucratic interest, which is now understood in abstractly
“quantitative” terms, is the “dehumanization” of the latter.61 “Reduced, like
all other objects of bureaucratic management, to pure, quality-free measurements,
human objects lose their distinctiveness” and become dehumanized.62
For Bauman, this line of reasoning explains how “good” Germans could perpetrate
genocide against Jews; but its implications are far broader. Whether
one considers the relationship between the Coketown boss Mr Bounderby
and the exploited, downtrodden industrial “hands” in Dickens’s 1854 novel
Hard Times, the Belgian Trading Company employees and the enslaved, murdered
Congolese in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the Third Bureau employees
and the assaulted “barbarian” Others in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians,
or the Commanders and the sexually violated Handmaids in Atwood’s The
Handmaid’s Tale, the victimized “Others” in these novels are persecuted as a
result of a dehumanizing shift in the way they are represented and understood
by those who define them. In each case “Dehumanization of the objects
and positive moral self-evaluation [of the functionaries] reinforce each other.
The functionaries may faithfully serve any goal while their moral conscience
remains unimpaired.”63 Indeed, fully half of the novels that come in for greater
scrutiny in the next section of this study – those by Atwood, Golding, Ishiguro,
Coetzee, and Spark – deal in one way or another with the crucible of the


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

mid-century years, in particular (in the case of Lord of the Flies, The Remains
of the Day, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) with Britain’s indirect culpability
in some of its most odious dimensions.

Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for example, explores the perceived
allure of the charismatic, fascistic teacher or leader (consider both Miss Brodie’s
admiration for Mussolini during the war and the demands she makes on her
students blindly to follow her lead [“Mussolini’s fascisti,” she lectures her
students, “are doing splendid things”]).64 Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning
The Remains of the Day treats emotional fascism, the willingness of individuals
to subordinate not only their behavior but their critical faculties to their
“betters,” while rationalizing such self-enslavement as the price happily paid
for serving a higher social order. (Consider both Lord Darlington’s appeasement
of his German guests in the 1930s and Stevens’s subordination of his
rational and moral faculties to those of his master, such as when he blindly
follows Lord Darlington’s orders to fire two Jewish maids “for the good of this
house.”65) Golding’s Lord of the Flies uses a group of marooned British boys
on an island during the Second World War to probe what Erich Fromm calls
the “escape from freedom,” the individual’s desire to relinquish major decision-
making capacities to someone outside the self, “in order to acquire the strength
which the individual self is lacking.”66 As Golding puts the lessons of the
mid-century, to which his early novels respond,

Before the Second World War I believed in the perfectibility of social man;
that a correct structure of society would produce goodwill; and that therefore
you could remove all social ills by a reorganization of society . . . [B]ut after the
war I did not because I was unable to. I had discovered what one man can do to
another . . . There were things done during that period from which I still have
to avert my mind less I should be physically sick. They were not done by the
headhunters of New Guinea, or by some primitive tribe in the Amazon. They
were done, skillfully, coldly, by educated men, doctors, lawyers, by men with a
tradition of civilization behind them, to beings of their own kind.67

Lord of the Flies culminates in the “civilized” British boys, now divided into
tribes, literally hunting each other down.

This fear that the moral gap between “civilized” Europeans and uncivilized
barbarians may not exist at all is explored not only in mid-century British
works such as Robin Jenkins’s The Cone-Gatherers (1955), a novel set during
the Second World War that interrogates the enigmatically malign, murderous
behavior of a gamekeeper of an aristocratic Scottish estate toward an innocent
if physically deformed laborer, but in late-twentieth-century works as well.


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

Witness, for example, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy of the early 1990s, an
anti-war narrative that provocatively blurs the boundaries between history
and fiction. In the first novel, Regeneration (1991), Barker problematizes the
medical and legal category of “madness” and interrogates the psycho-social
mechanisms by which the British government sent thousands of its psychologically
traumatized soldiers back to the slaughter of the Great War trenches
despite their mental unfitness to fight and the near certainty of their deaths.
In the second novel, The Eye in the Door (1993), it is victimized pacifists and
homosexuals who become pawns in the British government’s war machine;
while in the third novel, the Booker Prize-winning The Ghost Road (1995),
the “civilized” British penchant for war is suggestively juxtaposed with a “primitive”
Papua New Guinea tribe’s cult of death. How “civilized,” these works
ask, can the warmongering British really claim to be?

The trauma of the mid-century years also accounts for the prevalence of
dystopian elements, which are largely vehicles for social criticism, in so many
novels of our period, from the late works of Orwell and the early works of
Golding, to Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), Alasdair Gray’s
Lanark (1981), and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1986). In Atwood’s
feminist dystopia a puritanical, patriarchal, theocratic government effectively
enslaves, sexually or otherwise, all females in the service of the state, the
Republic of Gilead.

Shifting Literary–National Paradigms: From the
“English Novel” to the “Novel in English”

Postwar Britain was an austere and insecure place. British people knew that
their role in the world was shrinking, and the years between the handing over
of India in 1947 and the Suez crisis of 1956 were years in which the reality of
Britain’s increasingly limited role in world affairs was becoming painfully

Caryl Phillips, A New World Order68

[F]or a long, long time Britain thought of itself as the center of a huge
empire. For a long time writers who wrote English literature felt they did not
need to think consciously about whether they were international or not.
They could write about the smallest details of English society and it was, by
definition, of interest to people in the far corners of the world because
English culture itself was . . . internationally important . . . But that finished
[sometime after the Second World War]. And then suddenly . . . people came
to this realization: We’re not the center of the universe. We’re just this little


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

backwater in Europe. If we want to participate in the world, culturally speaking,
we’ve got to find out what’s happening in the rest of the world.

Kazuo Ishiguro, in interview69

The novel has never been a more international form . . .
Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands70

The last half of the twentieth century witnessed a monumental shift in the
character of both literary and national identity: the “novel in English” supplanted
the “English novel” in significance and cogency. What was at one
time on the margins of canonical literature – the English language but non-
British (or “Commonwealth”) novel – is at present squarely at its center: the
English-language novel is now a genuinely international affair, with postcolonial
Anglophone and “black British” works as widely read and critically esteemed
as “British” ones. As important as the English novelists of this period have
been and continue to be, it is non-English novelists who now arguably dictate
the parameters of literary debate and attract the most interest. As the novelist
Emma Tennant, as early as 1978, declared, the majority of the important
“developments” in English language fiction are as “likely to have come out of
Africa, or the West Indies, or India”71 as out of Britain. Feroza Jussawalla and
Reed Way Dasenbrock, in the Introduction to their illuminating volume of
interviews with postcolonial writers, amplify this point:

The single most important development in literature written in English over the
past century has been its increasingly international – indeed, global – nature.
Once the language of a few million people on a small island on the edge
of Europe, English is now spoken and written on every continent and is an
important language inside at least one-quarter of the world’s one hundred sixty
countries. As English has become an important international language, it has
also become an important international literary language.72

It is no mystery why this shift occurred. World War II helped accelerate the
breakup of the British Empire, and Britain’s abortive intervention in the Suez
Crisis of 1956, obliquely alluded to in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day,
marked the demise of British imperial prestige. If London dominated 25 percent
of the earth’s surface at the turn of the nineteenth century, with control
of nearly 4 million square miles, this dominance, in the thirty years following
the Second World War, would shrink to a tiny fraction of that figure. India
and Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947 (Sri Lanka achieved


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

independence one year later), with the African nations of Kenya, Nigeria,
South Africa, and Uganda following in the years 1960–3, and the vast majority
of British-held Caribbean countries – among them the Bahamas, Barbados,
Dominica, and Jamaica – gaining independence between 1962 and 1983. Closer
to England, the Irish Free State was internationally recognized in 1921 (the
1931 Statute of Westminster formalized the secession of the Irish Free State
from the United Kingdom); Scotland, although remaining a part of the United
Kingdom, moved in the direction of devolution, re-inaugurating its Parliament
in 1999; and Wales inaugurated a Welsh Assembly in this same year. As one
observer remarked, Britain’s “major historical experience” in the twentieth
century, other than the two world wars, was “the final flourishing, later decline
and eventual loss of the Empire.”73

Britain’s political empire may be gone, but its “linguistic empire” is stronger
than ever. As Jussawalla and Dasenbrock observe, “The sun may now have set
on the British Empire, but that Empire, in establishing English as a language
of trade, government, and education in that sizable part of the world ruled
by the British, helped create what may be a more enduring ‘empire’ of the
English language.”74 The Indian novelist Salman Rushdie casts this linguistic
dominance in yet more favorable terms. While it is true that English is the
global language as “a result of the physical colonization of a quarter of the
globe by the British,” Rushdie eschews viewing this language as an unwanted
imposition on formerly colonized peoples, instead regarding it as “a gift of the
British colonizers,” a legacy that in any case “ceased to be the sole possession
of the English some time ago.”75

At this point a word on the distinction among three terms – “imperial,”
“colonial,” and “postcolonial” – will be useful. In his Keywords: A Vocabulary
of Culture and Society, Raymond Williams notes that “imperialism” is variously
understood as “a political system in which colonies are governed from
an imperial centre, for economic [and] other reasons,” and as an “economic
system of external investment and the penetration and control of markets
and sources of raw materials.”76 Imperialism is thus both a set of practices
wrought by an empire and an ideological “justification” of those practices. If
imperialism emphasizes the conquering and exploitation of “foreign” territories
for the purpose of securing political and economic hegemony, colonialism
emphasizes the settling of those territories for the purpose of transforming
the indigenous socioeconomic and cultural order. As this description of
colonialism would suggest, “postcolonial” defines a political and cultural
order following the departure of the colonizing power and the birth of the
independent nation: a hybridized culture that mixes elements of the formerly
invading power and that of the indigenous population. As Ashcroft, Griffiths,
and Tiffin put it in their The Empire Writes Back, “Post-colonial culture is


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

inevitably a hybridized phenomenon involving a dialectical relationship between
the ‘grafted’ European cultural systems and an indigenous ontology,
with its impulse to create or recreate an independent local identity.”77 It should
come as little surprise, then, that decolonization would have a major impact
on the English-language novel of the period.

We may consider English-language novels (as opposed to English novels
in the narrowest sense) in three broad groups, taking into account the history
of contact, including colonization, between the peoples producing them. In
the first group are novels from countries in which the literature and culture
are British or demonstrate a significant “degree of continuity with that of
Britain.”78 Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – British, yet maintaining
discrete cultural traditions – are conveniently considered, as far as the novel is
concerned, with Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, dominions in which
the majority of the inhabitants were British (or in any case European) settlers.
The Republic of Ireland, given the violent and protracted struggle through
which it achieved independence from the UK, is exceptional among these
nations, but the links through language and culture justify including the Irish
novel in this group.

In the second group are “postcolonial Anglophone” novels, which emanated
from formerly subject, British-held colonies in which the majority of the
inhabitants had been living in situ for centuries (rather than being “transplants”
of British or European origin). Such formerly colonized nations include,
among others, present-day Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda; India,
Pakistan, and Sri Lanka; and the many English-speaking nations of the West

In the third group are novels written by formerly colonized peoples who
subsequently migrated to Britain, and whose works are frequently viewed within
the context of multicultural British fiction. As Jussawalla and Dasenbrock
remind us, after the end of colonial migration a sort of reverse migration
occurred, “as a result of the political and economic problems the new states of
the nonwestern world experienced after independence.”79 This reverse pattern
of migration resulted in an influx into Britain of large populations of formerly
colonized Asians, West Indians, and Africans. The novels of such formerly
subject peoples who settled in Britain (usually in the larger, industrialized
cities of the UK, such as London, Birmingham, Bradford, Liverpool, and
Glasgow) brought a revitalizing multicultural, international dimension to
English literature and are sometimes grouped under the banner of “black
British” writing. Such novelists and novels also revitalized the accepted manner
of studying and categorizing literature, which had been within the context of
“a single, cohesive national literary tradition.” As Jussawalla and Dasenbrock
argue, the


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

assumption that literature in a given language and the literature of a given
nation are compatible and readily combinable ways of studying literature breaks
down in the face of the multilinguality of so many countries in the world and
the global reach of writing in a number of European languages, [including]

The traditional model of literary classification makes little sense, for example,
in the face of the “black British” novel, which problematizes as never before
the “center/margin” political and cultural dichotomies inherent in the earlier,
single-nation-centered taxonomic approach. As Simon Gikandi reminds us, it
is in any case now difficult to maintain the earlier “organization of knowledge
and literary culture, [which separated] the Great Tradition of English literature
from the new body of writing that had been produced in the former colonies.”81

Space does not allow for more than a brief overview of the three overlapping
dimensions in the evolving metamorphosis of the “English novel” into
the “novel in English” during 1950–2000. To explore part of the first group
outlined above: closest to the heart of Empire are novels of the “Celtic fringe,”
from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. While relations between these national
literatures and English literature have been understandably close, there is no
doubt that the former literatures also defined themselves against the more
widely disseminated and hegemonic English literary mainstream of the time,
and that they have long functioned as literatures of resistance. In Ireland the
novel has been a vibrant literary form in our period, with many Irish novelists,
in both the Republic and Northern Ireland, writing in the wake of James
Joyce’s seminal early-twentieth-century fictions, Dubliners, A Portrait of the
Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses. Such novelists as John McGahern and
Edna O’Brien, both of whom wrote novels that were banned for a time in
Ireland (O’Brien’s Country Girls trilogy [1960, 1962, 1964] and McGahern’s
The Dark [1965], the latter of which might be said to rewrite and update
Joyce’s Portrait), are two such examples.82 The Anglo-Irish novelist William
Trevor, a Protestant from County Cork, and Brian Moore, a Catholic from
Belfast (who subsequently emigrated to North America) are two other authors
whose novels of the past decades have explored and interrogated an evolving
Irish (as opposed to British) identity. Moore’s first novel, The Lonely Passion
of Judith Hearne (1955), which reads like a novel-length Dubliners story, added
an urban dimension to McGahern’s mid-century indictment of the Church’s
stranglehold over rural Irish life. Brendan Behan’s autobiographical Borstal
Boy (1958) was politically provocative and was banned in Ireland. In more
recent decades the novelists John Banville, Dermot Bolger, Emma Donoghue,
Roddy Doyle, Bernard MacLaverty (who was born and raised in Belfast but


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

who spent much of his adult life in Scotland, and hence may be viewed as
both culturally Irish and Scottish), Patrick McCabe, and Colm Tóibín have
written novels that further probe and problematize Irish identity in the late
twentieth century. Irish novels that have gained the attention of international
readers (and Booker Prize committees) include William Trevor’s Mrs Eckdorf
in O’Neill’s Hotel (1970), The Children of Dynmouth (1976), Reading Turgenev
(1991), and The Story of Lucy Gault (2002); Molly Keane’s Good Behavior
(1981); John Banville’s The Book of Evidence (1989); John McGahern’s Amongst
Women (1990); Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy (1989–91) and Paddy Clarke
Ha Ha Ha (Booker Prize winner, 1993); Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy
(1992) and Breakfast on Pluto (1998); Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark
(1996); Bernard MacLaverty’s Grace Notes (1997); and Colm Tóibín’s The
Blackwater Lightship (1999) and The Master (2004).

The contemporary Scottish novel likewise has striven to forge a cultural
identity for a marginalized nation whose literature too often has existed in the
shadow of England’s. In Scotland, toward the beginning of our period, Muriel
Spark and Robin Jenkins wrote novels that gained the attention not only of a
Scots but of a wider English-speaking readership. In particular, Jenkins’s The
Cone-Gatherers (1955) and Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), the
first set in a Lowland Scottish aristocratic estate, the second set in Edinburgh
(and both during the Second World War), announced a new skeptical mood
in postwar Scottish writing. A renaissance of sorts in the Scottish novel was
heralded by Alasdair Gray’s sui generis Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981),
widely regarded as one of the greatest Scottish novels ever written. Comprised
of four books, printed out of order, in which two related life stories unfold –
one centering on Lanark and set in the nightmare-fantasy city of Unthank,
the other centering on the autobiographical Duncan Thaw and set in Glasgow

– Lanark attempts for Glasgow and Scotland what Joyce’s Ulysses does for
Dublin and Ireland: to be an epic-encyclopedic novel that explores the ways
in which the modern artist can help engender national renewal. After Lanark
there appeared on the scene a number of novels sometimes grouped under
the “Scottish New Wave” rubric – works that tended to be grittily demotic
and proletarian in thrust – that further plumbed the depths of late-twentiethcentury
Scottish national and cultural identity and that functioned to dispel
the sentimental image of Scotland cultivated in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Highland
adventure romances and in the work of the Kailyard school of a century
earlier. Such Scottish “New Wave” novelists include James Kelman, Janice
Galloway, A. L. Kennedy, Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting [1993]), and Alan Warner
(Morvern Callar [1995]). Andrew O’Hagan’s lyrical Our Fathers (1999) is an
example of a contemporary Scottish novel that explores national identity by
skirting both the rural sentimentality of the earlier twentieth-century Scottish

Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

novel and the urban despair of the later twentieth-century one. The most
celebrated Welsh novel of the period, Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill (1982),
depicts over many decades the insular lives of the identical Jones twins on
a Welsh farm near the English border. Scottish novels to make the Booker
Prize shortlist include Muriel Spark’s The Public Image (1969) and Loitering
With Intent (1981); James Kelman’s A Disaffection (1989) and How Late It
Was, How Late (winner, 1994); George Mackay Brown’s Beside the Ocean of
Time (1994); Andrew O’Hagan’s Our Fathers (1999); and Ali Smith’s Hotel
World (2001).

Much further from the center of the former empire were novels written by
members of sovereign countries once ruled from London that to this day
remain members of the “Commonwealth of Nations”: Canada, Australia, and
New Zealand. All three of these nations (along with South Africa and the Irish
Free State) gained their formal independence from Britain with the passage
in the British Parliament of the 1931 Statute of Westminster. Like the novels
of 1950–2000 in Ireland and Scotland, the English-language novels in these
countries comprise discrete traditions that nevertheless also engage dialogically
with the more globally mainstream English novel. In Canada a number
of novelists gained a readership both in their own country and in the wider
English-speaking world: Malcolm Lowry (a transplant from England and
author of Under the Volcano [1947]), Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler,
Brian Moore (a transplant from Ireland), Michael Ondaatjee (originally from
Sri Lanka and the author of The English Patient [1992]), Margaret Laurence
(Canadian-born yet much of whose life was spent in Somaliland, Ghana, and
England, and many of whose novels are set in Africa), and Margaret Atwood,
the most celebrated of contemporary Canadian novelists (and an incisive critic
of patriarchal forms of power).83 Booker Prize shortlist novels from Canada
include Mordecai Richler’s St Urbain’s Horseman (1971) and Solomon Gursky
Was Here (1990); Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), Cat’s Eye
(1989), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (winner, 2000), and Oryx and
Crake (2003); Robertson Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone (1986); and Michael
Ondaatje’s The English Patient (winner, 1992).

In Australia, toward the beginning of our period, the novels of Patrick
White and Christina Stead received widespread interest. In more recent
decades David Malouf, Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s Ark [1982]), Clive James,
and, in particular, Peter Carey (one of only two novelists to win more than
one Booker Prize, the other being South African novelist J. M. Coetzee) have
written novels that have received worldwide acclaim. In New Zealand Keri
Hulme, of mixed English, Scottish, and Maori ancestry, authored The Bone
People (1985), a remarkable and disturbing novel, twelve years in the making,
in which prose and poetry, modernist European novelistic and traditional


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

Maori literary conventions and idioms are fused in the service of an enigmatic
psychological mystery-thriller. Other significant New Zealand Maori novelists
from the period include Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera (The Whale Rider
[1987] ). Booker Prize shortlist novels from Australia and New Zealand include
Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972), Gossip from the
Forest (1975), Confederates (1979), and Schindler’s Ark (winner, 1982); Keri
Hulme’s The Bone People (winner, 1985); Peter Carey’s Illywhacker (1985),
Oscar and Lucinda (winner, 1988) and The True History of the Kelly Gang
(winner, 2001); and David Malouf ’s Remembering Babylon (1993).

A second instance of this evolving story of the impact of decolonization on
the English-language novel of the period, the “postcolonial Anglophone” novel,
is a body of work deriving from countries recently liberated from British
imperial domination, whose populations are largely indigenous rather than
British (or European) in origin. Postcolonial Anglophone novels tend to resist
and interrogate the imperialist doctrines that sought to justify the unbalanced
power relationship of the past (or still passing) colonial situation as well as to
replace a national identity and history of the imperial power’s making with
a national identity and history of the newly liberated nation’s making. In
Salman Rushdie’s now familiar formulation, such literature is an example of
the “empire” writing back to the “center.” Rushdie’s model of postcolonial
writing envisions a two-way rather than a one-way conversation: dialogue and
cross-fertilization rather than the imposition of a single, controlling colonialhegemonic
voice. Instead of viewing the postcolonial author as a victim of the
colonizer’s language, Rushdie views “those peoples who were once colonized
by” the English language as “now rapidly remaking” and “domesticating it,”
as “carving out large territories for themselves within its frontiers.”84 Jussawalla
and Dasenbrock amplify this point by arguing that, while such literature “uses
the language of the former colonial power,” it also

speaks in its own independent and quite original voice, often contesting the
way it has been represented by earlier writers. The writing that emerges in
this process issues from a remarkably complex combination of cultures, as the
postcolonial writers draw on indigenous traditions and languages of their own
as well as on the resources of the tradition of writing in English.85

It is my aim here to suggest the variety and richness of postcolonial Anglophone
novelistic output.

One example of the postcolonial use of the colonizer’s language against
the empire – of the empire writing back to the center – is to be found in the
Nigerian Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart (1958), easily the most


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

famous and widely-read African novel in English. This work may be taken as
a riposte to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), Joyce Cary’s Mr Johnson
(1939), and other works of European literature that for Achebe constitute
racist misrepresentations of Africa and Africans that attempt to rationalize
colonization (Achebe accuses Conrad of this directly in his famous 1975
address, “An image of Africa: racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”). Things
Fall Apart mounts a provocative challenge to the British imperial account of
Igbo history and society, and reveals how British missionaries, traders, and
government officials worked hand-in-glove to colonize Nigeria. Despite the
novel’s bold interrogation of colonization, Achebe’s decision to write in
English, the language of the colonizer, rather than in his native Igbo tongue,
proved controversial. Achebe defended his choice on two grounds. On the
one hand, Achebe states, “We chose English not because the British desired
it but because . . . we needed its language to transact our business, including
the business of overthrowing colonialism itself in the fullness of time.”86 On
the other hand, Achebe employed English in order to extend this language’s
“frontiers” and accommodate African literary modes,87 almost as if he sought
to “colonize” the English language itself from within and thereby gain revenge
against the British Empire.

A second example is to be found in Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prizewinning
Midnight’s Children (1981), the postmodern, postcolonial novel par
excellence. It uses the language of the British colonizer to write the epic history
of the liberation of India and Pakistan from British control as well as the
history of the intertwined, tortured relationship of these two warring, Indian
subcontinental nations. Owing more to The Arabian Nights, to Günter Grass’s
The Tin Drum, and to Latin American magic realism than to the British
novelistic tradition, Midnight’s Children, with its myriad interweaving narratives
and voices, stretched the English-language novel, linguistically and structurally;
it altered the literary landscape in Britain by opening up the novelistic
mainstream to Anglophone writing from outside Europe, North America, or
the Antipodes. Responding to the controversy over his decision to write his
novels in English rather than in an indigenous Indian language, Rushdie,
similarly to Achebe, observed that Indian writers intend to use English to
different ends than the British, to remake it “for our own purposes”: “Those
of us who do use English do so in spite of our ambiguity towards it, or
perhaps because of that . . . To conquer English may be to complete the process
of making ourselves free.”88

In addition to using the English language in a new way and for new
“purposes,” some postcolonial novels “rewrote” canonical British works for
the purpose of countering British imperial ideology. This is certainly the case
in the novel by the ethnically British, West Indian-born Jean Rhys, Wide


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

Sargasso Sea (1966), which revises Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 Jane Eyre in such a
way that the British husband of Bertha Mason, and not the West Indian
“madwoman in the attic,” is to blame for the ensuing domestic tragedy. Rather
than viewing Bertha’s madness as the cause of Rochester’s unhappiness and
paranoia, Rhys’s novel suggests that it is the imperial Rochester – both as a
British colonizer in the West Indies and as a patriarchal colonizer of a powerless
Caribbean woman – who is to blame for the marginalization, imprisonment,
and downfall of Jane’s dark, “diabolical” double. Crucially, the center of
the novel’s gravity, rather than being the British Jane Eyre, is the British-
West Indian “Creole” Antoinette; this, as much as anything, advances the
novel’s subversive postcolonial strategy of deconstructing the “subject/object”
dichotomy upon which colonialism stands.

The “postcolonial Anglophone” novel is a large and still burgeoning field.
For purposes of convenience we may subdivide this field into three groups –
novels from Africa, from the Indian subcontinent, and from the British West
Indies – even if all such novels are united by their resistance to various forms
of British political and cultural dominance (and in some cases also to post-
independence governmental abuses). Space does not allow for more than a
cursory list of some of the relevant figures and texts.

In Africa, the postcolonial Anglophone novel has been particularly vibrant
in Nigeria, the most populous English-speaking country on the continent.
Major Nigerian figures of the period include Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka,
Buchi Emecheta, and Ben Okri. Achebe is best known for five novels – Things
Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of
the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987, Booker Prize finalist),
of which the first four form a loose tetralogy depicting Nigerian history from
just before colonization to just after independence. Soyinka, although best
known as a Nobel Prize-winning playwright, is also the author of two novels,
The Interpreters (1965) and Season of Anomy (1973), which owe a clear debt,
in ways that Achebe’s novels do not, to literary modernist narrative innovations.
Emecheta, whose works portray the plight of African women in both
Nigeria and England, is the author of numerous novels written between the
mid-1970s and the present. Perhaps the best known of these are The Bride
Price (1976), The Slave Girl (1977), and The Joys of Motherhood (1979); they
collectively confront Nigeria’s oppressive patriarchal culture in the first half of
the twentieth century. Okri’s first two works, Flowers and Shadows (1980) and
The Landscapes Within (1981), are postcolonial coming-of-age novels that
treat the process of modernization in urban, civil war-torn Nigeria. His next
three novels – The Famished Road (1991, winner of the Booker Prize), Songs
of Enchantment (1993), and Infinite Riches (1998) – form a trilogy that mixes
indigenous Yoruba and foreign magic-realist narrative forms in the service


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

of depicting a West African nation during the period of its transition from
colonial to postcolonial state.

It is not only West Africa that has produced important postcolonial
Anglophone novels. In East African Kenya the novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o
wrote a number of English-language novels that engaged British–Kenyan
political and cultural tensions – Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between
(1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967, which echoes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness),
and Petals of Blood (1977) – before he decided, unlike Achebe, to write
exclusively in his native African language, Gikuyu. Also from Kenya comes a
writer of South Asian decent, M. G. Vassanji, whose novels The Book of Secrets
(1996) and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2004) explore both the
British imperial presence in and the large Indian diaspora of East Africa.
In Somalia, which was granted independence from Britain and Italy in 1960,
Nuruddin Farah produced English-language novels critical of both colonial
and postcolonial Somali realities. Farah’s first two novels, From a Crooked
Rib (1970) and A Naked Needle (1976), critique aspects of this East African
nation’s patriarchal culture; while the three novels that form his trilogy, Variations
on a Theme of an African Dictatorship (1980–3), tackle various abuses
of governmental authority. From Tanzania comes Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose
novel Paradise (1994, Booker Prize shortlist) depicts events in East Africa
before the onset of the Great War.

In South Africa, two English-language novelists, J. M. Coetzee and Nadine
Gordimer, have attracted worldwide attention for their anatomizations of
racial apartheid, a legal code that prevailed there between 1913 (the British
formally severed ties with South Africa in 1934) and the downfall of the
South African Nationalist Party, in 1994. These Anglophone novelists, both of
whom are white, the first from an Afrikaner background, the second from a
Jewish immigrant background, are not normally thought of as “postcolonial.”
Nevertheless, both write from within a formerly colonized nation whose
government and white minority in effect “colonized” from within the nation’s
majority black population. J. M. Coetzee is winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize for
Literature and a Booker Prize each for Life and Times of Michael K. (1983)
and Disgrace (1989), and the author of Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and
six other novels written between the late 1970s and the present; he interrogates
the distorted power relations that stand behind apartheid racial policies. Nadine
Gordimer, recipient of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature, uses realism in
her novels, rather than Coetzee’s more allegorical approach, to plumb the
depths and shallows of apartheid life in South Africa. She is the author of
thirteen novels, The Conservationist (1974, winner of the Booker Prize), Burger’s
Daughter (1979), and July’s People (1981) among the most acclaimed. Mark
Behr, another South African novelist of note, is the author of The Smell of


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

Apples (1995), a riveting and powerful first-person account of a white child’s
indoctrination into 1970s South Africa’s racist, apartheid ideology, and the
high price, morally and intellectually, to be paid for such indoctrination. Behr’s
Embrace (2000) deals with many of these same themes more expansively.

The postcolonial Anglophone novel from the Indian subcontinent has
been similarly rich and various. In India, the third largest English-language
book-producing nation in the world (after the US and the UK), the Anglophone
novel has been a staple of literary life for many years. In the early part of our
period R. K. Narayan dominated the field. Discovered by Graham Greene
in the mid-1930s, Narayan set his many novels (published between 1935 and
1990) of the British–Indian encounter in the fictional South Indian town of
Malgudi. Bombay-born Salman Rushdie, presently the most celebrated Indian
Anglophone writer, is the author of Midnight’s Children (1981, Booker Prize
winner), Shame (1983, Booker shortlist), Satanic Verses (1988, Booker shortlist),
and The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995, Booker shortlist), among other novels. Of
these works two in particular, Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses,
brought Rushdie international fame and notoriety. The first novel altered the
landscape of Anglophone Indian writing, encouraging a new fabulist, post-
modernist narrative approach to complement a more traditionally realist one.
In 1993 this novel received the honor of being named the “Booker of Bookers”:
the best Booker Prize winner in the award’s then quarter-century history.
The second novel captured the attention of the world after Iran’s Ayatollah
Khomeini in 1989 issued a fatwa against the author, forcing him into hiding,
on account of this novel’s alleged blasphemy against Islam’s Prophet
Muhammad. The Satanic Verses, which problematizes subjectivity and history
in ways similar to Midnight’s Children, confirmed Rushdie’s standing as the
pre-eminent postmodernist, postcolonial Anglophone novelist.

Also from the west Indian city of Bombay (now Mumbai) and also
employing linguistic hybridity in his fictional explorations of postcolonial
sub-continental reality is the Zoroastrian Parsi novelist Rohinton Mistry (now
resident in Canada), whose novels, Such a Long Journey (1991, Booker shortlist),
A Fine Balance (1996, Booker shortlist), and Family Matters (2002, Booker
shortlist), achieved international acclaim. Anita Desai, of mixed Bengali and
German parentage and from a village in North India near Delhi, published a
number of novels between 1963 and the present, among them three that were
shortlisted for the Booker Prize: Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984),
and Fasting, Feasting (1999). Less experimental in approach than Rushdie’s
novels, Desai’s tend to be peopled by Anglicized members of the Indian middle
class and to focus on feminist concerns or, as in the case of Baumgartner’s
Bombay (1988), on European–Indian encounters. Kamala Markandaya, originally
from the southern Indian city of Bangalore, also focuses in her many


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

novels on East–West tensions and on the plight of women in postcolonial
India. She is best known for her first novel, Nectar in a Sieve (1954), which
became one of the earliest Indian “best-sellers” in Britain.

Numerous other postcolonial Anglophone authors have contributed to what
many regard as a renaissance in the contemporary Indian novel, among them
Arundhati Roy, from the south-west Indian state of Kerala, whose novel The
God of Small Things won the 1997 Booker Prize; and a number of writers
originally from the east Indian city of Calcutta: Amit Chaudhuri, Amitav
Ghosh, Sunetra Gupta, and Vikram Seth (author most notably of the 1993 A
Suitable Boy, nearly ten years in the writing and nearly 1,500 pages in length),
among others.

Acclaimed Pakistani practitioners of the postcolonial Anglophone novel
include Zulfikar Ghose (from Sailkot, formerly India and now Pakistan) and
Bapsi Sidhwa. Ghose, who at one point collaborated with the English experimental
author B. S. Johnson (discussed above), is the author of many novels,
one of which, The Murder of Aziz Khan (1967), is set in Pakistan and anticipates
the work of Salman Rushdie. Sidhwa, a Zoroastrian Parsi from Lahore,
is best known for her acclaimed novel Ice-Candy Man (1988; also published
as Cracking India). This novel is narrated by a Parsi child, neither Hindu nor
Muslim, who describes the events of the bloody partition of India and Pakistan
during the time in which the British are exiting the subcontinent. From the
South Asian island nation of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, comes Michael
Ondaatje (now resident in Canada), best known for The English Patient (1992,
Booker Prize winner) and Anil’s Ghost (2001), and Romesh Gunesekera,
author of Reef (1994, Booker Prize shortlist), among other figures.

The island nations of the British West Indies – the Bahamas, Barbados,
Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, and Trinidad among them – also produced
a great number of postcolonial Anglophone novels of high standing. The
ethnically-British, Dominica-born Jean Rhys is something of an interstitial
figure – being identified as a West Indian “Creole” in Britain and as a Briton
in Dominica – but her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), set in Dominica,
Jamaica, and England, explores issues common to many postcolonial Anglophone
novels of the Caribbean.

Certainly the towering contemporary figure from the region, and another
writer with a strongly interstitial identity, is the Trinidad-born, ethnically
Indian V. S. Naipaul, the author of numerous celebrated novels – among them
A House for Mr Biswas (1961), The Mimic Men (1967), In a Free State (1971,
winner of the Booker Prize), A Bend in the River (1979, Booker shortlist), and
The Enigma of Arrival (1987) – and the recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize for
Literature. Naipaul’s fiction, which treats life in postcolonial nations in various
states of political and cultural transition, is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s in


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

its genuinely global reach (his works are variously situated in England, Africa,
the West Indies, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent). Naipaul
has been a controversial figure for what the West Indian born novelist Caryl
Phillips deems the author’s “undisguised contempt for the people of the
Third World.”89

Other significant postcolonial Anglophone West Indian novelists include
Guyana-born Wilson Harris, whose pioneering, surreal Palace of the Peacock
(1960), the first novel in his Guyana quartet, depicts the European search
for El Dorado and the resulting disruption of the Indian and African communities
that had settled there previously (this novel also clearly echoes
Heart of Darkness). Roy Heath (Guyana; Georgetown trilogy [1981]), George
Lamming (Barbados; In the Castle of My Skin [1953], a notable Caribbean
Bildungsroman), and Earl Lovelace (Trinidad; The Dragon Can’t Dance [1979]),
to name only a few important figures (and texts), have written English-language
novels that probe the myriad political and cultural conflicts that have
arisen in the West Indies owing to the past (or passing) British imperial order.
Caribbean literature, according to Caryl Phillips, may be characterized by “Its
restlessness of form, its polyphonic structures, its yoking together of man
and nature, of past and present, its linguistic dualities and its unwillingness
to collapse into easy narrative closure.”90 Jean Rhys provocatively elaborates
upon this vision of the interpenetration of “past and present” when she writes,
in a letter of 1934, that “[T]he past exists – side by side with the present, not
behind it; . . . what was – is.”91

A third instance of this evolving story of the impact of decolonization
on the English-language novel of 1950–2000 is those works by writers who
originated (or whose parents originated) in the former British colonies but
who have subsequently immigrated to Britain and wrote within, and contributed
to, a new multicultural British literary milieu. These novels, sometimes
grouped under the “black British” nomenclature, by authors of African, Asian,
and Caribbean background, explore the predicament of émigrés who make
their lives in a post-imperial Britain: the difficulty of bridging their birth and
adopted cultures, and the difficulty of negotiating their interstitial identities
as citizens of two places – and of nowhere. This “black British” novel, which
has achieved critical and popular prominence only since the early 1980s, in
turn has helped shape and energize contemporary “British” writing at large,
perhaps, as Rushdie argues, because its authors possess a hybrid identity and
therefore “are capable of writing from a kind of double perspective,” as both
“insiders and outsiders in [British] society.”92 This new type of novel, which
for Caryl Phillips poses “a sustained challenge to the English literary tradition
in both content and form,”93 also stands as the ultimate foil to the standard
national categories by which literary canons traditionally have been formed. Is


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

the West Indian-born, ethnically Indian, British educated and resident V. S.
Naipaul, for example, best understood as a Caribbean, Indian, or British
author? Posing the very question reveals the severe limitations of the nation-
centered literary categories themselves, but also the advantages of “stereoscopic
vision”94 that pertain to these authors of transnational identity. Rushdie seeks
to get around the problem of national identity altogether by viewing these
“migrant” authors as citizens not of one physical place or another but of
“imaginary homelands,” as people

who root themselves in ideas rather than places, in memories as much as in
material things; people who have been obliged to define themselves – because
they are so defined by others – by their otherness; peoples in whose deepest
selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and
where they find themselves.95

It goes without saying that the category “black British” novel significantly
overlaps that of the “postcolonial Anglophone” novel discussed above; such
figures as Buchi Emecheta, Zulfikar Ghose, Romesh Gunesekera, Sunetra
Gupta, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Wilson Harris, V. S. Naipaul, Ben Okri, and
Salman Rushdie, for example, write novels that belong equally to both categories.
These authors, now (or recently) resident in Britain, have written works
that explore the conflicted lives and interstitial identities of former colonial
subjects in the post-imperial metropole, reflecting the new international,
multicultural reality of Britain’s industrial cities and university towns.

The “black British” novel dates from the “Windrush generation” of West
Indian immigrant authors of the 1950s and 1960s; they were named for the
ship Empire Windrush, which landed 492 Jamaican passengers on 22 June
1948 at a port near London, and which represented, in Dominic Head’s phrasing,
“metonymically, a new generation of Commonwealth migrants recruited
to a labor market in need of workers.”96 Between 1948 and 1962 some quarter
million West Indians migrants would follow. This group of émigrés included
West Indians of African descent who were displaced by the slave trade, and of
Indian descent (lumped together with Chinese workers as “coolie labor”) who
were displaced by the contract or indentured labor trade that flourished after
the abolition of slavery in the British colonies (1833).

Major figures (and novels) of the “Windrush generation” include George
Lamming (The Emigrants [1954] and Water with Berries [1971] ); Sam Selvon
(Trinidad-born and of Scottish and Indian parentage; The Lonely Londoners
[1956], Moses Ascending [1975], and Moses Migrating [1983] ); and V. S.
Naipaul. In the generation that followed, Caryl Phillips (born in St Kitts; The


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

Final Passage [1985], Crossing the River [1993, Booker shortlist], and A Distant
Shore [2003]); David Dabydeen (born in Guyana; The Intended [1991]
and Disappearance [1993]); and Zadie Smith (born in London to a Jamaican
mother and an English-Jewish father; White Teeth [2000]), among many
others, continued to probe a sociohistorically and culturally complex Afro-
Caribbean-British identity. Caryl Phillips gets at this complexity when he
defines his relationship to the Africa and St Kitts of his background and to
the Leeds and London of his adoption by using precisely the same words for
each: “I recognize the place, I feel at home here, but I don’t belong. I am
of, and not of, this place.”97 Smith’s wildly popular White Teeth, a novel at
once Dickensian and Rushdiesque, deserves special mention here because it
has come to be seen by many as the quintessential “black British” novel, one
that probes what Caryl Phillips calls the “helpless heterogeneity” of Britain’s
present multiracial reality.98 The story of three London families, the British
and Jamaican Jones, the Bangladeshi Iqbals, and the Catholic-Jewish English
Chalfens, White Teeth satirizes generational, ethnic, and class tensions in
an internationalized contemporary London while humorously bashing racial
stereotypes that arise in the post-imperial metropole. As Caryl Phillips puts it
in his review of Smith’s novel:

The “mongrel’ nation that is Britain is still struggling to find a way to stare
in the mirror and accept the ebb and flow of history which has produced this
fortuitously diverse condition, and its concomitant pain. Zadie Smith’s first
novel is an audaciously assured contribution to this process of staring into
the mirror.99

“Black British” writing from authors of Indian subcontinental and African
backgrounds has been similarly vital. To provide one prominent example of
each, Hanif Kureishi, born in England to a Pakistani father and an English
mother, is best known (outside of his popular plays and film screenplays) for
The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), a humorous coming-of-age novel, set largely
in London, that features a semi-autobiographical protagonist of mixed Indian
and English heritage; while Buchi Emecheta, the first major English-language
African female writer (discussed above) is the author, among other novels,
of In the Ditch (1972), which chronicles a female ex-Nigerian attempting to
negotiate life in an inhospitable and alienating London.

Two writers of East Asian background who are frequently associated with
“black British” writing are Timothy Mo, born to a Cantonese father and an
English mother in Hong Kong (in British hands between 1841 and 1997), and
Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Japan to Japanese parents. Mo is best known for the


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

humorous novel Sour Sweet (1982, Booker shortlist), which concerns Chinese
immigrants who settle in London and which uses food as a metaphor for the
dislocation and anomie inherent in the migrant experience. Ishiguro is best
known for his Booker Prize-winning third novel The Remains of the Day
(1989), although his most germane novels in the present connection are his
first, A Pale View of Hills (1982), and his fifth, When We Were Orphans (2000,
Booker shortlist). Both of these novels deal with psychological traumas
undergone by characters who have immigrated to England, whether from
late-1940s post-bomb Nagasaki (as in the first novel) or from the war-torn
Shanghai of a decade earlier (as in the fifth).

Inflaming the situation for immigrants to Britain was the fact that, more
than 30 years after the Empire Windrush first docked near London, the question
of who was “British” remained a contested issue. The British Nationality
Act of 1981 – which built on the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 that
discouraged immigration to Britain by former colonials – functioned, in
Dominic Head’s view,

to erode the automatic right of British citizenship for people of the former
British colonies: to be British one had to prove one’s descent from an ancestor
born in Britain (being born in Britain oneself was now insufficient). This
attempt to shore up a national identity (for this was really about Englishness)
on the basis of biology flew in the face of the migrant hybridity that the end of
empire brought with it.100

For Rushdie, writing in 1982, this piece of legislation was “expressly designed
to deprive black and Asian Britons of their citizenship rights,”101 and its passage
was emblematic of Britain’s division into “two entirely different worlds,”
based on skin color, in which “White and black perceptions of everyday life”
have become “incompatible.”102 Rushdie, who viewed this “gulf ” as leading to
the formation of a “New Empire within Britain,” charged that “It sometimes
seems that the British authorities, no longer capable of exporting governments,
have chosen instead to import a new Empire, a new community of subject
people.”103 Some “black British” novels have sought to depict and critique this
new “internal” empire, while others have approached the problem the other
way around: by attacking Britain’s cherished myths of historical and cultural
purity, its notion of itself, in Caryl Phillips’s words, as a “country for whom a
sense of continuity with an imagined past continues to be a major determinant
of national identity.”104 To provide one example of the latter strategy,
Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day takes aim, according to its author, at
England’s mythical sense of itself as a nation “with sleepy, beautiful villages


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

with very polite people and butlers . . . taking tea on the lawn”: a sanitized yet
potent image that occasionally is “used as a political tool” to bash “anybody
who tries to spoil this ‘Garden of Eden’.”105 The reality of interwar England,
The Remains of the Day suggests, is far less harmonious or innocent than its
butler-protagonist would have us believe.

The foregoing three contexts for reading the novel in English between
1950 and 2000 – as a riposte to modernism and, later, antimodernism;
as a response to the betrayal and crisis of civilization; and as a reaction to
decolonization – are of course by no means the only important contexts within
which the novel of our period might be considered. These frames of reference
are nevertheless indispensable ones to an understanding of this still-evolving

A Note on the “Novel”

Remember the etymology of the word. A novel is something new. It must
have relevance to the writer’s now . . .

John Fowles, “Notes on an Unfinished Novel”106

[P]rose art presumes a deliberate feeling for the historical and social concreteness
of living discourse . . . a feeling for its participation in historical
becoming and in social struggle; it deals with discourse that is still warm
from that struggle and hostility . . .

M. M. Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel”107
Having explored three contexts out of which the novel in English of 1950–
2000 emerged, it remains to explore the nature and function of the genre
itself. The novel, at its most generic, may be defined as an extended fictional
prose narrative. The word derives from the Italian word novella, which translates
as “little new thing.” In many modern European languages, including
French and German, “novel” goes by the term “roman,” which is of course
related to our word “romance” (and indeed, the roots of the modern realistic
novel can be traced to this earlier, more fanciful prose tradition). The novel in
English, in the form in which we recognize it today, came into its own in the
eighteenth century, in works by such authors as Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding,
and Samuel Richardson.108

Key qualities of the novel, then as now, include its tendency to be “expansive”
and to engage with its present, with the “new.” In his Aspects of the Novel


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

(1927) E. M. Forster speaks to the first point by calling “expansion” an “idea
the novelist must cling to.” “Not completion,” Forster adds; “Not rounding
off but opening out.”109 The second point is advanced by another English
novelist, John Fowles, who reminds us (above) of what might be called the
novel’s inherent novelty. T. S. Eliot makes a similar point, although more
negatively, when he lauds James Joyce’s then-controversial Ulysses for concerning
itself with a gallingly chaotic present, for using myth to control, order,
give shape and significance to “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy
that is contemporary history.”110 The point to be made here is that it is always
“contemporary history,” construed in one way or another, with which the
novel by its very nature engages.

The novelistic qualities of “expansiveness” and “newness” blur into a third
and related quality, “open-endedness,” an idea that Mikhail Bakhtin, perhaps
the twentieth-century’s most important theorist of the novel, explores in his
influential writings. According to Bakhtin, the novel – because it is oriented
toward the here and now and is characterized by an “evolutionary nature,” by
“spontaneity, incompleteness and inconclusiveness,” and by an “ability and
commitment to rethink and reevaluate” – is “the quintessential register of
society’s attitudes toward itself and the world.”111 Unlike the language of other
literary genres, that of the novel is not “unitary” but polyphonic, “a system
of languages that mutually and ideologically interanimate each other.”112
Categorically-speaking, the novel is not a literary genre that ever places itself
above and beyond contemporary history and quotidian discourse (epics do
this, according to Bakhtin); it is always made up of “living discourse” that
is “still warm” from its “participation in historical becoming” and “social
struggle.” In contrast to the epic, which presents itself as “completed, conclusive
and immutable,” the novel for Bakhtin “is a genre that is ever questing,
ever examining itself and subjecting its established forms to review”; it
is the genre with the most “contact with the present (with contemporary
reality) in all its openendedness.”113 One might conceive of Bakhtin’s perhaps
overly schematic “epic/novel” distinction in terms of a series of dichotomies –
“centrifugal” versus “centripetal,” “becoming” versus “being,” and “dialogic”
versus “monologic” – that collectively make the case for the anti-hegemonic
energies of prose fiction.

Akin to Bakhtin’s distinction between “epic” and “novel” is Frank Kermode’s
distinction between “myth” and “fiction.” In The Sense of an Ending (1967)
Kermode argues that while “myths” presuppose definitive answers and “total
and adequate explanations of things” as they are and were, “fictions” exist for
the purpose of “finding things out, and they change as the needs of sense-
making change.” For Kermode,


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

Myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change. Myths call for
absolute, fictions for conditional assent. Myths make sense in terms of a lost
order of time . . . fictions, if successful, make sense of the here and now . . .114

Salman Rushdie puts the novel’s distinctive interaction with the social world
of its time and place in yet another way. Rather than pitting novels against
epics or myths, Rushdie pits them against political discourses, viewing novelists
and politicians as “natural rivals.” Although both novelists and politicians
“try to make the world in their own images” and “fight for the same territory,”
novels tend to counter “the official, politicians’ version of truth.”115 While
Rushdie would agree with George Orwell’s point that an “atmosphere of
orthodoxy is always damaging to prose” and “completely ruinous to the novel,
the most anarchical of all forms of literature,”116 he nevertheless insists that
novels must in some fashion enter the sociopolitical fray,

because what is being disputed is nothing less than what is the case, what is truth
and what untruth. If writers leave the business of making pictures of the world
to politicians, it will be one of history’s great and most abject abdications.117

For Rushdie, literature is in “the business of finding new angles at which to
enter reality,”118 and the novel, although a vehicle for exploration and discovery,
for questing and questioning, is also a vehicle for taking sides in the
sociohistorical and political controversies of its day.

In the spirit of Forster, Bakhtin, Kermode, and Rushdie, then, the present
study approaches the novel of the period as an open-ended, socially engaged,
exploratory genre, one that challenges and stretches the canons of knowledge
(the “conventional wisdom”) as well as the prevailing standards of perception,
subjectivity, and literary representation in its bid to picture and probe an
evolving contemporary reality.

To say that the novel engages in an exploratory way with the historical
realities and social and artistic conventions of its time is not to say that the
novel is “most true” (or “best understood”) in relation to its own time or that
it is tethered, interpretively-speaking, to the era of its production and initial
consumption. As the American novelist John Barth reminds us, “no single
literary text can ever be exhausted – its ‘meaning’ residing as it does in its
transactions with individual readers over time, space, and language.”119 Bakhtin
takes this idea a step further in making a virtue of necessity and regarding
the reader’s temporal, geographic, and cultural distance from the text under


Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

scrutiny as requirements of meaningful interpretation. For Bakhtin, “In order
to understand [any text], it is immensely important for the person who
understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding
– in time, in space, in culture.”120 Texts live “only by coming into contact
with” other texts (with contexts), against the backdrop of which they take
on meaning. “Only at the point of this contact between texts does a light
flash, illuminating both the posterior and anterior, joining a given text to a
dialogue.”121 Distances of time, space, and language between texts and readers

– ever-evolving new “contexts” – influence both the meaning and interpretation
of texts and what texts reveal about their interpreters’ (present and evolving)
circumstances. Literary interpretation is thus best understood as a dialogic
enterprise: we read novels and they “read” us. The following chapters, which
explore ten novels published between 1954 and 1996 from seven different
countries, take this conception of literary interpretation as their point of

Chapter 2

Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim

It was luck you needed all along; with just a little more luck [Jim would] have
been able to switch his life on to a momentarily adjoining track, a track
destined to swing aside at once away from his own.

Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim1

The real revolution represented by Lucky Jim was primarily a cultural one; it
represented a significant alteration in the register of fiction, a paradigm shift
of clear importance.

Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern British Novel2


A major work of fiction associated with the “Angry Young Men” of the 1950s,
Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim signaled a new direction for the English novel.
Deemed “a classic comic novel,” the “seminal campus novel,”3 and “one of
the key books of the English 1950s,”4 Amis’s debut work, set in the years
following the Second World War, “captured a powerful contemporary mood”
and came “to seem the exemplary Fifties” novel.5 As Malcolm Bradbury puts
it, Lucky Jim “became a summative work of the new spirit in fiction much as
John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger did in drama”; and its author’s “impact
on the 1950s came to rival that of [Evelyn] Waugh on the 1920s.”6

Over a nearly forty-year career Amis produced more than twenty novels,
two volumes of poetry, a study of Rudyard Kipling, and two edited collections
on science fiction. He also wrote hundreds of critical articles and reviews


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

– most famously and frequently in the Spectator – on subjects ranging from
education and politics to literature and film, in which the author demonstrated
his acerbic wit and attacked “pretentiousness in any form.”7 As the
above sketch suggests, it is fair to regard Amis, like Orwell, as a journalist and
man of letters as much as a novelist. As Amis himself affirmed,
I’m not exactly an entertainer pure and simple, not exactly an artist pure and
simple, certainly not an incisive critic of society, and certainly not a political
figure though I’m interested in politics. . . . I’m just a combination of some of
those things.8

To say that Amis was a successful writer with a wide following is not
to suggest that he was uncontroversial. The controversy stems from the fact
that his works attacked individuals from across Britain’s cultural, social, and
political spectrums. Indeed, Amis, who was sharply critical of both the Left
and the Right, has “been described as a proletarian boor and an elitist dandy,
both Philistine and University Wit.”9 In this same vein, Lucky Jim is both
uproariously funny and deadly serious, both academic satire and comic
romance; it directs its spleen both at what remained of England’s traditional
class structure and at the new Welfare State and the educational reforms that
followed in the wake of the Second World War.

Lucky Jim was anti-modernist to the extent that it challenged, at least
implicitly, the legitimacy and worth of the “experimental novel” of a literary
generation earlier. Yet the novel represented far more than a conservative
or traditional backlash; it was also innovative in many ways. As David Lodge
observes, “Lucky Jim was the first British campus novel . . . to take as its
central character a lecturer at a provincial university, and to find a rich seam
of comic and narrative material in that small world.”10 Lucky Jim, Lodge continues,
was a

distinctly British version of a kind of novel that had hitherto been a
peculiarly American phenomenon. My own novels of university life, and those
of Malcolm Bradbury, Howard Jacobson, Andrew Davies et al., are deeply
indebted to its example. Jim Dixon’s anxiety about his professional future,
his dependence on the patronage of a senior colleague whom he despises, is
a recurrent feature of the genre.11

Put simply, Lucky Jim almost single-handedly launched an important British
novelistic subgenre of the second half of the twentieth century.


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)


Kingsley Amis was born in London in 1922. He was educated at the City of
London School and then at St John’s College, Oxford, where in 1947 he
gained a BA in English. Amis’s Oxford years were interrupted by his wartime
army service, between 1942 and 1945, in the Royal Corps of Signals. Between
1949 and 1961 he was a lecturer in English at University College, Swansea,
Wales; from 1961 to 1963 he was a Fellow of Peterhouse College, Cambridge.
Displeased with academic life in general and with his Cambridge post in
particular, Amis in 1963 left academia for good (not counting a couple of
short stints as a visiting lecturer at American universities) and settled in the
greater London area. By this time Amis had published three novels in addition
to Lucky Jim – That Uncertain Feeling (1955), I Like It Here (1958), and
Take a Girl Like You (1960) – which together solidified his literary reputation
in the English-speaking world (“Looking forward to seeing you at the premiere
of Lucky Jim on ice,” Amis wrote to his publisher on the success of his
first novel).12 His novels of the sixties – One Fat Englishman (1963), The Anti-
Death League (1966), and The Green Man (1969) – tended to be darker than
his earlier works, though he never altered his view of himself as an entertainer
writing for a popular audience. Amis continued to write novels and criticism
during the seventies, yet it was in the eighties that his career experienced a
renaissance. The author was made a CBE (Commander of the British Empire)
in 1981, was awarded the Booker Prize for his novel The Old Devils in 1986,
and was knighted in 1990. His Memoirs emerged in 1991 and Amis died in
1995. Kingsley’s son (by a first marriage), Martin Amis, best known for such
novels as Money (1984), London Fields (1989), and The Information (1995),
has become an important writer in his own right.

Lucky Jim as we know it would not have come about without the help Amis
received from his St John’s friend, the poet Philip Larkin. As one critic observes,
Amis’s first novel “was dedicated to Larkin,” who “helped to inspire and to
edit it,” and who “has been seen as the original model for its main character.”13
According to Amis, the original inspiration for Lucky Jim was not, as many
assume, the author’s experience at Swansea, where he was then teaching;
rather, it was a visit he paid to Larkin, in the mid-1940s, when the latter was
employed at the university in Leicester. In his Memoirs Amis remembers
looking around the Senior Common Room of that institution “a couple of
times and [thinking] to myself, ‘Christ, somebody ought to do something
with this’. Not that it was awful – well, only a bit; it was ...a whole mode of
existence no one had got on to from outside ...I would do something with
it.”14 Amis also notes in his Memoirs that Jim Dixon’s name derived from


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

“Dixon Drive,” Larkin’s address in Leicester; and that his poet-friend helped
him thoroughly revise an early draft of the manuscript.15

Amis in general and Lucky Jim in particular are commonly associated with
the “Angry Young Men” of the British 1950s, a politico-literary “movement”
that was understood to embrace a political and artistic agenda. As David Lodge
sums up this cultural phenomenon, “‘The Angry Young Men’ was a journalistic
term, originally put into circulation by a leading article in the Spectator, to
group together a number of authors and/or their fictional heroes, who appeared
on the literary and theoretical scenes in the mid-to-late 1950s, vigorously
expressing their discontent with life in contemporary Britain.”16 The roster of
angry young male protagonists of the time includes Jimmy Porter in John
Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger (1956), Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe’s
novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), Joe Lampton in John Braine’s
novel Room at the Top (1957), Charles Lumley in John Wain’s novel Hurry on
Down (1953), and of course Dixon in Amis’s debut novel. As disparate in
disposition and situation as these male protagonists may be, they represent an
emergent meritocracy, share an anti-establishment agenda, and “fulminate
against the society in which they find themselves, criticizing its politics, morality,
jobs, women, and the widespread complacency they perceive.”17 The new
Welfare State and the democratized educational system are targeted by many
of these lower-middle-class or working-class protagonists, who combine progressive
social protest with cultural conservatism, a skepticism about the emergent
Welfare State (which followed in the wake of the 1942 “Beveridge Report”)
with a concern about “the continuing impregnability of the ostensibly rich.”18

Despite the social and intellectual common ground shared by these works
and authors (indeed, Amis, Wain, and Larkin all overlapped at St John’s College
during the 1940s), Amis from the start questioned the very existence of such
a “movement.” While the above works collectively seemed to signal a trend –
“people could be forgiven,” Amis wrote, “for mistaking this for a sort of minor
revolution or turning point in English writing”19 – the author was nevertheless
displeased with being “lumped together with some very strange people”
in a “non-existent movement,”20 and viewed this school as little more than “a
phantom creation of literary journalists.”21 As Bradbury explains, many of the
authors in this movement “were not angry, many were not young, and a lot
of them were women.”22

Like their fiction, the politics of the “Angries” incorporated both reactionary
and forward-looking elements. In addition to expressing the general
“feeling of exhaustion after the war”23 – Jimmy Porter in Osborne’s Look Back
in Anger famously expresses the mid-1950s sense that there were no “good,
brave causes left”24 – Amis and the others associated with this group rebelled
against what Lodge calls the “received wisdom” of the 1940s:


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)
that the Second World War . . . the landslide victory of the Labour Party in the
General Election of 1945, and the establishment of the Welfare State, with free
secondary and tertiary education, had genuinely democratized British society,
and got rid of its class divisions and inequalities for good.25
By the time Lucky Jim emerged, however,
Six costly years of war had been followed by seven or eight costly years of
peace. The Labour Party’s burst of postwar idealism was spent; an empire
had been lost; the bill for it all lay on [Britain] like a blight. Cities were still
bomb-shattered, landlords rapacious, railways and transport grimly run-down,
commuting an expensive horror, rationing still in effect.26
Amis’s first novel registers – explicitly or implicitly, humorously or not –
many of these discontents.
Politically, Amis moved from the Left to the Right over the course of his
long career (Amis likens his move to that undertaken by Wordsworth and
many other authors).27 In the early 1950s, for example, at the time of writing
Lucky Jim, Amis was avowedly left-wing in orientation (earlier, at St John’s,
he even joined the Communist Party, albeit half-heartedly). Indeed, during
the 1950s Amis “was announcing himself a probable lifetime Labour voter,
and explored his Fabian allegiances” in a 1957 pamphlet, Socialism and the
Intellectuals.28 By the 1960s, however, Amis’s rightward drift became noticeable;
and by the 1980s Amis viewed himself a thoroughgoing Tory with a few
“liberal” holdovers in the areas of “hanging, homosexuality, [and] abortion.”29
Amis’s drift to the right represents a less dramatic political shift than meets
the eye, however. After all, as one critic explains, “In reality, Amis was only
very hesitantly committed to the left,” even in the 1950s.
His allegiance to the Labour Party was weak; Labour, to Amis, was only the
lesser of two evils. Before the 1959 election he wrote, “My vote will be
anti-Tory, not pro-Labour.” As for his pamphlet, despite the fact that it was
published by the Fabian society, it had very little to say in favor of Socialism.
Rather, it [expressed Amis’s] lack of political commitment.30
Indeed, Amis’s professed apathy in this pamphlet for politics in general and
for Labour in particular, and his attack on intellectuals for not knowing much
about politics and for caring too much about general principles, “roused a
furor” even “in liberal journals.”31

Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

Amis was particularly skeptical about the democratization of education –
“more will mean worse,” he famously wrote32 – that was occurring in the
British university system after World War II. He even penned some “Black
Papers” on education, “manifestos designed to counter the official government
‘White Papers’ by pointing up a general decline in educational standards.”33
Interestingly, the author’s worries regarding this system came to light in
novelist W. Somerset Maugham’s praise for Lucky Jim. Maugham noted the
novel’s “significance as a social document” yet regarded this significance as

I am told that today . . . more than sixty per cent of the men who go to the
universities [in Britain] go on a Government grant. This is a new class that has
entered upon the scene. It is the white-collar proletariat. . . . They do not go to
the university to acquire culture, but to get a job, and when they have got one,
scamp it. They have no manners . . . Their idea of a celebration is to go to a
public house and drink six beers. They are mean, malicious and envious . . . They
are scum. They will in due course leave the university. Some will doubtless sink
back, perhaps with relief, into the modest class from which they emerged . . .34

Although different in tone from the critique of the educational system leveled
by Lucky Jim, Maugham’s words capture the novel’s sense that academic standards
after the war were much diminished from what they had been in the days
prior to the push to bring university education to the masses.

An anti-modernist, anti-Romantic, anti-elitist aesthetic agenda accompanied
the postwar sociopolitical agenda of many “Angries.” As Bradbury observes, the
new tone seemed determined “to dispense with the experimentalism of the
1920s and 1930s, with the romanticism and apocalypticism of the 1940s”
(particularly that of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas), and with “the Beckettian
despairs emanating from Paris.”35 Speaking of such “so-called Angries” as
Wain, Braine, and himself, Amis affirms that they wrote their fiction in a
traditional style, that they were “reactionaries rather than rebels. We were
trying to get back, let’s say, to the pre-Joycean tradition.”36 Indeed, this fiction
“offered to return the literary arts to the accessible ways that prevailed before
the coming of modernism.”37 As one critic writes, “In their concern not to be
associated in any way with genteel Bloomsbury traditions of fine writing,”
many of “these writers cultivated a deliberately slapdash, honest Jack style of
writing, while the loose, picaresque structure often adopted was symptomatic
of an emphatic rejection of the . . . Jamesian concept of form in the novel.”38

Amis’s antipathy to experimental prose, which he deemed arcane, obscure,
precious, and rarified, was openly expressed and thoroughgoing: “I can’t bear


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

it. I dislike, as I think most readers dislike, being in the slightest doubt about
what is taking place, what is meant [in fiction]. I dislike mystification.”39 Amis
attacks another idea that is often associated with Bloomsbury literary culture:
that “style is a self-sufficient entity to be separated at will from qualities of
subject matter and capable of exhibiting a ‘charm’ or ‘iridescence’ of its own.”40

Amis is at his most strident and outspoken in taking on modernist literary
aesthetics in a 1958 piece in the Spectator. There he writes:

The idea about experiment being the life-blood of the English novel is one
that dies hard. “Experiment,” in this context, boils down pretty regularly to
“obtruded oddity,” whether in construction – multiple viewpoints and such –
or in style . . . Shift from one scene to the next in midsentence, cut down on
verbs or definite articles, and you are putting yourself right up in the forefront,
at any rate in the eyes of those who were reared on Joyce and Virginia Woolf . . .41

What Bradbury says of Jim Dixon, then – that he is an intellectual rebel
“against genteel high culture, aestheticism and bohemianism, the hangover of
Bloomsbury”42 – is equally true of Jim’s creator.43

Lodge is correct to place Amis’s fiction within the tradition of British comic
writing that stretches back from “Waugh, Wodehouse, Dickens and Fielding
to Restoration and Elizabethan comedy”;44 and Bradbury is right to speak of
Amis as having inherited “the role of the Comic Bad Man of English Letters
which Waugh had so powerfully sustained a generation earlier.”45 Indeed,
Amis describes himself as “writing novels within the main English-language
tradition” about “understandable characters in a straight-forward style.”46 His
novels borrow from the comic satire devices of the eighteenth-century British
novel in general and of the works of Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones
and Joseph Andrews, in particular.47 As Walter Allen observes, “the Amis hero
can be described as Fielding does Tom Jones: ‘Though he did not always
act rightly, yet he never did otherwise without feeling and suffering for it’;
and like Tom Jones’s, his life is ‘a constant struggle between honour and
inclination’.”48 One imagines that Amis agrees with the protagonist of his
third novel, I Like it Here, who lauds Fielding as “the only non-contemporary
novelist who could be read with unaffected and whole-hearted interest, the
only one who never had to be apologized for or excused on the grounds of
changing taste.”49 And Amis in a 1957 essay praises Fielding for his “wit,”
“irony,” and concern “not to bore the reader, to keep the narrative going
along,”50 and affirms that, even after two hundred years, Fielding’s realism has
“not dimmed” and his humor “is closer to our own than that of any writer
before the present century.”51


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)


Amis refers to himself as “a writer of serio-comedies,”52 and Lucky Jim, a
romantic comedy with picaresque elements, fits this mold. A “curious mixture
of realism and fairy tale,”53 Lucky Jim retells the Cinderella story, this time with
a deserving male (rather than female) protagonist, who eventually triumphs
over characters in superior positions of power who conspire against him. Jim
is “unjustly doomed to low status and to enduring his own servility towards
unworthy and even evil people,”54 until such time, that is, that “luck,” his
inherent goodness, and poetic justice together secure his reversal of fortune.55

The deceptively simple plot of Lucky Jim is easily summarized. When we
first encounter Jim Dixon, the novel’s protagonist, he is a recently hired
Medievalist in the history department of a provincial British University. His
head of department, Professor Welch, is a pretentious and ineffectual bore
that Jim must impress in order to keep his job and who holds his superior
rank over Jim’s head in an attempt to get Jim to do his bidding. Also contributing
to Jim’s misery is Margaret Peel, a neurotic, controlling female
colleague of his with whom he is repeatedly thrown together and with whom
he appears destined unhappily to be romantically involved. In contrast to
Margaret is the novel’s other major female character, the 19-year-old Christine
Callaghan, the girlfriend of one of Welch’s two sons, Bertrand, a painter. Jim
skirmishes, verbally or physically, with this arrogant and pretentious artist at
many points. The crisis of the plot occurs at Jim’s public lecture, on “Merrie
England,” which Welch coerces him into delivering and which he delivers
drunk and as a means of protest. After the lecture Jim “departs for comedy’s
literary reward of a good job and the nicest girl, out there in the ordinary
commonsense working world.”56 That is to say, being fired for his disastrous
lecture enables Jim to shake off Margaret, his low-paying academic job, and
the provinces in one fell swoop. Thanks to a dream-job offer from Christine’s
Scottish uncle, the philanthropist Julius Gore-Urquhart, Jim leaves for London
with Christine, who at last has seen through Bertrand. In structure, then,
this third-person perspective novel is comic, with the promise of happiness,
financial success, and marriage arising out of the ashes of the protagonist’s
self-doubt, humiliation, and bad luck.

One of the major tensions upon which the novel and Jim’s fortune hinge is
that between Margaret Peel and Christine Callaghan, two female characters
who are not as they first appear (Margaret initially appears to be sympathetic
and down-to-earth but is not; Christine appears to be snobby and duplicitous,
but is later revealed to be admirable). We first encounter the “small, thin,
and bespectacled” (18) Margaret convalescing at the Welchs, having recently


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

“cracked up” (10) and attempted suicide by sleeping pills as a result of being
jilted by her boyfriend Catchpole. (We later learn that this jilting is completely
fabricated by Margaret in order to gain sympathy. Although Catchpole,
who is in any case her acquaintance not her boyfriend, does leave town for
Wales, he does so on purposes of business, not romance. He is correct to
deem Margaret one of those people “who feed on emotional tension” [235].)
Catchpole’s departure leaves Jim, by default, in charge of this “neurotic who’d
recently taken a bad beating” (77).57 Carol, the wife of Jim’s history colleague
Cecil Goldsmith, concludes of Margaret to Jim: “Throw her a lifebelt and
she’ll pull you under” (121).58

Christine is everything that Margaret is not. In contrast to Margaret’s
“minimal prettiness” (195), false refinement, “decidedly ill-judged . . . royal-
blue taffeta” gown (106), and “bright make-up” (18), Christine sports “fair
hair . . . brown eyes and no lipstick . . . the premeditated simplicity of the . . .
unornamented white linen blouse” (39). Just as the beautiful Christine’s “plain”
dress shows up Margaret’s failed attempts at beauty, so Margaret’s “silverbells”
(that is, affected female) laugh is shown up by Christine’s more genuine
if cacophonous “non-silver-bells sort” (95) of laugh. While the delicate and
indirect Margaret embraces social conventions, the bolder and less formal
Christine flouts them.59 Unlike the socially correct yet artificial Margaret,
Christine stands in an “awkward,” “uncomfortable,” and “ungraceful” fashion.
For Jim, however, “there could be no more beautiful way for a woman to stand”
(219). Also in contrast to Margaret, Christine’s “absence of conventional
[female] sensitivity” (198) strikes Jim as refreshing. At one point Margaret is
even depicted as an “actress” playing a role rather than as a woman feeling
an emotion (111). The contrast between Margaret’s and Christine’s treatment
of Jim is also of relevance. Not only does Christine pay her own way when she
goes out with Jim while Margaret lets the ill-paid and impecunious Jim pick
up the tab, but Christine’s unselfconscious sexuality contrasts sharply with
Margaret’s attempt to make Jim feel guilty for his advances, which in any case
she has encouraged.60

If Margaret proves to be an imprisoning force in Jim’s life, Christine sets
him free. She gives Jim both the confidence to tell Margaret to “stop depending”
on him “emotionally” (158) and the necessary help in overcoming his
adolescent sexual anxiety and repression.61 Moreover, Jim and Christine
operate on a similar moral level. In contrast to Bertrand’s and to Margaret’s
duplicity (Margaret fabricates a relationship with Catchpole and feigns a
suicide attempt; Bertrand conceals an adulterous affair with Carol Goldsmith),
Jim (even in his clownish shenanigans) and Christine act honorably and with
integrity, even when it costs them. For example, as expedient as it would be
for Jim, in the midst of his “Bertrand-war” (142), to divulge to Christine the


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

fact that Bertrand is betraying her in his affair with Carol, he remains quiet.
Neither does Christine betray Bertrand when she has an easy opportunity
to do so.

Through Christine Jim also meets Gore-Urquhart, Christine’s uncle and
Jim’s “eventual savior and benefactor.”62 A comic-grotesque character who is
described as middle aged and oddly shaped, with the look “of a drunken sage
trying to collect his wits, a look intensified by slightly protruding lips and a
single black eyebrow running from temple to temple” (109), Gore-Urquhart
is “a rich devotee of the arts who made occasional contributions to the
arts sections of the weekly reviews” (47) and who shares Jim’s antipathy for
academic and artistic cant or pretension of any kind. Although Bertrand wishes
to be the one to fill Gore-Urquhart’s vacant “private secretaryship” (48) in
London, assuming that the position will enhance his career as a painter, it
is Jim, appropriately, who ultimately gets the job. Gore-Urquhart, Jim’s “fairy
godfather”63 and “fellow sufferer” (215),64 is something of a Prospero figure
who both sees what will happen and brings it about. The novel’s deus ex
machina, Gore-Urquhart manages to make things end comically when otherwise
they would not.

Lucky Jim is a well-made novel; there is a careful rhythm and intricate
structure to the work and to the individual chapters therein, which are “tightly
self-contained.”65 As one critic observes, “The twenty-five chapters are structured
around three major events . . . the evening musicale at [Welch’s] house,
the Summer Ball, and the disastrous public lecture”66 on the theme of “Merrie
England.”67 Another indication of the novel’s deliberate structuring is the
fact that the first chapter ends with a reference to this lecture (17), the event
that precipitates the crisis that in turn alters the course of Jim’s life from a
self-destructive and pathetic to a comic and redemptive one. Appropriately,
this carefully structured comic novel ends with “laughter” (251) and with the
union of hero and heroine. For Jim Dixon, at least, the world has been put in
order and justice prevails.

One other example of Lucky Jim’s solid architecture is the analogy the novel
constructs between the Jim–Margaret and the Jim–university relationships.
Just as being freed from academic life gives Jim a new sense of energy (when
he is fired Jim feels “almost free of care” [232] and thinks “how nice it was to
have nothing he must do” [233] ), so looking at Margaret causes “an intolerable
weight” to fall “upon him” (185), and being free of her gives Jim a sense
of newfound euphoria. As Lodge observes of Jim, “Just as he goes through the
motions of being a university teacher, knowing he is in bad faith, but unable
to do anything about it, so he feels bound to go through the motions of being
Margaret’s partner, even though he has no desire, and hardly any affection,
for her.”68 Jim is freed from this prison-house of his own making by two


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

interrelated developments in the novel: he is “liberated from an unsatisfying
career in education” by Gore-Urquhart’s offer of a post in London and he is
“redeemed from his emotional thralldom to Margaret.”69

To assert that Lucky Jim is a comic, and indeed sublimely funny, work is
not to rule out its serious side, however. Put differently, although Amis “had
something serious to say” in writing Lucky Jim, he “also thought the poor old
reader had had a pretty thin time of it recently, with so many dead serious
writers around, and that he could do with something funny.”70 The novel’s
comic and farcical dimensions work well with its psychological and social
criticism to the extent that the novel is a satire, a literary genre, according to
a standard definition, that “blends a critical attitude with humor and wit to
the end that human institutions or humanity may be improved.” The satirist
“is conscious of the frailty” of the institutions of human “devising and attempts
through laughter” less to tear such institutions down than “to inspire a
remodeling.”71 In a similar vein, Amis comments that Dixon “certainly didn’t
want to destroy the system” and should not be thought of as a “rebel.”72 And
in a 1957 essay on the post-war satiric novel, “Laughter’s to be taken seriously,”
Amis affirms the importance of the satiric mode to the Britain of his day:

We are in for a golden age of satire, in my opinion, and if this is so we will
be fortunate indeed. Satire offers a social and moral contribution. A culture
without satire is a culture without self-criticism and thus, ultimately, without
humanity. A society such as ours, in which the forms of power are changing and
multiplying, needs above all the restraining influences of savage laughter.73

Significantly, Lucky Jim ends on a note of healing and cathartic (if not actually
“savage”) laughter.

The particular butt of the novel’s satire, of course, is academic life. Although
academic satire, in which scholars are mocked and learning is called into
question, is as old as Plato’s Republic (Book IV) and Symposium,74 Amis’s
university setting functions somewhat more widely, “as the epitome of a stuffy,
provincial bourgeois world”75 and as a focus for his “wider satire of contemporary
life and society.”76

A look at the way in which Lucky Jim exposes “the academic racket, and
the pseudo-culture and social pretensions that so often accompany it,”77 is of
course essential in any reading of the novel.78 Amis’s most thoroughgoing
assault on the academic personality – and certainly one of the most devastating
satiric portraits of an academic in any novel – is found in his portrait of
Professor “Neddy” Welch. Upon first meeting Welch we learn that “No other
Professor” in all of Britain “set such store by being called Professor” (7).


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

Depicted as pretentious and pedantic, slow-witted and inarticulate (frequently
not finishing sentences at all, many of which trail off in ellipses), solipsistic
and boring, exploitative and eccentric, Welch is the stuff of academic caricature.
At one point, touching upon Welch’s self-absorption, Jim imagines that even
if he went on a drunken rampage in the Common Room in Welch’s presence,
“screeching obscenities, punching out the window-panes, fouling the periodicals,
[this] would escape Welch’s notice altogether, provided his own person
remained inviolate” (63). At another point we learn of Dixon’s pleasure in
seeing “evidence that Welch’s mind could still be reached from the outside”
(86). At still another, Jim, when driving with Welch, addresses his Professor’s
dullness by thinking, “Welch’s driving seemed to have improved slightly; at
any rate, the only death Dixon felt himself threatened by was death from
exposure to boredom” (178). Merely being spoken to by Welch, as by Margaret,
makes Dixon “feel heavy and immovable” (218).

Welch’s exploitative attitude toward Jim stems from the “decisive power”
the former has over the latter’s academic future (8). Welch employs his
“evasion technique” (86) in order to keep Jim guessing about where he stands,
professionally speaking. By keeping Jim in the dark as to whether his teaching
contract will be renewed in the coming academic year, Welch keeps Jim
beholden to him, and therefore willing to do his bidding. None of this is lost
on Jim, who correctly views Welch’s requests of him to do his superior’s
research and to deliver the public lecture as forms of blackmail (82). That
Welch frequently calls Dixon “Faulkner,” Jim’s doomed predecessor, underscores
both the Professor’s encroaching senility and his implicit threat not to
rehire his underling. Surely Amis intended for readers to see a significance in
the Professor’s name: to “welch” (sometimes spelled “welsh”) means to fail to
fulfill a promised obligation. In any case, in Welch, as Lodge concludes, Amis
drew “an immortal portrait of the absent-mindedness, vanity, eccentricity
and practical incompetence that academic institutions seem to tolerate and
even to encourage.”79

Welch may be the primary target of Amis’s academic satire, but Jim himself
is a close second. Jim is depicted as far more interested in the trappings of
academic life than in the work – the teaching and scholarship – of such a life.
When walking with Welch one day on campus, for example,

Dixon realized that their progress, deliberate and to all appearances thoughtful,
must seem rather donnish to passing students. He and Welch might well be
talking about history, and in the way history might be talked about in Oxford
and Cambridge quadrangles. At moments like this Dixon came near to wishing
that they really were. (8)


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

Threatened by what his better students know about his subject (do they
know and care more about his field than he does?), Jim competes with his
male students for the attention of the attractive female students rather than
attempting to improve his own inadequate grasp of medieval history. At one
point, for example, we read that “Dixon’s efforts on behalf of his special
[academic] subject, apart from thinking how much he hated it, had been
confined to aiming to secure for it the three prettiest girls in the class” (28). At
another, Jim sums up his relationship with his history students at large: “They
waste my time and I waste theirs” (214).

If Jim has little real interest in teaching his academic field (the sight of the
departmental timetable listing teaching assignments, for example, leads him
to feel “over-mastering, orgiastic boredom, and its companion, real hatred”
[85]), he has still less interest in researching it. His sole (and as yet unpublished)
scholarly essay, “The economic influence of the developments in
shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485,” is a case in point. To the extent
that writing the article involved much “frenzied fact-grubbing and fanatical
boredom” (15), Jim’s title for the essay is “perfect”:

[I]t crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-
enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read,
or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air
of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance . . . His thinking all
this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear
to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool. (14–15)

Under pressure from Welch to make sure that his article is published if
he wishes to be re-employed in the coming academic year, Dixon endeavors,
at many points in the novel, to secure a home for it. When Dixon learns that
the article will be published after all, he can only think, “Welch would find it
harder to sack him now” (30). Jim’s luck runs out once more, however, when
he learns that the editor of the journal in which his essay was to appear has
translated his piece into Italian and has published it under the editor’s own
name. He also learns that the thieving editor is shortly to become the “Chair
of History of Commerce” in a regional university in Argentina (171) and that
the journal in which his essay was to appear will likely fold. Like university
teaching, then, academic scholarship in the world of Lucky Jim is both intellectually
insubstantial and professionally corrupt.

Jim’s reason for becoming a medievalist – he has no particular interest
in the Middle Ages – is also revealing. As he explains to a colleague in the
English Department, “the medieval papers were a soft option in the Leicester


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

course, so I specialized in them. Then when I applied for the job here, I
naturally made a big point of that, because it looked better to seem interested
in something specific” (33). This explains why Jim has such a difficult time
writing his one-hour “Merrie England” lecture, which is wholly derivative (he
hopes to “construct” his lecture largely “out of others’ efforts” [169]), toadying
(he plans to play up to Professor Welch in a bid to have his contract
renewed), and vacuous (he desperately searches for a way to fill his hour-long
talk and can only reach for platitude after platitude). Jim likens the experience
of writing this lecture to that of traveling “along the knife-edge dividing the
conceivably-just-about-relevant from the irreducibly, immitigably irrelevant”
(195). After adding “a presumably rather extensive conclusion” of fifteen minutes’
duration, Dixon flirts with (but then abandons) the idea of closing his
talk with the line, “Finally, thank God for the twentieth century” (195).

The lecture scene itself, one of the funniest episodes in modern fiction, is
the riotous climax of Lucky Jim. Upon entering the lecture arena Jim notes
that it appears “to contain everybody he knew or had ever known, apart from
his parents” (213). This leads him to feel “like going round and notifying each
person individually of his preference that they should leave” (213). So alienated
is Jim from his own speech and so out of control does he become owing to
severe intoxication that at one point, before his outright collapse that comprises
his lecture’s grand finale, he imagines himself to sound “like an unusually
fanatical Nazi trooper in charge of a book-burning reading out to the crowd
excerpts from a pamphlet written by a pacifist, Jewish, literate Communist”
(226). Needless to say, for “wrecking a public lecture” (228) Jim is dropped
from the staff of the university.

Amis’s academic satire, then, cuts in two directions. On the one hand, Jim
is “ill-at-ease and out of place in the university because he does not at heart
subscribe to its social and cultural values, preferring pop music to Mozart,
pubs to drawing rooms, non-academic company to academic.”80 On the other
hand, Jim’s academic pretence, indolence, and fraudulence, while perhaps
more pronounced than those of his colleagues, is revealed to be endemic to
the academic culture at large. The academy, Lucky Jim suggests, by no means
lives up to its own professed ideal of itself.

The novel satirizes the artistic life as much as it is does the academic one,
however. In Lucky Jim both the academic and artistic worlds – linked here by
Welch blood – are stocked with elitist and pretentious phonies who are eager to
victimize Jim. Early in the novel Welch invites Jim to his “arty get-together”

(23) in order (Jim imagines) to test his “reactions to culture” and to determine
whether he is “a fit person to teach in a university” (24).81 Later in the novel
Jim is greeted by a painting in the hall of the Welch home that appears to be
“The work of some kindergarten oaf,” recalling “in its technique the sort of

Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

drawing found in male lavatories, though its subject, an assortment of barrel-
bodied animals debouching from the Ark, was of narrower appeal” (180).

Worse still than Welch himself in this regard are his two sons – “the effeminate
writing Michel and the bearded pacifist painting Bertrand” (13) – whose
political sensitivities and French names suggest a certain aesthetic pretension.
Even Bertrand’s diction and style of speech, with its double negatives and
convoluted syntax, further this suggestion. For example, Bertrand at one point
says, “Upon consideration I feel it incumbent upon me to doubt it” (40), and
at another remarks, “I remember being not unentertained” (48). Bertrand’s
speech and demeanor inspire Dixon to fantasize devoting “the next ten years
to working his way to a position as art critic on purpose to review Bertrand’s
work unfavourably” (50). Carol Goldsmith’s assessment of Bertrand’s thinking
– that “Great artists always have a lot of women, so if he can have a lot of
women that makes him a great artist, never mind what his pictures are like”
(120–1) – underscores the novel’s linking of artistic phoniness and romantic
duplicity. As with academic life, Jim finds the trappings of artistic life, if not
art itself, to be of some appeal: “Dixon himself had sometimes wished he
wrote poetry or something as a claim to developed character” (140). That the
Welch family is implicated in both academic and artistic pretentiousness and
narcissism – “Bertrand’s a bore, he’s like his dad, the only thing that interests
him is him” (143), Jim observes – further links the two institutions that are
the special targets of the novel’s satire.

Bradbury holds that Amis’s novel turns from “political matters to commonsense
moral vision,”82 but this should not be taken to suggest that the
novel lacks a politics. Amis has made clear his affinity for “the tradition of
Tory satire,”83 yet Lucky Jim, for all of its attacks on progressive educational
reforms, also attacks the stubbornly class-bound, conservative orientation of
English society. In other words, the politics of Lucky Jim, like the politics of
the “Angries,” is a curious mixture of right-wing and left-wing proclivities.84

That said, the novel more often than not associates conservatism and elitism
with the scoundrels (Margaret, the Welchs), and progressive and democratic
ideas with the heroes (Gore-Urquhart, Christine, Jim). Just as Amis remarked,
“Let’s . . . face the obvious truth that you’re probably a better person and
nicer to your fellows if you are reasonably contented, reasonably well off, and
have a reasonably comfortable time,”85 so Jim argues, in a socialist vein, “If
one man’s got ten buns and another’s got two, and a bun has got to be given
up by one of them, then surely you take it from the man with ten buns” (51).
That is to say, commonsense justice rather than ideological principle drives
Lucky Jim’s political orientation. As Lodge puts it, the left-wing stance of
Lucky Jim “is an emotional, intuitive matter, more concerned with class and
manners than with politics as such.”86


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

Unsurprisingly, Jim argues the above point to his rival, the artist Bertrand,
who takes up the elitist (and self-serving) position that “the rich play an
essential role in modern society,” having “kept the arts going” (51). Bertrand
admires the rich, he continues somewhat circularly, “Because they’re charming,
because they’re generous, because they’ve learnt to appreciate the things I
happen to like myself, because their houses are full of beautiful things” (52).
It is also implied that Mrs Welch, Bertrand’s mother, possesses political views
that incline to the right. Believing that the “Welfare State” and “so-called
freedom in education” will lead to increased dependence on the government,
her attitude toward the two is said to be negative (176). Margaret’s political
sympathies are more subtly suggested: she “turns out to sing for a local Conservative

Essential to an understanding of Lucky Jim is an understanding of the
mechanics of the novel’s comic satire: the novel’s humorous descriptions and
wordplay, verbal jokes, and ironic or incongruous images. Much of the novel’s
humor rests on its situation and style, both of which rely on “Amis’s flawless
sense of timing: the way he controls the development of an action, or a
sentence, to create that combination of surprise and logicality that is the heart
of comedy.”88

Humorous and apposite similes abound in Amis’s novel: in response to
a question from Dixon, for example, Welch’s “clay-like features changed
indefinably as his attention, like a squadron of slow old battleships, began
wheeling to face this new phenomenon” (9). Later, “Welch’s head lifted slowly,
like the muzzle of some obsolete howitzer” (84). Figurative language is also
employed at Jim’s expense. For example, at one point we read that “Fury
flared up in [Jim’s] mind like forgotten toast under a grill” (28); at another we
learn that “A sudden douche of terror . . . squirted itself all over Dixon” (127);
at yet another, upon his awakening one morning, we understand that Jim’s
“mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and
then as its mausoleum” (61).

In addition to its ingenious use of figurative language for descriptive
purposes, the novel also generates its humor by detailing a series of absurd yet
familiar events in Jim’s life. In particular Amis focuses on Jim’s elaborate yet
futile attempts to limit his smoking (Dixon lit “the cigarette which, according
to his schedule, he ought to be lighting after breakfast on the next day but
one” [128]) and on his equally elaborate and futile attempts to conserve money,
largely by cutting down on his beer consumption (“he’d spent more than
he could afford and drunk more than he ought, and yet he felt nothing but
satisfaction and peace” [54] ). Dixon even vows to “review his financial position”
to see “if he could somehow restore it from complete impossibility to its
usual level of merely imminent disaster” (153).


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

Dixon’s honest self-criticism and keen powers of observation also help power
the novel’s comedy. For example, we read that “As soon as Dixon recognized
the mental envelope containing this [uncomfortable] question he thrust it
away from him unopened” (60). At another point we view Jim’s thoughts of
Bertrand and Christine (before he comes to know the latter): “He disliked this
girl and her boy-friend so much that he couldn’t understand why they didn’t
dislike each other” (69). At still another Jim thinks, “Bertrand must not be a
good painter; he, Dixon, would not permit it” (112).

As important to the novel’s comedy as such moments of Jim’s awareness
may be, the main source of humor in the novel, as Lodge observes, is “the
contrast between Jim’s outer world and his inner world.” While Jim tries,
not very successfully, “to show the outer world the image of an industrious,
respectable well-mannered young man, his mind seethes with caustic sarcasm
directed against himself and others, with fantasies of violence done to enemies,
of triumph for himself.”89 Examples of this contrast abound. At one point, for
example, as Welch speaks, Jim’s face becomes “the perfect audience for his
talk, laughing at its jokes, reflecting its puzzlement or earnestness” (178). At
another, when speaking with Welch, Jim maintains a perfectly collected
demeanor but pretends to himself “that he’d pick up his professor around the
waist, squeeze the furry . . . waistcoat against him to expel the breath, run
heavily with him up the steps, along the corridor to the Staff Cloak-room, and
plunge the too-small feet . . . into a lavatory basin, pulling the plug once,
twice, and again, stuffing the mouth with toilet-paper” (9–10). Slightly later
Jim catches “sight of his own face in the wall-mirror and was surprised to see
that it wore an expression of eager friendliness” (12).

Two more examples of this comic contrast between Jim’s inner and outer
worlds merit our attention. In one, when forced to speak with Welch during
a car voyage, Jim must control his face “with the strain of making it smile and
show interest and speak its few permitted words, of steering it between a
collapse into helpless fatigue and a tautening with anarchic fury” (13). In the
second, while at Neddy’s musicale, “Dixon kept his head down” and “moved
his mouth as little as possible consistent with being unmistakably seen to
move it” (37).

That said, Jim is “aware of the hypocrisy involved in preserving the discrepancy”
between his inner and outer worlds;90 indeed, his frequent glances
at himself in mirrors91 underscore this point. Seen in this light, Jim’s “facepulling,
rude gesturing, and practical joking” are attempts “to give some physical
expression to his inner life of protest.”92 Jim’s menagerie of faces – these
include his “tragic-mask face” (55), “crazy-peasant face” (74), “Martianinvader
face” (91), “Eskimo face” (97), “lemon-sucking face” (141), “Evelyn
Waugh face” (220), and “Sex Life in Ancient Rome face” (250) – are made in


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

such a way that other characters cannot see them; they enable Jim to mock
and vent his anger at those around him without causing offence.

Lodge is also correct to note that “The issues of the novel can only be
resolved when Jim wills his inner life to coincide with his outer life”;93 this,
more than securing a London job or the love of Christine, constitutes the real
victory that he must achieve if he hopes to escape from the imprisoning
situation in which he finds himself. The closing of this gap occurs, tellingly,
after Jim’s fist-fight with Bertrand. Immediately after flooring Bertrand
Jim thinks, “The bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem-pole on a crap
reservation.” He then tells Bertrand directly, “ ‘You bloody old towser-faced
boot-faced totem-pole on a crap reservation’ ” (209). This is the first of a
series of events, which includes his drunken lecture and his escape to London
with Christine, that anticipates Jim’s mental (and also physical) liberation. At
last “thought and speech, the inner and the outer worlds coincide,” Lodge
argues; “Jim ceases to be a guilty hypocrite and reaps his reward.”94

Lucky Jim sews up neatly and comically: Jim must race the clock, on a
public bus, to meet up with Christine at her London-bound train if he hopes
to set things right between them. Unluckily, the bus he is on seems to crawl
with comically absurd slowness; the very cosmos seems to be conspiring against
his attempt to reach the station and Christine in time. When the bus at one
point inexplicably stops altogether Jim imagines that the driver was perhaps
“slumped in his seat, the victim of syncope,” or had suddenly “got an idea
for a poem” (243). Soon another vehicle on the road slows the bus down once
again, and

Dixon thought he really would have to run downstairs and knife the drivers of
both vehicles; what next? what next? What actually would be next: a masked
holdup, a smash, floods, a burst tyre, an electric storm with falling trees and
meteorites, a diversion, a low-level attack by Communist aircraft . . . ? (245)

When Jim finally makes it to the station and meets Christine he learns that
she has “finished with Bertrand” (248) and knows about the artist’s affair with
Carol, who also has dumped him. Jim informs Christine that he has broken
off with Margaret for good and that he has gotten the job, from her “Uncle
Julius” (250), that Bertrand had sought. The novel thus ends comically,
pointing toward the union of two deserving people.

Importantly, Amis ends his work with laughter that is neither savage nor
splenetic but cathartic and healing. Amis’s debut novel, like his essay on postwar
British satire, might well have been titled “Laughter’s to be taken seriously.”
In the novel’s closing scene at the train station, Jim and Christine run into the


Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

entire Welch family. Jim approaches Neddy and Bertrand to have it out.
Rather than spewing verbal violence, however, Jim can only laugh: “Dixon
drew in breath to denounce them both, then blew it all out again in a howl of
laughter” (251). Amis leaves Jim an angry young man no longer and ends his
scrupulous satire on a note of forgiveness and reconciliation.


Chapter 3

William Golding’s
Lord of the Flies (1954)

Before the Second World War I believed in the perfectibility of social
man; that a correct structure of society would produce goodwill; and that
therefore you could remove all social ills by a reorganization of society . . . [B]ut
after the war I did not because I was unable to. I had discovered what one
man can do to another . . . [T]here were things done during that period from
which I still have to avert my mind less I should be physically sick. They were
not done by the headhunters of New Guinea, or by some primitive tribe in
the Amazon. They were done, skillfully, coldly, by educated men, doctors,
lawyers, by men with a tradition of civilization behind them, to beings of their
own kind.

William Golding, “Fable”1

Lord of the Flies was simply what it seemed sensible for me to write after the
war, when everybody was thanking God they weren’t Nazis. And I’d seen
enough and thought enough to realize that every single one of us could be
Nazis . . .

William Golding, in an interview2


Hailed by novelist E. M. Forster at the time of its publication as a “remarkable
book,”3 William Golding’s Lord of the Flies remains, half a century later, one
of the most penetrating and provocative literary responses to the events of
World War II. At once an “anthropological passion play”4 and a riposte to

R. M. Ballantyne’s 1857 novel The Coral Island, in which a group of unsupervised
British boys who are stranded on an uninhabited island behave
responsibly and maturely, Golding’s debut novel concerns British boys in a

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

similar situation who quickly abandon “civilized reason” and embrace “savagery.”
Lord of the Flies embodies a hard-learnt lesson of the Second World
War: that “civilized” groups can succumb to the temptations of fascism – to
what Erich Fromm calls the “escape from freedom” – and fashion new societies
that rationalize abhorrent acts of oppression, violence, and murder.5
Deemed by Malcolm Bradbury one of Britain’s “greatest postwar novelists,”6
Golding received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983.

Despite some initial controversy, Lord of the Flies came to be regarded as a
“modern classic,” particularly on American college campuses (Time magazine in
1962 deemed the novel “Lord of the Campus”7) within a decade of its publication.
This popularity, however, did not translate into critical consensus about
the novel’s meaning and significance. Many competing and even mutually
exclusive explications of the novel – Freudian, neo-Freudian, Jungian, Roman
Catholic, Protestant, Nonconformist, Scientific Humanist, Marxist, and
Hegelian, by Golding’s own count8 – were generated in short order.9 Lord of
the Flies seemed to be something of a Rorschach blot, in which readers traced
their own critical preoccupations. Christian readings in particular were influential
at first, seemingly with Golding’s encouragement; yet such readings, many
felt, threatened to obscure the novel’s more penetrating – and certainly more
contextually immediate – implications. As early as 1965 James R. Baker stated:

[C]ritics have concentrated all too much on Golding’s debts to Christian sources,
with the result that he is now popularly regarded as a rigid Christian moralist.
This is a false image. The emphasis of the critics has obscured Golding’s fundamental
realism and made it difficult to recognize that he satirizes both the
Christian and the rationalist point of view.10

Moreover, for Baker, the “traditional comforts of Christian orthodoxy” are
absent from the novel’s controversial final chapter, where it would be most
likely to appear.11 E. M. Forster arrives at a similar insight: Golding’s novel,
for him, depicts sin but not “the idea of a Redeemer.”12 For these and other
critics it is not so much that biblical metaphor is unimportant in Golding’s
novel as that, in Baker’s words, “it forms only a part of the larger mythic
frame in which Golding sees the nature and destiny of man.”13


Lord of the Flies must be read with the cataclysm of the Second World War in
mind. As different as Golding’s response to the war (and indeed to the fifties


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

thereafter) was from that of the “Angries,”14 Golding shared with these writers
the soul-shattering experience of the war, which exploded, seemingly forever,
the idea of progress and human perfectibility. As Randall Stevenson observes,
“Any ‘anger’ in Golding’s fiction arises not from social conditions in the
fifties” but “from dark conclusions about human nature in general based on
the experience of the Second World War.”15 Indeed, as James R. Baker opens
his important, early study of Golding,

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of World War II on the life and
art of William Golding. He entered the Royal Navy at the age of twenty-nine
in December, 1940, and after a period of service on mine sweepers, destroyers,
and cruisers, he became a lieutenant in command of his own rocket ship. He
saw action against the Bismarck, in the Atlantic convoys, in the D-day landings
in Normandy, and the attack on Walcheren [Island].16

It should therefore come as no surprise that these wartime experiences would
significantly influence Golding’s worldview and therefore both the subject
matter and the vision of his work.17 E. M. Forster saw in the “tragic trend” of
Golding’s first novel “the tragedy of our inter-war world”;18 Malcolm Bradbury
deemed Golding’s vision “dark and troubling, a challenge to the liberal or
progressive spirit” in the wake of the holocaust;19 and Walter Allen went as
far as to claim that the events depicted in Lord of the Flies are reminiscent of
“the vilest manifestations of Nazi regression.”20

William Golding was born in the Cornish village of St Columb Minor
in 1911. He attended Marlborough Grammar School, where his father taught
science, and then Brasenose College, Oxford, where he graduated, in 1935,
with a degree in English literature. The Anglo-Saxon period was of particular
interest to him during his Oxford years. Like Kingsley Amis and so many
others attending British universities between the wars, Golding initially flirted
with socialist and other left-wing political movements, only later to reject
them in favor of less revolutionary worldviews. Golding published a volume
of poetry in 1934 but thereafter, also like Amis, turned his artistic attention
almost exclusively to the composition of prose fiction. Shortly before the
outbreak of World War II, in 1939, Golding took a position teaching English
and philosophy at Bishop Wordsworth’s School in Salisbury. Between 1940
and 1945, as outlined above, Golding served in the Royal Navy. After the war
he returned to his teaching post in Salisbury, where he taught for more than a
decade. As novelist Ian McEwan concludes of Golding’s use of his grammar
school experiences in Lord of the Flies, “The din of the lower school common
room at the Bishop Wordsworth School was not wasted on Golding.”21 Golding


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

then returned to Brasenose and, in 1960, gained an MA degree. After a one-
year stint (1961–2) as writer-in-residence at Hollins College (Virginia, USA),
Golding pursued a writing career full-time. He died in Cornwall in 1993.

Although Golding published three plays, three volumes of nonfiction, and
numerous reviews (again, like Amis, in the Spectator), in addition to a volume
of poetry, the author’s reputation hinges mainly on the novels published
between Lord of the Flies (1954) and the posthumous draft of The Double
Tongue (1995), a dozen in all.

Astonishingly, Lord of the Flies, before being accepted for publication, was
rejected by twenty-one publishers. Ironically, given the initial difficulty Golding
had in placing it, the novel since that time has been filmed twice, in 1963 and
1990, and has been translated into more than twenty languages, attracting a
worldwide following. Lord of the Flies, Golding’s “attempt to trace the defects
of society back to the defects of the individual,”22 was quickly followed by
another novel, The Inheritors (1955), which concerns the violent encounter of
Neanderthal man and Homo sapiens. Narrated from the perspective of the
Neanderthals, who are on the brink of extinction at the hands of their more
advanced humanoid foe, the novel bears an obvious similarity to its predecessor,
particularly in its questioning of more “advanced” cultures. Golding’s
third novel, Pincher Martin (1956), concerns a sailor wounded in a Second
World War naval accident who is marooned on a desolate rock in the North
Atlantic and whose life is presented in flashback. The novel’s very outline
suggests a parallel with the author’s first. The work that followed, Free Fall
(1959), also narrated in flashback, concerns a painter who joins the army and
who has become a prisoner of war. As the artist is interrogated by the Nazis,
Golding’s by now familiar interest in the morally questionable behavior of
humans under pressure is explored from yet another angle of vision. During
the 1960s Golding published a number of poorly received novellas and only
one novel, The Spire (1964). Set in fourteenth-century Salisbury and concerning
the building of a cathedral spire on shaky foundations, this allegorical
novel explores “the ambiguous nature of human art and aspiration.”23

After a hiatus in literary productivity, Golding published a novel about
a crazed Pentecostal prophet, Darkness Visible (1979), this time to critical
acclaim. This work, his most technically complex and allusive thus far, also
helped renew interest in Golding’s earlier novels. In addition to The Paper
Men (1984), which examines the troubled relationship between a novelist and
his biographer, Golding in the 1980s composed a trilogy of novels: Rites of
Passage (1980), Close Quarters (1987), and Fire Down Below (1989). The trilogy
is set on a sailing ship en route to colonial Australia during the Napoleonic
Wars of the early nineteenth century. As Malcolm Bradbury observes, even
in these late novels Golding remains interested in exploring “the ambiguity of


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

human nature, the tug of primitivism, the presence of evil, the formlessness
of experience, [and] the uncertainty of progress.”24 Put this way, one sees that
Golding’s literary preoccupations remain remarkably consistent over his fourdecade-
long career. As one critic sums up the author’s novelistic “fables,” they
“invariably show a protagonist moving toward a psychological crisis which
ends with the shattering of his preconceptions and a belated recognition of
the folly and damage [he has] caused.” “In every book,” the critic continues,
“the larger universe is finally revealed to the distressed mind as a complex and
ambiguous mystery beyond rational grasp.”25

Golding’s reputation steadily heightened between the mid 1960s and the
late 1980s. He was made a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) and an
honorary fellow of Brasenose College in 1966; won Britain’s top literary award,
the Booker Prize, in 1980 (for Rites of Passage); won the Nobel Prize for
literature in 1983; and was knighted in 1988.


Critics have debated extensively the question of whether or not Golding’s first
work of fiction is best understood as a fable, an allegory, or a novel. L. L.
Dickson, for example, has devoted a book-length study to the treatment of
Golding’s works as “moral allegories,”26 while James R. Baker deems Lord of
the Flies a “vital fable for our time.”27 Another taxonomic question that has
interested readers is whether or not Golding’s first novel is a dystopia. To be
sure, Lord of the Flies frequently has been grouped with such works as Aldous
Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984.28 And
if, as Kathleen Woodward argues, utopian and dystopian literature is “primarily
a vehicle for social criticism,” a means of making critical statements “about
our social values, practices, and institutions,”29 then Lord of the Flies would
appear to fit this mold as well.

However one answers such generic and taxonomic questions about Lord of
the Flies, the novel’s allegorical, fable-like, and dystopic dimensions must be
taken into account. As novelist Ian McEwan puts it, “The boys set fire to their
island paradise while their elders and betters have all but destroyed the planet.”30
In whatever category Golding’s novel falls, it is clear that the author is
more concerned, as he himself admits, with ideas than with characters,31 with
questions of human social behavior and interaction than with the rendering
of three-dimensional psychological portraits.

The adventure romance tradition – a tradition that Golding “both participates
in and criticizes”32 – provides the most important literary backdrop


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

for an understanding of Lord of the Flies. Of particular relevance is the strain of
this tradition originated by Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe (1719), and then
extended by R. M. Ballantyne in Coral Island (1857) and Robert Louis Stevenson
in Treasure Island (1883). Not only are the latter two works noted directly by
the boys in Lord of the Flies, but Ballantyne’s Victorian work, “one of the
earliest such stories to have boys, in the absence of adults, for its main characters,”
33 is frequently cited by Golding as a major backdrop for his first novel.

It is difficult to overstate what Golding himself calls his “pretty big connection”
with Ballantyne.34 In Golding’s words, “Ballantyne’s island was
a nineteenth-century island inhabited by English boys; mine was to be a
twentieth-century island inhabited by English boys.”35 As in Ballantyne’s novel,
the tropical island setting in Golding’s is something of a “natural paradise, an
uncorrupted Eden offering all the lush abundance of the primal earth,”36 replete
with fresh water to drink, fruit, and (pig) meat to eat, and beautiful vistas
for the eye to feast on. Like Ballantyne’s schoolboy characters, Golding’s are
marooned – though not by shipwreck but by plane crash (are the boys in the
process of being evacuated from England?) – presumably following a nuclear
war.37 And British imperialism, which was in its heyday during Ballantyne’s
time, figures prominently in both novels (in Golding’s work, for example,
the boys savor “the right of domination”: “This [island] belongs to us,” one
of them boasts [29] ). Even the names of two of the four major Golding
characters, Ralph and Jack, derive directly from Ballantyne’s narrative.38

The thrusts of the two adventure narratives quickly diverge, however.
As Malcolm Bradbury observes, “Golding’s late modern story is not a tale of
young resourcefulness but a deeply pessimistic vision of human evil.”39 That
the island becomes something of a fallen Eden after the arrival of the boys,
who “scar” and burn the previously uninhabited paradise, also clearly signals
Golding’s departure from Ballantyne’s “sentimental fable.”40 As one critic
puts it, “The crash of the passenger capsule in the jungle growth of the island
is like an injection of vermin into a healthy natural organism; the seemingly
innocent lads are maggots who shortly evolve into flies.”41

The connection between Lord of the Flies and Coral Island, then, is at
bottom ironic: Golding’s “enfants terribles” are “ironically juxtaposed with the
spectacular success” of Ballantyne’s God-fearing “Victorian darlings.”42 Lord
of the Flies also has been called an “inversion,”43 “parodic rewriting,”44 and, by
its author, “realistic” treatment of the “Ballantyne situation.”45 Minnie Singh,
however, puts this relationship best:

Rhetorically and ideologically, the claim of Lord of the Flies over The Coral
Island is the claim of experience over innocence, realism over romance, truth


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

over illusion, maturity over naivete, and hardship over ease. [Golding’s novel]
makes childhood itself as archaic as the colonial metaphor of enthusiastic

While Coral Island locates the potential for evil in the external world of savage
cannibals and pirates, Lord of the Flies, by contrast, locates this potential in the
boys’ (and by extension in their parents’ and civilization’s) own makeup.47
Golding, it might be said, “corrects” Ballantyne.

Kathleen Woodward observes that Lord of the Flies was constructed with
“the perfection of a miniature,”48 a comment that pertains as well to the
novel’s intricately plotted major characters (Ralph, Jack, Piggy, and Simon)
and symbolic objects (the conch, the spectacles, pigs, and fire).

The 12-year-old Ralph, the first major character the reader encounters, is
introduced as a “fair boy” (8) with the physique of a future “boxer” but also
with “a mildness about the mouth and eyes that proclaimed no devil” (10).
Almost immediately after the plane crash on the island, which occurs before
the novel opens, he is elected “leader” by a vote of the boys, suggesting their
unselfconscious attempt to mirror the democratic ways of British politics.
In addition to representing a form of British democracy, however, Ralph
represents a form of British imperialism. For one thing, the island, in Ralph’s
early image of it, is a “coral island” (in the Ballantyne mold), on which British
boys, who are sure to triumph over nature as well as any heathen foe they
may encounter, will pass the time in profitable adventure, an emblem of
empire building, until their rescue. For another, Ralph’s “Daddy,” who is a
“commander in the Navy,” will rescue the boys when he gets his “leave” (13).
Ralph brags:

My father’s in the Navy. He said there aren’t any unknown islands left. He says
the Queen has a big room full of maps and all the islands in the world are drawn
there. So the Queen’s got a picture of this island. (37)

Implicit in this boast, of course, is Ralph’s uncritical acceptance of authority –
his own, his father’s, the Queen’s – and of the legitimacy of imperial adventure.

The token of Ralph’s significance as a democratic force is the conch,
discovered by Piggy on the beach, which is used to call assemblies at which
anyone who holds the shell is allowed to have his say. Described as “the white,
magic shell” and “the talisman” (180), the conch also symbolizes the rule of
law (Ralph is said to feel “a kind of affectionate reverence for the conch” [78] )
and is imagined to separate the boys from the “animals” on the island (92).


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

Despite his respect for Piggy’s “rational,” democratic social formulas, Ralph
at points succumbs to the lust for blood and violent aggression symbolized
by the hunt49 and to the allure of savagery.50 Ralph undergoes a major change
of heart, however, when his authority is threatened and finally stolen by Jack,
head of the choirboys and hunters. Ralph eventually becomes pessimistic about
what can be accomplished on the island, and gains a sense of responsibility
for those in need of protection (Piggy and the “littluns” in particular [117] ),
and an appreciation of the value to the cause of democracy represented by
Piggy and the danger to that cause represented by Jack. This change is suggested
not only in Ralph’s ever-weakening position in relation to the majority
of the boys, who increasingly follow Jack’s leadership, but in Ralph’s increasing
discomfort with the “dirt and decay” on his body and the long “tangled
hair” that hangs in his eyes (77). It is also suggested in his frequent bouts of
nostalgia, during which he remembers scenes – in which everything is “all
right . . . good-humored and friendly” (112) – from his innocent English youth.
Predictably, Ralph ends up not the leader but the hunted Other of the “tribe,”
and is only saved by the deus ex machina of the British naval officer, off the
“trim cruiser,” who at the last minute discovers the marooned boys (200–2).

Jack Merridew, the “tall, red-haired” (68) head of the choirboys-cumhunters
(his red hair gives him demonic associations), is Ralph’s chief rival for
the position of leader. This most straightforward of characters initially asserts
his authority as head of the choir, with its implicit church authority, and then
by seeking fun and adventure and by leading hunts. Jack loves shedding blood,
which strikes a powerful chord in the “civilized” British boys, who after the
plane crash are dressed in their school sweaters (7) or black cloaks with “a
long silver cross on the left breast” (19), but who eventually wear only war
paint and loincloths. If Ralph is the closest thing to a protagonist in the
novel, Jack is the closest thing to an antagonist. If Ralph represents the will to
democratic order, Jack, who is described in animalistic terms as “ape-like”

(49) and “dog-like” (48), represents the will to chaos or, better yet, to a tribal,
non-democratic order in which he is the all-powerful “chief ” of a bloodthirsty
“tribe.” If Ralph, at first hesitantly and then with growing conviction, seeks to
protect the asthmatic, physically feeble (if intellectually potent) Piggy from
the rest of the boys, Jack is threatened by and therefore antagonistic to Piggy,
and the “difference” he represents, from first to last. If Ralph comes to despise
the “savage” trappings of island life, Jack embraces them, enjoys running
naked and masked, and comes to wear “the damp darkness of the forest like
his old clothes” (134). The mask of “dazzle paint” (63) that Jack initially uses
for camouflage during the hunt becomes a “thing on its own, behind which
Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness” (64). Indeed, Jack is in
his element during the hunts, when the boys take up the chorus, “Kill the pig.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

Cut her throat. Spill her blood” (69, 114, 152, 186), which the reader must
assume is the antithesis of those songs of sanctity and peace normally sung
by the choir.

Central to the novel’s plot development is the ever-growing “antagonism”

(51) and “tension” (72) between these two leaders, who at first seem on
almost brotherly terms.51 While Ralph encourages the boys to tend a rescue
fire and build huts against the rain,52 Jack encourages them to hunt pigs, both
as a blood sport and for purpose of obtaining meat. The two also frequently
clash over whether or not the rules initially established by the boys should
be followed. When Ralph insists that “the rules are the only thing we’ve got,”
Jack replies, “Bollocks to the rules! We’re strong – we hunt! If there’s a beast,
we’ll hunt it down! Close in and beat and beat and beat – !” (91) Ralph and
Jack are even characterized as “two continents of experience and feeling, unable
to communicate” (55); at another their conflict is described as the “fresh rub
of two spirits in the dark” (119).
Piggy, the third of the novel’s four major characters, is marginalized by the
other boys because of his weight, asthma, lack of physical stamina, “thick
spectacles” (7), and lower-class background. He is also ostracized by the
others because of his “intellectual daring” (129), which sharply contrasts with
their more emotional, visceral reactions to the fearful situation in which they
find themselves. For E. M. Forster Piggy is “the brains of the party,” which is
reinforced by the fact that, when he is killed, his “skull cracks and his brains
spill out.”53 Piggy possesses an optimistic streak and scientific orientation;
he predicts that “In a year or two when the war’s over they’ll be traveling to
Mars and back” (84). As one critic remarks, Piggy is “the voice of reason”; he
appears to believe that human problems can be solved if only our irrational
urges can be contained.54

An admirable feature of Piggy’s rationalistic and democratic orientation
is his sense of responsibility for all in the community and his resistance
to forfeiting “civilized” standards in favor of “savage” ones. At one point, for
example, he displays the “martyred expression of a parent who has to keep up
with the senseless ebullience of the children” (38). Piggy’s difference from the
others is suggested by the fact that “He was the only boy on the island whose
hair never seemed to grow” (64). Importantly, he resists succumbing to the
same irrational fear as the others over what he regards as a chimeric “beast” in
the jungle. The novel proves Piggy to be both right (there is no external beast)
and wrong (the beast lurks within) when it comes to the threat posed by the
“beastie” on the island, which turns out to be a deceased soldier still attached
to his fluttering parachute.

An unfortunate byproduct of Piggy’s rationalism and respect for order is
his naïve faith in the appeal of these things for the majority of boys and his


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

naïve faith in adult authority, which he invokes time and again in failed
attempts to reform his peers. Ironically, of course, it is the warring adults who
have gotten the boys into their mess to begin with; the adult world at large
seems incapable of teaching these boys much of anything about civilized
interaction. Piggy’s statement that “Grownups know things . . . They’d meet
and have tea and discuss. Then things ’ud be all right” (94) has to be one of
the novel’s most ironic lines in that it is the warring grown-ups who appear to
have taught the boys how to foul their own nest. Piggy’s respect for authority
is so profound that, early on, he even accedes to choir-leader Jack’s authority:
Piggy “was intimidated by this uniformed superiority and the offhand authority
in Merridew’s voice” (21). Piggy’s naïve faith in reason and law reaches its
lethal climax when he conveys “his passionate willingness to carry the conch
against all odds” by confronting Jack and demanding that his stolen glasses
be returned, simply “because what’s right’s right” (171). Golding betrays the
intentions he had for this character when he says that Piggy is “a complete
innocent”: “naïve, short-sighted, and rationalist.”55 It is no wonder that he is
powerless in the face of the hunters, the novel’s “Demoniac figures” (140),
who have no patience with Piggy’s appeals to human reason and justice.

Piggy plays a symbolic function in the novel as well: he represents the
hunted, violated, and ultimately murdered Other: a victimized Other that is
used to bind together the tribe. As Freud reminds us in Civilization and Its
Discontents, another work that worries the growth of fascistic group dynamics
in the twentieth century, “It is always possible to bind together a considerable
number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive
the manifestations of their aggressiveness.”56 At many points in the novel
Piggy’s role in maintaining the tribe’s social cohesion is made clear. For
example, the boys are described as “a closed circuit of sympathy with Piggy
outside” (21); at another point we learn that “There had grown up tacitly
among the biguns the opinion that Piggy was an outsider, not only by accent”
but “by fat, and ass-mar, and specs, and a certain disinclination for manual
labor” (65). At yet another point we read that the boys

bumped Piggy, who was burnt, and yelled and danced. Immediately, Ralph
and the crowd of boys were united and relieved by a storm of laughter. Piggy
once more was the center of social derision so that everyone felt cheerful and
normal. (149)

This “othering” does not apply exclusively to Piggy, however; at another point
“the painted group felt the otherness of Samneric, felt the power in their own
hands [and] felled the twins clumsily and excitedly” (179).


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

Piggy is also linked to the female (or feminized) hunted Others of the island,
the pigs. And Golding connects the male rape of females with the violation of
the Other by figuring the pig hunts, with their violence and blood-lust, in
sexual terms, with “overtones of rape.”57 In the most graphic of the novel’s
hunt scenes, for example, we read that a wounded

sow staggered her way ahead of [the boys], bleeding and mad, and the hunters
followed, wedded to her in lust, excited by the long chase and the dropped
blood . . . [T]he sow fell and the hunters hurled themselves at her . . . The spear
moved forward inch by inch and the terrified squealing became a high-pitched
scream. Then Jack found the throat and the hot blood spouted over his hands.
The sow collapsed under them and they were heavy and fulfilled upon
her . . . (135)

This hunt ends with the pig being “sodomized with a pointed stick”58 (“Right
up her ass!” one boy boasts [135] ), a gratuitously violent act that highlights
the pleasure the boys take in scapegoating defenseless creatures who become
outlets for “desires previously repressed but now unleashed.”59 Figuratively,
this pig-hunt is a dry run for the murder of Piggy and Simon and the would-
be murder of Ralph: the boys move easily from hunting pigs to hunting
humans over the course of their sojourn on the island. Ralph is correct to
reason that “These painted savages would go further and further” (184). When
Piggy is killed by a falling boulder, which is intentionally released by a member
of Jack’s tribe, it is appropriate both that “Piggy’s arms and legs twitched a
bit, like a pig’s after it has been killed” (181), and that the conch, a vestige of
democratic order, perishes with him, exploding and fragmenting, “smashed
to powder” (186), by the tumbling boulder.

Piggy’s spectacles, a leitmotif for this character, also have a symbolic
function in the novel. The spectacles, without which Piggy is virtually blind,
figure his physical inferiority yet intellectual superiority to the other boys.
Like Tiresias, the blind Theban seer, Piggy later in the novel, after Jack breaks
one of his lenses and then steals the other, becomes something of a blind
prophet: his lack of vision is inversely proportional to his insightfulness and
prescience. This is suggested both when Piggy “found that he saw more clearly
if he removed his glasses and shifted the one lens to the other eye” (155) and
when he sits “expressionless behind the luminous wall of his myopia” (169) –
yet has a clearer view of their collective situation than any of the sighted boys.
Nevertheless, that Piggy is a visionary does not prevent him, along with Ralph
and Simon, from being a powerless, hunted victim of Jack’s tribe – one of
“three blind mice” (93).


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

Piggy’s spectacles attract the attention of the other boys because of their
use as “burning glasses” (40) to start fires. In an ironic Promethean echo,
Jack and his tribe “raid” Piggy and Ralph “and take fire” (136) by stealing
the glasses. (With characteristic naivete, Piggy, who is now virtually blinded
[169], wrongly assumes that Jack attacks in order to steal the conch [168] ).
Importantly, the fire has two competing productive functions – as a rescue
fire and a pig-roasting fire – and one destructive one: the boys at two
points set wildfires that threaten to consume much of the island, including
the boys themselves (a few already may have perished) and their sources
of food (the pigs and fruit trees). Of course, this ultimately self-destructive
act echoes that undertaken in the world at large by the adults, who are presumably
in the process of destroying themselves atomically, rendering the
earth unlivable.

Simon, the final and most enigmatic of the novel’s four major characters,
is also the most debated by critics and readers. And he is the least understood
by the other boys on the island. Ralph, for example, finds Simon “queer” and
“funny” (55), and Golding himself insists that Simon is “understood by
nobody.”60 A “skinny, vivid little” (24) choirboy who first makes our acquaintance
by fainting (apparently, he is susceptible to such spells), Simon is
a kind-hearted character who at many points stands up for Piggy and the
“littluns,” even when this proves to be unpopular. Simon is also a solitary
figure who prefers being “utterly alone” (56) and discovering his own path to
coexistsing with others.61

This “inarticulate seer”62 establishes his own jungle hideaway and later
learns, as a result of his independence, two things that remain unknown to
the other boys. First, he learns that the dreaded “beast” who haunts the island
is actually a dead and decaying parachutist from the war. Second, he learns,
in a hallucinated interview with the fly-covered sow’s head on a stake – a head
that speaks in the “voice of a schoolmaster” (143) and that is meant by Jack
and his tribe to be an offering to the beast – that the beast is “only us” (89)
and a “part” of all of the boys, “Close, close, close,” and that there is no
escaping it (143–4). The sow’s head seems to lecture Simon:

Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill [that is, something
external to yourselves]. I’m part of you . . . the reason why it’s no go . . . why
things are what they are . . . You know perfectly well you’ll only meet me down
there [where the other boys are] – so don’t try to escape. (143)

As Golding elsewhere comments, the boys “don’t understand what beasts
there are in the human psyche which have to be curbed.”63


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

Simon’s discoveries lead to his tragic end as a hunted “pig” at the hands
of the other boys, in a horrific scene that begins with a war dance and the
familiar chant, “Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!” (152), and ends
with “Simon’s dead body” moving “out toward the open sea” (154). As with
Ralph and Piggy, who also recognize that the beast may be inherent in the
boys themselves,64 Simon’s difference from the others in the tribe means that
he must be hunted and eliminated.65

The major debate surrounding the enigmatic Simon concerns his status
as the novel’s Christ figure. Golding himself asserts that “I included” this
“Christ-figure in my fable,” who is

solitary, stammering, a lover of mankind, a visionary, who reaches commonsense
attitudes not by reason but by intuition. Of all the boys, [Simon] is the only one
who feels the need to be alone and goes every now and then into the bushes . . .
He is really turning a part of the jungle into a church, not a physical . . . but
a spiritual one.66

Elsewhere Golding remarks that when Simon attempts to take the good news
about the parachutist back to “ordinary human society, he’s crucified for it.”67

Although it is true that he is something of a “sacrificial victim,”68 that “in
his martyrdom” he “meets the fate of all saints,”69 Simon – in seeking his
own world because he recognizes, with Jean-Paul Sartre, that “Hell” is “other
people”70 – flirts as much with escapism and solipsism as with sainthood or
the life of a solitary. Despite Golding’s comments, then, it seems unwise to
read this enigmatic character exclusively in religious terms.71

The “beastie” itself is first mentioned shortly after the boys land on the
island and takes many imagined forms thereafter. Initially, in what appears
to be an Edenic allusion, the boys fear a serpent, a “snake-thing” in “the
woods” (35, 36), which later becomes “a thing, a dark thing, a beast, some
sort of animal” (83). Still later the beast is said to come “out of the sea” (88),
or the “dark,” or the “trees” (125, 126). That the boys do not understand the
nature or meaning of the chimeric beast is precisely the point. That readers
come to understand, as one critic concludes, that “the beast is other” is equally
important. “Whatever one fears,” this critic continues, “whether it is mythic
like ogres and bogeymen, or real like countries and ideologies, it is not-I,
beast, and ultimately evil.”72

The idea that the beast inheres in us supports the idea that “civilization”
is something of a veneer, and that what separates the English from those
whom they would “civilize” is the finest of lines, a boundary that vanishes
entirely during the boys’ stay on the island. This vanishing line – the idea that


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

civilization is at bottom an attempt to deny a universal human will-to-power

– is imaged at many points in the novel, most ironically for the reader when
Piggy asks the boys, “What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?” (91).73
The novel’s critique of civilization is best understood as an attack on British
colonialism and hubris regarding Nazism, as imaged in Jack’s nationalistic
formulation: “We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not
savages. We’re English, and the English are best at everything” (42).74 As
Golding puts it of British moral complacency,

One of our faults is to believe that evil is somewhere else and inherent in
another nation. My book was to say: you think that . . . you are safe because you
are naturally kind and decent. But I know why the thing rose in Germany. I
know it could happen in any country. It could happen here . . .

The overall picture was to be the tragic lesson that the English have had to
learn over a period of one hundred years; that one lot of people is inherently
like any other lot of people; and that the only enemy of man is inside him.75

Even the “civilized” Piggy, in an echo of the German denial of responsibility,
rationalizes his participation in the murder of Simon thus: “It was an accident
...I was only on the outside . . . We never done nothing, we never seen
nothing . . . We left early” (157–8).

The novel’s title is relevant in this connection. “Lord of the Flies” is a
translation of Beelzebub, the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Ba’alzevuv,
which denotes evil incarnate (the Devil, Satan, Mephistopheles). As one critic
observes, “Golding equates the Lord of the Flies with the demonic force latent
in humankind, a force so hideous” that “fly-covered excrement would best
represent it.”76 The title also relates to the novel’s feces and corruption motifs,77
as excrement and decay function as metaphors for the perceived threat of evil,
whether embodied in the decaying, “stinking” (147) body of the dead parachutist,
who is mistaken for the beast, or in the fly-covered and corrupting
pig’s head on a stake, a gift to appease the forces of darkness.

Erich Fromm’s 1941 exploration of the social psychology of fascism, Escape
from Freedom, another response to and critique of the events that culminated
in the death camps of World War II, sheds considerable light on Golding’s
Lord of the Flies.78 Fromm’s thesis, contrary to the “conventional belief ”
that “modern democracy” leads to “true individualism,” is that although the
“principles of economic liberalism, political democracy, religious autonomy,
and individualism in personal life” have brought modern Europeans and
Americans closer than ever before to achieving “freedom from the political,
economic, and spiritual shackles that have bound” us, it is nevertheless the
case that “in our own society we are faced with the same phenomenon that is


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

fertile soil for the rise of Fascism anywhere: the insignificance and powerlessness
of the individual.”79 Specifically, Escape from Freedom analyzes “those
dynamic factors in the character structure of modern man” that make “him
want to give up freedom in Fascist countries” and that so widely prevail “in
our own people.”80 Like the late works of Freud, Fromm here “stresses the
role of psychological factors” in the “social process” at large.81

For Fromm, the crux of the problem stems from the human “tendency to
give up the independence of one’s own individual self and to fuse one’s self
with somebody or something outside of oneself in order to acquire the strength
which the individual self is lacking,”82 thereby overcoming the feeling of “individual
insignificance.”83 For Fromm this explains the allure of nationalism or
any other “custom” or “belief,” however otherwise “absurd” or “degrading”:84
it connects the individual with others and therefore functions as a refuge
from what humans dread the most, isolation. The individual, for Fromm,
paradoxically seeks “a kind of security by such ties with the world as destroy
his freedom and the integrity of his individual self.”85 I take the following
passage to be the kernel of Fromm’s argument and of particular relevance to
Golding’s novel:

The annihilation of the individual self and the attempt to overcome thereby
the unbearable feeling of powerlessness are only one side of the [equation]. The
other side is the attempt to become a part of a bigger and more powerful whole
outside of oneself, to submerge and participate in it. This power can be a person,
an institution, God, the nation . . . By becoming part of a power which is felt
as unshakably strong, eternal, and glamorous, one participates in its strength
and glory. One surrenders one’s own . . . freedom; but one gains a new security
and a new pride in the participation in the power in which one submerges. One
gains also security against the torture of doubt. [Such a person] is saved from
making decisions, saved from the final responsibility for the fate of his self, and
thereby saved from the doubt of what decision to make. He is also saved from
the doubt of what the meaning of his life is or who “he” is. These questions are
answered by the relationship to the power to which he has attached himself.86

Although the price to be paid by anyone who takes this road is high – the very
loss of the “self ” – at least this automaton, “identical with millions of other
automatons around him, need not feel alone and anxious any more.”87 That is
to say, in blindly submitting to a “leader” the insecure individual “gains some
security by finding himself united with” so many others who share the same
fears of “weakness” and “isolation.”88

The implications of Fromm’s study of fascistic social psychology for an
understanding of Lord of the Flies are surely clear. It is noted in Golding’s


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

novel, for example, that “The assembly [of boys] was lifted toward safety by
[Ralph’s] words” (37), and that the boys, who find themselves in an inherently
insecure situation and who possess “tormented private lives” (133), savor
“the comfort of safety” represented by the hierarchy of Jack’s tribe (186).
We also hear Piggy explain that all of the boys who join in the “bloody dance”
that culminates in the murder of Simon do so because they are “scared”
(156), and learn that even Piggy and Ralph find “themselves eager to take a
place in this demented but partly secure society,” and are willing, at least for
a time, to forfeit freedom and individuality in order to gain the security that
comes with being part of a group, part of the “throb and stamp of a single
organism” (152). As Golding, sounding like Fromm, puts it in an essay, the
war-dance episodes allow the boys to “fortify their own sense of power and
togetherness. It is dark.”89

Another example in Lord of the Flies of the human desire to escape from
freedom and individuality is found in the seemingly interchangeable twins
Sam and Eric, whose “substantial unity” comes to be taken for granted by all

(100) and who come to share the same name, “Samneric.” The two do everything
together and respond to everything in the same way; they even nod “like
one boy” (115) and appear as “four unwinking eyes aimed and two mouths
open” (98). The two, the narrator adds, “could never manage to do things
sensibly if that meant acting independently” (96).
The masks of war paint the boys wear also function in this way: they
enable the boys to gain security and belonging in exchange for their sense of
individual identity and freedom. The “concealing paint,” however, brings a
different sort of liberation: the “liberation into savagery” (172). In this way
the boys are “Freed by the paint” (175); they can escape from freedom behind
“the painted anonymity of the group” (178). For example, when Jack plans
his face,

He looked in astonishment, no longer at himself but at an awesome
stranger . . . The mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated
from shame and self-consciousness. (63– 4)

Even the destructive (and ultimately self-destructive) wild-fires set by the
boys are explained by Escape from Freedom. Fromm would interpret such acts
of self-destruction, which mirror the self-destructive acts of the warring adults
at large, in terms of the attempt to “escape the feeling” of “powerlessness in
comparison with the world outside” by “destroying” this world. “The destruction
of the world,” Fromm argues, “is the last, almost desperate attempt to
save” those who would escape from freedom “from being crushed by” the


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

world.90 Revealingly, after they set the first fire, the boys are said to feel “the
beginnings of awe at the power set free below them” (44). (Even Simon the
recluse would be explained by Escape from Freedom as employing a mechanism
of escape in which one withdraws “from the world so completely that it loses
its threat” [Fromm, p. 208].)

Although critics have noted that Jack “is clearly drawn from contemporary
alarms about the totalitarian personality,”91 the extent to which Fromm’s study
illuminates the motivations of this sadistic tyrant has not been adequately
appreciated. For Fromm, sadism is rooted in the desire of the “individual to
escape his unbearable feeling of aloneness and powerlessness,” to dispel “the
burden of freedom” and “the self.”92 And the “sadist needs the person over
whom he rules” very badly, “since his own feeling of strength is rooted in the
fact that he is the master over someone.”93 Jack perfectly epitomizes the sadistic
personality, as evidenced in his gloating remembrance “of the knowledge that
had come to [the boys] when they had closed in on the struggling pig, knowledge
that they had outwitted a living thing, imposed their will upon it, taken
away its life like a long satisfying drink” (70).

Jack even rationalizes his sadistic power-mongering in a way anticipated
by Fromm, who observes the tyrant arguing, “I have done so much for you,
and [therefore] now I am entitled to take from you what I want.”94 The
refrain Jack takes up with the boys, “I got you meat” (74), is meant to justify
his wanton cruelty and acts of “irresponsible authority” (160) toward them,
such as when he ties up and beats various of the boys for no apparent reason
and when he establishes himself as “an idol” among them (149). And Fromm
would explain Jack’s particular hostility for Piggy – and for the defenseless
sow – thus: “The very sight of a powerless person” makes an authoritarian
one “want to attack, dominate, humiliate him.” The more “helpless his object,”
the “more aroused” the “authoritarian character feels” to attack.95

Fromm also would explain Jack’s exploitation of the boys’ innate fear of
the beast to consolidate his power by appealing to a “higher power outside the
individual, toward which the individual can do nothing but submit.”96 Jack’s
idea of appeasing the fictitious beast with a “gift” of a pig’s head on a stake

(137) – “When we kill we’ll leave some of the kill for it. Then it won’t bother
us, maybe” (133) – is a part of his strategy to maintain both the cohesion of
the tribe and his power over it. Later, Jack warns the boys to remember that
“the beast might try to come . . . again even though we gave him the head of
our kill to eat . . . We’d better keep on the right side of him, anyhow. You
can’t tell what he might do” (161). Here, Jack implicitly promises to protect
the boys from the beast as long as he remains chief. The chimeric beast is thus
invoked both to create and to dispel fear – fear that is used in turn for
purposes of political manipulation. This is suggested when we read that Jack’s

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

boys were “Half-relieved, half-daunted” at the implication of “further terrors”

(161) at the hands of the mysterious beast.
Literally seconds before the hunted Ralph is to be killed by the boys in
Jack’s tribe, he is rescued by a “naval officer” (200) who suddenly appears on
the island from “the trim cruiser in the distance” (202). Numerous ironies
unfold in the novel’s final pages, which Bernard F. Dick characterizes as
not so much a moral as a literary “resolution” to the novel, a sort of “deus ex
machina.”97 The officer, who wears a revolver and stands against the backdrop
of his sub-machine gun-equipped cutter, asks Ralph if there are “any adults –
any grownups with you?” He then notices the fuller beach scene: a “semicircle
of little boys” whose “bodies” are “streaked with colored clay” and who hold
“sharp sticks in their hands.” The officer, unaware of his own irony given
the exploits of the “civilized” adults at war, dismisses the boys’ behavior as
so much “Fun and games” (200) and wonders if they are having “a war
or something?” (201). He then remarks, in the context of an allusion to
Ballantyne’s Coral Island, “I should have thought that a pack of British boys”
would “have been able to put up a better show than that” (202). The boys at
last begin to weep, and Ralph “wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of
man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy”
(202). As Samuel Hynes writes of this moment in the novel, the naval officer
“may save Ralph’s life, but he will not understand. And once he has gathered
up the castaways, he will return to his ship, and the grown-up business of
hunting men (just as the boys have been hunting Ralph). ‘And who,’ asks
Golding, ‘will rescue the adult and his cruiser?’.”98

Lord of the Flies thus ultimately “offers no politics but shows instead the
failure of politics,”99 a fact that does not trouble its author. As Golding has
commented, the novelist “should be free enough of society to be able to see
it” clearly and should possess “an intransigence in the face of accepted belief

– political, religious, moral.”100 An anatomy of the problem, and not any
solution, is all we can ask of the novelist. And indeed our relief (and the boys’
relief ) at the close of Lord of the Flies is only temporary and partial: the
equilibrium to which we are returned at novel’s end is an equilibrium in
which world war rages, tribalism reigns, and democracies fail.

Chapter 4

Chinua Achebe’s
Things Fall Apart (1958)

I would be quite satisfied if my novels . . . did no more than teach my readers
that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery
from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.

Chinua Achebe, “The novelist as teacher”1


Things Fall Apart, by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, is easily the most
famous and widely read African novel in English. Translated into fifty different
languages, with more than 8 million copies in print worldwide, this celebrated
author’s first novel is often compared to Greek tragedy for its straightforward,
searing power, acute family dynamics, and potent sense of inevitability. Deemed
“perhaps the most memorable account in English of an African culture and
the impact upon it of white European encroachment,”2 Things Fall Apart
explores the traumatizing effects of British colonialism on a small Nigerian
village at the turn of the nineteenth century. However, Achebe resists the
temptation to portray his tribal past in romantic or sentimental terms;3 rather,
he adopts a “realistic” approach in the hope of countering the stereotypical
representations of indigenous Nigerians and other Africans made familiar to
western – and indeed to many African – readers in such works as Joyce Cary’s
Mr Johnson (1939). Cary was a colonial officer who served in Nigeria between
1910 and 1920. His once popular novel depicted traditional tribal society in
patronizing and sentimental terms and served as an “ideological justification
of the [colonial] status quo.”4 In addition to countering the view of African
tribal life portrayed in Cary’s novel, in Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness


Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

(1899),5 and in other works of literature familiar to British audiences, Things
Fall Apart played a major role in African self-understanding; it became “the
first novel by an African writer to be included in the required syllabus for
African secondary schools, not only in Nigeria but (excluding South Africa)
throughout the English-speaking parts of the African continent.”6 Published
two years before Nigeria declared independence from Great Britain (Nigeria
was under British control from 1906 until 1960), Achebe’s first novel also
explores what might be called the “politics of point of view” and the problem
of alterity or “otherness”: the difficulty, if not impossibility, “of completely
imagining one individual or culture in terms of another.”7


Many western readers of Things Fall Apart will have difficulty approaching the
work given their dearth of knowledge about African history in general and the
history of southeastern Nigeria, the setting of Achebe’s novel, in particular.
While a detailed treatment of this history is outside the scope of this study, a
few relevant facts of historical context for the novel are essential. Things Fall
Apart is set at the beginning of the twentieth century, soon after the European
“scramble for Africa,” when “British authorities, missions, and trade penetrated
the Igbo hinterland east of the Niger river”8 and traditional Igbo society began
to undergo the cultural disintegration that followed colonialism. Nigeria, which
“never had any integrity save one imposed by the colonial powers,” was in
fact an agglomeration of “hundreds of different ethnic and linguistic communities.”
9 Achebe came from the third most populous of these Nigerian
communities, the Igbo, who reside in the southeastern part of the country.
Yet the Igbo themselves were not entirely homogeneous: Igbo villages only a
few miles apart spoke languages, all of which were called “Igbo,” that differed
significantly from each other. Indeed, “the dialects, cultures, and political
systems” of the various Igbo villages varied widely.10 Despite these differences,
according to Achebe in his recent memoir Home and Exile, the “more than
ten million strong” Igbo people, one “of the major peoples of Africa,” felt a
strong sense of solidarity and national belonging:

The Igbo nation in precolonial times was not quite like any nation people are
familiar with. It did not have the apparatus of centralized government but was
a conglomeration of hundreds of independent towns and villages . . . which were
in reality ministates that cherished their individual identity but also . . . perceived
themselves as Igbo . . .11


Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

This sense of nationhood and cultural integrity led the Igbo, for all of their
differences, to attempt, between 1967 and 1970, to secede from the artificial,
colonial construction Nigeria in order to form their own nation, to be called
The Republic of Biafra. This revolt was decisively crushed in 1970, and the
“Biafran experience served as a warning for the rest of Africa not to try to
undo the map-making of the colonial powers.”12

Chinua Achebe was born in 1930 in Ogidi, an Igbo-speaking community
in eastern Nigeria that was a center of Anglican missionary work. The son of
a Christian convert who began proselytizing for the Anglican church in 1904,
Achebe was baptized Albert Chinualumogu and only dropped “the tribute to
Victorian England” (Victoria’s consort was named Albert) when he enrolled
at university.13 Achebe received his formal education in English, first in church
schools and then at University College, Ibadan (then affiliated with the University
of London), where he graduated, in 1953, with a degree in English
literature. At about this time, Achebe recalls, the “nationalist movement in
British West Africa” sparked a “mental revolution”: “It suddenly seemed that
we too might have a story to tell. ‘Rule Britannia!’ to which we had marched
so unselfconsciously on Empire Day now stuck in our throat.”14

Achebe, who has received his nation’s highest award for intellectual achievement,
the Nigerian National Merit Award, is often mentioned as a leading
candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature and holds honorary doctorates
from more than twenty universities in Canada, England, Nigeria, Scotland,
and the United States. He is best known as the author of five novels – Things
Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of
the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987) – of which the first four
form a loose tetralogy “covering the history of Nigeria from colonization until
the first military coup.”15 He is also a respected essayist, advocate of African
letters, and editor. In addition to editing important African literary journals,
Achebe was the founding editor of the Heinemann Books African Writers
Series, the first series to bring English language African writing to a wider
audience. Since 1990 he has been the Charles P. Stevenson Jr. Professor of
Languages and Literature at Bard College, in New York state.

Achebe, who is “perfectly bilingual,” having grown up at what he calls
a “crossroads of cultures,”16 has been criticized by some for writing novels in
English rather than in his indigenous Igbo tongue. Abdul R. JanMohamed
poses this contentious issue as a question: “[C]an African experience be
adequately represented through the alien media . . . of the colonizer’s language
and literary forms or will these media inevitably alter the nature of African
experience in significant ways?”17 In other words, should English be excluded
“as a language of African fiction on purely ideological grounds”?18 To be sure,
as JanMohamed explains,


Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

The African writer’s very decision to use English as his medium is engulfed
by ironies, paradoxes, and contradictions. He writes in English because he was
born in a British colony and can receive formal education only in English. More
significantly, however, he is compelled to master and use English because of the
prevailing ideological pressures within the colonial system . . .19

Another critic puts the problem even more baldly: “Achebe uses the written
word brought by the colonizers in order to record and recreate the oral world
obliterated or denied by them.”20 Some have questioned Achebe’s commitment
to African literary traditions in view of his choice of literary genre,
the novel, in which to work. Since the novel is originally a European genre,
this argument runs, no novel, not even an African one, can avoid exhibiting a
“Eurocentric” worldview.21

Achebe’s defense of his linguistic and artistic choices is surprisingly practical,
his goal being to reach as wide an audience as possible, both inside and outside
Nigeria. In an essay Achebe articulates the problem and explains his reasoning:

Does my writing in the language of my colonizer not amount to acquiescing
in the ultimate dispossession? . . . Let me simply say that when at the age of
thirteen I went to [a] school modeled after British public schools, it was not
only English literature that I encountered there. I came in contact also for the
first time in my life with a large number of other boys of my own age who did
not speak my Igbo language. And they were not foreigners but fellow Nigerian
youth . . . [W]e had to put away our different mother tongues and communicate
in the language of the colonizers . . . We chose English not because
the British desired it but because having tacitly accepted the new nationalities
into which colonialism had grouped us, we needed its language to transact
our business, including the business of overthrowing colonialism itself in the
fullness of time. Now, that does not mean that our indigenous languages should
now be neglected. It does mean that these languages must co-exist and interact
with the newcomer . . . For me it is not either English or Igbo, it is both.22

As one critic puts this problem, of the approximately 1,000 different languages
and dialects to be found in Africa, “250 of them are to be found in Nigeria,
and Nigerian writers quickly realized that if they wished to communicate not
only with the English-speaking world at large, but also with considerable
numbers of their fellow-countrymen,” they would have to do so in English.23
Achebe elsewhere adds “that the story we [Africans] had to tell could not be
told for us by anyone else, no matter how gifted or well intentioned.”24 Not to
write in English, then, would leave the definition and representation of Achebe’s
society to the discretion of colonial, and possibly even racist, literary authors.


Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

The charge that Achebe’s use of European novelistic forms compromises
the Igbo integrity of his literary art is also easily countered, for Things Fall
Apart, which in places reads like a folktale, is in fact a hybrid form, one which
takes into account both European novelistic conventions and African oral
forms. In any case, as Mikhail Bakhtin, the twentieth century’s foremost
theorist of the novel, reminds us, the novel, rather than being a univocal or
monological entity, is necessarily polyphonic, the repository of the “diverse
and dialogically opposed social voices of an era.”25 As one critic, following
Bakhtin, observes, “African writers who use English are aware that their
language is already populated with the political, social, and literary intentions
of their colonial teachers, but they compel it ‘to serve [their] own new intentions,
to serve a second master’.”26 Indeed, Achebe sees himself as “extending
the frontiers of English” so as to accommodate African literary modes.27 The
result is Achebe’s successful adaptation of “a western literary genre into
something that [is] authentically African in content, mode and pattern”.28 It is
surely for this reason that Achebe can bridge the gap, as few authors have,
between western and African readers and literary forms.29

Achebe has characterized Things Fall Apart as “an act of atonement with
my past, the ritual return and homage of a prodigal son.”30 The novel is far
more than this, however. For in addition to seeking to recover and celebrate
the author’s receding Igbo past, the work mounts a provocative challenge to
western modes of understanding and to the British imperial account of African
history. At the same time, it interrogates certain dimensions of patriarchal
Igbo culture that are revealed to be compromised by their own biases and
burdened by their own contradictions. Achebe’s “nostalgia,” ultimately, is
anything but simple, straightforward, or smugly self-congratulatory.


Things Fall Apart treats the rise and fall of an Igbo man, Okonkwo; indeed,
this three-part novel is structured around the three distinct phases of the
protagonist’s life, with the middle phase detailing his years of exile from
Umuofia, his native village. Superficially, the novel follows the tradition of the
European Bildungsroman, or novel of education, in which the novelist traces
the protagonist’s (usually) triumphal development against the backdrop of
antagonistic social and familial forces.31 The arc of Okonkwo’s life conforms
as well to Aristotle’s conception of the tragic hero, “tragic flaw” and all.32 Yet
Things Fall Apart also concerns the triumphs and tragic demise of Okonkwo’s
Igbo (or “Ibo,” as it is designated in the novel) village, Umuofia; Okonkwo’s


Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

community, like the protagonist himself, is assaulted, and ultimately undone,
by British colonial and modernizing influences. In this sense Achebe’s
colonial novel shares a goal of postcolonial criticism generally: to draw “attention
to questions of identity in relation to broader national histories and

“Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond,”
the novel begins; “His fame rested on solid personal achievements.”34 Respected
for his physical and military prowess and feared for his “very severe
look” (3–4),

Okonkwo was clearly cut out for great things. He was still young but he had
won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages. He was a wealthy farmer
and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife. To crown
it all he had taken titles and had shown incredible prowess in two inter-tribal
wars. (8)

Moreover, Okonkwo, “[A] man of action, a man of war,” is “the first to bring
home a human head” in “Umuofia’s latest war” (10).

As the above passage suggests, male success in Umuofia is measured in
martial ability and farming prowess – expressed in the number of titles, wives,
and barns of yams one possesses – and not in cowries (a form a currency), or
in family status alone. The novel repeatedly emphasizes the Igbo’s meritocratic,
rather than hereditary, social system; in Umuofia “a man was judged according
to his worth and not according to the worth of his father” (8). This is
fortunate for Okonkwo, who inherits nothing from his profligate and title-
less father (8) and who achieves financial success only because of his tireless
efforts as a share-cropper for another farmer. “With a father like Unoka,
Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men had,” we
learn; “He neither inherited a barn nor a title, nor even a young wife” (18).

Anyone who knew [Okonkwo’s] grim struggle against poverty and misfortune
could not say he had been lucky. If ever a man deserved his success, that man
was Okonkwo. At an early age he had achieved fame as the greatest wrestler
in all the land. That was not luck. At the most one could say that his chi or
personal god was good. But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says
yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed. (27)35

Clearly, one dimension of Okonkwo’s “heroism” is his ability to better his lot
against all odds.


Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

Things Fall Apart brings profound psychological depth, replete with
Oedipal undertones, to the exploration of Okonkwo’s personality formation.
Above all, Okonkwo seeks to choose a path that deviates as much as possible
from his father’s “contemptible life and shameful death” (18). By Okonkwo’s
standards, and indeed by the traditional standards of the tribe, Unoka, his
father, is an embarrassing “failure” (5): a “lazy and improvident” debtor
who cannot properly feed his wife and children, a “loafer” who becomes a
village laughing-stock, a “coward” who cannot “bear the sight of blood” (5,
6). Unoka is even called “agbala” – a title-less man but also a woman – by one
of Oknonkwo’s childhood friends, which highlights the patriarchal nature
of Igbo society, in which demonstrated “manliness” was privileged (66).
Okonkwo’s determination to define himself against his father is noted repeatedly
in the novel: Okonkwo’s “whole life was dominated by fear, the fear
of failure and weakness,” a fear that “he should be found to resemble his father.”
Thus, Okonkwo is “ruled by one passion: to hate everything his father Unoka
had loved” (13). Indeed, “Whenever the thought of his father’s weakness and
failure troubled him he expelled it by thinking about his own strength and
success” (66).

Paradoxically, as successful as Okonkwo soon becomes, the seeds of his
tragic fall are sown in the very making of his triumph. Okonkwo is best
understood as a male version of an Antigone figure who, however nobly he
stands up for traditional values, destroys himself – literally, in his case, by
suicide – owing to his inflexibility and lack of compromise. In particular, the
rigidity of Okonkwo’s “masculine, martial values” is frequently noted in the
novel. As Abdul R. JanMohamed puts it, however much the novel lauds
his “pride, courage, and diligence,” Okonkwo ultimately comes across as an
“inflexible, calcified monomaniac.”36 Okonkwo’s alarming inflexibility is first
hinted at on the novel’s second page, where we learn of Okonkwo’s “slight
stammer” and his propensity to “use his fists” whenever “he was angry and
could not get his words out quickly enough” (4). “Okonkwo never showed
any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger,” we learn shortly
afterwards; “To show affection was a sign of weakness [and] the only thing
worth demonstrating was strength” (28). Okonkwo possesses an “inflexible
will” (24) and a “heavy hand” with his kin, yet his repressive behavior is not
limited to family members – to the vicious beating of his wives or the cruel
intimidation of his children – but extends to the “less successful” men of the
tribe as well: “Okonkwo knew how to kill a man’s spirit” (26). Thus, although
Things Fall Apart celebrates Okonkwo’s traditionalism and resistance to
British colonialism – his commitment to doing things in “the grand, old way”

(166) – the novel also questions his obsession with “masculine” values and his
lack of tolerance and flexibility generally.37

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

The incident that most decisively reveals Okonkwo’s tragic flaw is that
involving Ikemefuna, a boy from the neighboring community of Mbaino whose
father kills a “daughter of Umuofia” when she is visiting Mbaino’s market
(11). Umuofia being much feared, Mbaino accepts Umuofia’s ultimatum to
hand over a young man, Ikemefuna, and a virgin girl as compensation for the
wrongful death. Ikemefuna, needing a place to reside in Umuofia, is taken in
by Okonkwo and soon becomes an accepted member of Okonkwo’s household.
Okonkwo comes to treat him like a son and Ikemefuna, appropriately,
takes to calling Okonkwo “father” (28, 57). A few years later the “Oracle of
the Hills and Caves” decrees that Ikemefuna must be sacrificed by the elder
males of Umuofia. Okonkwo, however, is advised not to have a “hand” in the
death of anyone who calls him “father” (57). The tribesmen take Ikemefuna
out of the village to kill him. The first blow that is delivered fails to do the job,
however; and as the wounded boy runs toward Okonkwo for help, a “dazed”
Okonkwo, who “was afraid of being thought weak,” draws out his machete
and cuts the boy down (61). As Jeffrey Meyers puts it of this revealing episode,
“Though Ikemefuna’s cry, ‘My father, they have killed me!,’ recalls the last
words of the crucified Christ, the sacrifice is a re-enactment of the trial of
Abraham and Isaac . . . but without the intervention of a harsh but just God.”38
In Achebe’s novel, by contrast, Abraham follows through with the slaying of
Isaac. Okonkwo’s feelings of guilt for this act of infanticide – after all, he has
killed an adopted son with his own hands – leads him to drink heavily yet at
the same time to rebuke himself for becoming “a shivering old woman” (65)
for feeling such guilt at all. Okonkwo yet again equates compassion with
females and the lack of emotion with males. To the extent that Ikemefuna is,
as one critic argues, an “ideal type” for the clan given his successful balancing
of “masculine and feminine attributes,” Okonkwo’s murder of him

is not only a tragic destruction of a promising and guiltless individual [but]
connotes the murder of the clan’s potential; Ikemefuna’s sacrifice is both a
symbol of what the clan lacks and a realistic dramatisation of the clan’s inability
to maintain a harmonious balance between male and female principles . . .39

That is to say, the killing of Ikemefuna can be read in gendered terms as
embodying a critique of Okonkwo and his tribe.

As critical as the novel is of Okonkwo’s complicity in the killing of
Ikemefuna, however, Okonkwo is only punished by Umuofia when he
accidentally kills the 16-year-old son of a titled man of the village during his
father’s funeral (124). Okonkwo’s punishment is twofold: all of his property
is destroyed by the tribe, in order to cleanse “the land which Okonkwo had


Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

polluted with the blood of a clansman” (125), and he is temporarily exiled
from Umuofia to his mother’s kinsmen in Mbanta. Okonkwo’s goal of
becoming “one of the lords of the clan” (131) and of remaining among “the
nine masked spirits who administered justice in the clan” (171) is irreparably
compromised by his being “condemned for seven years to live in a strange
land” (133).

It is the “death” of a third son, however, his own, Nwoye, with whom
he has strained relations, that most devastates Okonkwo. Nwoye’s death is
not literal but figurative: it involves his conversion to Anglicanism, the “new
religion” that has gained ground in Umuofia during Okonkwo’s seven-year
exile (171). Indeed, “The clan had undergone such profound change during
[Okonkwo’s] exile that it was barely recognizable” (182): a church has been
built, a handful of converts won, one of whom is Nwoye, and a number
of evangelists now operate in the “surrounding towns and villages” (143). As
Okonkwo sees it, “To abandon the gods of one’s father [as Nwoye has done]
and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very
depth of abomination” (153). Okonkwo comes to view Nwoye as “degenerate
and effeminate,” and wonders, “How could he have begotten such a woman
for a son?” (153) Okonkwo’s greatest fear is here revealed: that his son, in
addition to his now-deceased father, has become a “woman,” and that these
two tragedies reflect negatively on him – both in his own eyes and in the eyes
of his fellow clansmen.

Okonkwo’s eventual suicide, a figuration of the entire tribe’s demise, stems
in part from his conviction that he has no true heirs. It is also a result of his
inability to adapt to changing circumstances: Okonkwo would rather end
his life than deal with the British. Like other Achebe heroes, Okonkwo fails
because his character becomes “ossified around certain traditional values.”40
Yet, as one critic observes, Oknokwo’s suicide is not altogether explicable.
Rather, it is best viewed as “ambiguous”: a recognition of his own failure and
a condemnation of his people and of the colonizers. In any case, Okonkwo’s
suicide “ironically brings on himself a shameful death like his father’s, a fate
he expended tremendous energy all his life to avoid.”41

Raymond Williams is correct to note that Okonkwo “is destroyed in a very
complicated process of internal contradictions and external invasion.”42 The
protagonist’s “internal contradictions” having been considered, it remains to
explore the “external invasion” of British colonizers in Nigeria that Okonkwo
relentlessly yet unsuccessfully battles. In another context Achebe observes
that, “In the last four hundred years, Africa has been menaced by Europe.” He
then breaks these four centuries into three important periods: the slave trade,
colonization, and decolonization.43 Obviously, Things Fall Apart centers on
the second of these three phases; references to the first – “stories about white


Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

men” who “took slaves away across the seas”(140–1) – are few and fleeting
here. And the third phase is taken up in Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, a novel
about Obi, the son of Nwoye and grandson of Okonwko.44

Things Fall Apart interrogates what Achebe elsewhere calls the “psychology
of religious imperialism”:45 the mentality that seeks to justify the replacing
of the Igbo’s “false gods, gods of wood and stone,” with “this new God, the
creator of all the world and all men and women” (145). Revealingly, religious
imperialism is followed by other forms of British imperialism. Indeed, colonization
is represented in the novel as beginning with the arrival of Anglican
missionaries and as ending with a more obviously political and economic
agenda. Even without this economic and political dimension, however, the
missionaries appear to threaten the tribe’s very existence. Okonkwo, for
example, is prescient in viewing the rise of Anglicanism and the death of Igbo
culture as coterminous:

Suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye’s steps
and abandon their ancestors? Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him
at the terrible prospect, like the prospect of annihilation. He saw himself and
his fathers crowding round their ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship
and sacrifice and finding nothing but ashes of bygone days, and his children the
while praying to the white man’s god. (153)

At numerous points Achebe’s novel even associates the arrival of the Anglicans
with the “death” of the clan and the massacre of Africans (138–9).

Things Fall Apart reveals the great extent to which religious missionaries
were part of a comprehensive strategy of colonization, in which the Church
functioned as a beachhead for political and economic imperialism. As one
Umuofian tells Okonkwo, echoing the novel’s title,

The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion.
We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won
our brothers . . . And we have fallen apart. (176)

At countless other points in the novel it is made clear that “the white man
had not only brought a religion but also a government” (155);46 that British
“religion and trade and government” (174) (what one critic calls “the colonial
trinity”47) were inseparable from one another; that “The new religion and
government and the trading stores were very much in the people’s eyes and
minds” (182–3). The novel cements the structural connection between religious
and economic imperialism by reminding readers that, formally speaking, the


Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

titular head of the Church of England is the reigning monarch, Queen
Victoria, herself, “the most powerful ruler in the world” (194). The head
of the English Church and the British Empire, revealingly, are one and the
same woman.

Paradoxically, the “imagined process of ‘civilization’ that the British believed
they were giving to the savages”48 is instead revealed in Things Fall Apart to
lead to cultural disintegration and social chaos: the breakdown of Igbo society.
As Frantz Fanon writes in his revolutionary The Wretched of the Earth, the
goal of “colonial domination” was “to convince the natives that colonialism
came to lighten their darkness,” when in fact it functioned as a means of
establishing control and mastery.49 E. M. Forster points to the same duplicity
in his 1924 novel A Passage to India, another study of British colonial ambitions,
when he has Aziz think: “This pose of ‘seeing India’,” so popular with
English visitors to the subcontinent, “was only a form of ruling India.”50
Things Fall Apart similarly represents the inseparability of knowing and conquering,
of understanding and mastering the “Other.” As Achebe concludes
in his influential essay “Colonialist criticism,” for the colonialist, “understanding
[the native] and controlling him went hand in hand – understanding
being a pre-condition for control and control constituting adequate proof of

That the fledgling colonial entity is associated by Achebe with corruption,
coercion, and hypocrisy only sharpens and deepens the novel’s critique of
British rule. The kotma or “court messengers, African agents of empire who
in effect functioned as the ‘colonial police’,”52 are depicted in Things Fall
Apart as violent, cruel, bribe-taking enemies of Igbo tradition (197), as
implants who come from an entirely different region of Nigeria. Even the
fledgling imperial justice system, it is suggested, is corrupt; in a property
dispute, for example, the “white man’s court” finds in favor of a family that
has “given much money to the white man’s messengers and interpreter” (176).
Put simply, Igbo culture is depicted as more “republican and egalitarian”53
than British culture, with its monarchy, empire, and centralized power

Yet Things Fall Apart is more nuanced and complex in its treatment of
encroaching colonialism in Nigeria than has so far been suggested, with significant
implications for what Ashton Nichols calls Achebe’s “subtle critique
of the politics of point of view.”54 For in addition to reclaiming and rehabilitating
Africa’s “past” – a past, in Nigerian critic Chinweizu’s words, which has
been “vilified by imperialism” and “imperialist education”55 – Achebe’s novel
seeks to understand why so many Africans embraced Anglicanism, an entirely
foreign religious worldview. This surprising attraction is explored most directly
in the allure of the British Church to Okonkwo’s son Nwoye:


Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand
it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow.
The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a
vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul – the question of the
twins crying in the bush [in Igboland twins were regarded as evil and were
abandoned at birth to die] and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. (147)

In other words, certain arguably inhumane practices of the Igbo are successfully
addressed and redressed by this “new” religion. More influential than this
new theology, however, was the new economic opportunity brought by British
trade. We read at one point, for example, that “The white man had indeed
brought a lunatic religion, but he had also built a trading store” and “much
money flowed into Umuofia” (178). As Achebe puts it elsewhere:

the bounties of the Christian God were not to be taken lightly – education, paid
jobs and many other advantages that nobody in his right senses could underrate.
And in fairness we should add that there was more than naked opportunism
in the defection of many to the new religion. For in some ways and in certain
circumstances it stood firmly on the side of humane behavior. It said, for
instance, that twins were not evil and must no longer be abandoned in the
forest to die.56

Ultimately, Things Fall Apart is more ambivalent than many readers have
admitted when it comes to the comparative merits of Igbo and British modes
of understanding; neither culture is seen as possessing a monopoly on “truth”
and both are ironized in the light of the other. Indeed, Achebe’s “problematic
nostalgia” is perhaps best understood as a by-product of what JanMohamed
calls the author’s “ambivalent attitude toward his characters and their respective

Achebe’s ambivalence in this regard points to an important implication
of the novel: that “one’s very perceptions are shaped by the social and cultural
context out of which one operates,”58 and that one’s perceptions, therefore,
are open to question and “correction.” Despite his spirited defense of Igbo
religious integrity and dignity (179–81), his compelling portrait of a “poetic”
Igbo culture that possesses “a philosophy of great depth and beauty,”59 and
his powerful denunciation of the hypocritical and hubristic British colonial
mentality, “the cultural ethnocentrism that denies the validity, and even the
existence, of African customs, law, and morality,”60 the author, at a still deeper
level, eschews definitive cultural allegiances of any kind in this novel. Rather,
Things Fall Apart reveals the power and intrinsic logic of both worldviews:


Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

for Christians the world is divided into believers and heathen (for the British,
into the “civilized” and the “savage”); for the Igbo, into “free-born” tribesmen
and taboo “osu,” outcasts who live “in a special area of the village” and who
carry with them the mark of their “forbidden caste – long, tangled and dirty
hair” (156). Achebe’s implication is clear: as different as these ways of dividing
up the world may be, they nevertheless share a need to celebrate and legitimate
the self at the expense of an undeserving other. Freud’s observation, in his
Civilization and Its Discontents, about this ineradicable human need is as
applicable here as it is to Golding’s novel: “It is always possible to bind
together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other
people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.”61

The challenge of imagining the “Other’s” legitimacy is traced, and its
failure lamented, everywhere in Things Fall Apart. On both sides of the British/
Igbo cultural divide we encounter characters – Okonkwo and Reverend Smith,
most importantly – who see things as “black or white” (184), and those –
Obierika and Mr Brown, for example – who are capable of seeing reality in
shades of gray. Although the Igbo appear to be more willing to tolerate difference
than the British (“You can stay with us if you like our ways,” a Umuofian
at one point informs Reverend Smith; “You can worship your own god. It is
good that a man should worship the gods and spirits of his fathers” [190] ),
the same cultural blindness and religious invidiousness are depicted as being
potent forces in both camps. On the Igbo side, in contrast to Okonkwo’s
monological rigidity stands Obierika’s willingness to question his culture’s
worldview. In response to Okonkwo’s uncritical assertion that “the law of
the land must be obeyed,” for example, Obierika admits, “I don’t know how
we got that law” (69). Obierika is described as “a man who thought about
things . . . But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He
was merely led into greater complexities” (125).62 At one point Obierika’s
eldest brother speculates that “what is good in one place is bad in another
place” (73–4), while at another Uchendu, a fellow tribesman, remarks, “There
is no story that is not true . . . The world has no end, and what is good among
one people is an abomination with others” (141). One Umuofian thematizes
the novel’s concern with the “politics of point of view”63 when he observes
that Reverend Smith “does not understand our customs, just as we do not
understand his. We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways, and
perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his” (191).

This same tension between dialogic and monologic modes of understanding
exists on the British side as well. For example, in contrast to Mr Brown’s respect
for dialogue, his “compromise and accommodation” (184) (“Whenever
Mr Brown went to [a certain] village he spent long hours with Akunna . . .
talking through an interpreter about religion. Neither of them succeeded in


Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

converting the other but they learned more about their different beliefs” [179] ),
Reverend Smith, his successor, sees “things in black and white. And black was
evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were
locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness” (184). Conversely, “The
over-zealous converts who had smarted under Mr Brown’s restraining hand
now [in Reverend Smith’s day] flourished in full favor” (185). One of these
“over-zealous” coverts, Enoch, even hopes to wage a “holy war” against his
former tribesmen (188).

The cultural myopia if not blindness of most British colonists is most
powerfully revealed in the novel’s justly famous closing moments, when we
learn of Okonkwo’s suicide by hanging, which follows his murder of a court
messenger, and of Umuofia’s reluctance to bury him.64 It therefore remains
for the British to bury Okonkwo, which leads the District Commissioner, in
the closing paragraph of the novel, to remark to himself:

In the many years in which he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts
of Africa he had learned a number of things. One of them was that a District
Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting a hanged
man from the tree. Such attention would give the natives a poor opinion of
him. In the book which he planned to write he would stress that point. As he
walked back to the court he thought about that book. Every day brought him
some new material. The story of this man who had killed a messenger and
hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole
chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any
rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out
details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The
Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. (208–9)65

Astounding ironies of perspective and diction proliferate and reverberate in
this passage. Not only do the words “pacification” and “primitive” here strike
the reader as hypocritical misnomers, but the novel’s final paragraph juxtaposes
a reductive understanding of Okonkwo with our psychologically and culturally
nuanced understanding of him, which the novel has treated in all of its
complexity and subtlety for over 200 pages.66 Yet it is Achebe, as one critic
argues, who in writing Things Fall Apart “pre-empts an attempted white usurpation”
of Okonkwo’s story and culture, “trapping the ‘official version’ within
a more sympathetic history.”67 That is to say, the irony of the novel’s closing
paragraph backfires on the District Commissioner himself, and on the imperial
mentality that seeks to rationalize his colonial ambitions. It is the British

– and not the Igbo – view that is revealed here to be the more parochial,
delimited, and backward one.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

This brings us, at last, to Achebe’s choice of a title for his provocative
colonial novel. This choice is both resonant and apposite: not only does the
title – taken from W. B. Yeats’s prescient poem “The Second Coming” –
literally make sense, as Umuofia does seem to “fall apart,” but it figuratively
makes sense as well, as it alludes to the (normally violent) clash of civilizations.
The aptness of Achebe’s choice of title, as one reader puts it, is

indicative of a profound pondering on Yeats’s vision of history as a succession
of civilizations, each containing the seeds of its own destruction because no
single enclosed social order has so far succeeded in containing the whole range
of human impulses and aspirations.68

This insight perhaps best explains the novel’s cultural pluralism and perspectival
democracy: like languages, cultures, rather than being permanent, “pure,” or
complete, are mutable, partial, and open to external influence. Few in Things
Fall Apart acknowledge the porous nature of culture, and the result, for many,
is lethal.

In his essay “The truth of fiction” Achebe blames our “self-centeredness”
and lack of “imagination” for our failure

to recreate in ourselves the thoughts that must go on in the minds of others,
especially those we dispossess. A person who is insensitive to the sufferings
of his fellows is that way because he lacks the imaginative power to get under
the skin of another human being and see the world through eyes other than
its own.69

This visualizing of the other – this phenomenological exercise – may be a
“truth” that “fiction” best affords. It is in any case an imaginative recreation
that Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, if not the novel’s British or African characters,
powerfully and poignantly achieves.


Chapter 5

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of
Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

All great genius attracts legend to itself . . . Such legend is the repository of a
vital aspect of truth.

Muriel Spark and Derek Stanford, Emily Brontë: Her Life and Work1

There was a mystery here to be worked out . . .

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie2


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a masterpiece of irony and understatement
in the vein of works by Jane Austen and Anton Chekhov. The sixth published
novel of Muriel Spark, Brodie explores the influence – sometimes abiding,
sometimes limited, always enigmatic, and finally indefinable – of a colorful
and domineering schoolteacher on her impressionable students. It is also a
study in obsession – Brodie’s, her students’, and the reader’s – as well as a
testament to the presence of paradox in human affairs. The Prime of Miss Jean
Brodie initially appeared in The New Yorker in the fall of 1961; it was then
reissued as a book, in 1962, and produced as a play and film, in 1966, with
Vanessa Redgrave on the London stage and Maggie Smith on screen playing
the role of the memorable, idiosyncratic schoolmistress. Although the Scottish
author has written more than twenty novels over her four-decade-long career,
it is the magnificently subtle Brodie for which she remains best known and
most critically acclaimed.

Based on Spark’s experiences in the 1920s and 1930s at James Gillespie’s
School for Girls in Edinburgh, and in particular on her teacher there, Miss


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

Christina Kay, Spark’s enigmatic “comedy of errors”3 is considerably more
than the sum of its parts. Like most of her novels, Brodie is a work that
provides pleasures, as Frank Kermode comments, that are commensurate with
“our being willing to work harder than usual” to discover them.4 Spark’s
novel is absorbing, finally, less because of its plot than because of the way it
is told: with time-shifts, in particular flash-forwards, which recall the high
modernist achievements of Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) and Ford’s The
Good Soldier (1915). In all of these works the advantages of “suspense and
uncertainty are partly sacrificed in the interests of a dramatic juxtaposition
that compels the reader to relate causes to their distant effects.”5 Another
quality that makes the novel so fascinating is the apparent gap between its
dark “central purpose” – exploring the exploits of a spiritual tyrant – and its
“lightness” of surface.6 As Norman Page characterizes this gap, “Many of the
ingredients of this novel – old fashioned girls’ school for the daughters of
the Edinburgh bourgeoisie, the suspicious headmistress, the one-armed art
master, the middle-aged spinster schoolmistress – seem to belong to farce
or comedy of manners,” yet “these promises of undisturbing entertainment
are not fulfilled and the story shades into a theological drama with tragic
overtones.”7 Put another way, Spark’s textured and nuanced narrative combines
“realistic, precisely localized, even autobiographical, elements with the
fantastic and the supernatural.”8 As David Lodge observes, Brodie is deceivingly
simple. Although it is possible to read the novel “quickly and lightly as
nothing more than a collection of wry anecdotes about an eccentric schoolmistress
and her pupils,” its involved “web of cross-reference, anticipation
and retrospect” render the work much more complex and interpretively elusive
than one might think.9


Muriel Sarah Camberg was born in Edinburgh in 1918. Her father was a Jew
of Lithuanian ancestry, her mother an Anglican Englishwoman, and she was
educated in a Presbyterian school. Even from this mix of religious influences,
Spark reports developing no durable religious allegiances in the first 35 years
of her life. It has nevertheless been argued that the author’s “Jewish-Scottish
inheritance and upbringing” made her the “moralist” that she is, and that this
mixed heritage allowed her “to combine a sense of moral responsibility of
action with the determinism which says that all your actions have unavoidably
and unalterably fixed your life in a certain shape.”10 The momentous religious
event of her life was undoubtedly her conversion to Roman Catholicism in


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

1954, which neatly preceded the commencement of her lengthy career as a
novelist. However one interprets this chronology, it is tempting to conclude,
with Allan Massie, that Spark’s “acceptance of the Faith and the Church
removed certain barriers which had deterred her from writing fiction, and
gave her a point of view from which to regard experience in a way that made
sense” to her.11

Muriel married Sydney Oswald Spark, a schoolteacher from Southern
Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe), in 1937. She followed him to Africa but
later, in 1944, divorced him and returned to Britain. Spark then worked as
a propagandist for the Political Intelligence Department of the British
Foreign Office, in London. Her next port of call, also in London, was the
office of Poetry Review, during which time (1947–9) she edited the journal
and was General Secretary of the Poetry Society. Her major early publications,
between 1950 and 1953, consisted of a volume of verse and a series of literary
biographies: of Mary Shelley, of John Masefield, and (with Derek Stanford) of
Emily Brontë.

Spark’s first novel, The Comforters, was published in 1957 to critical acclaim.
Momento Mori, which also received positive reviews, followed in 1959. It was
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, however, Spark’s sixth novel, which launched
her international career. And it was on the strength of this novel that Spark
was given an office, on the editorial premises of The New Yorker, in which to
write. There she penned her two next novels, The Girls of Slender Means
(1963) and The Mandelbaum Gate (1965; winner of the James Tate Black
Memorial Prize), which solidified her reputation on both sides of the Atlantic
as a novelist of great promise. In 1966 Spark left New York for Italy, where
she has lived and written novels – among these Loitering with Intent (1981)
and A Far Cry from Kensington (1988) – ever since. Her colorful autobiography,
Curriculum Vitae, emerged in 1992, and her Complete Short Stories was
published in 2001. Spark has received many honorary doctorates in Scotland
and England. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1967, was
made a Dame of the British Empire in 1993, and became a Commandeur in
the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1996. She presently lives and writes
in Tuscany.


Spark’s novels possess the linguistic compression and subtlety of poetry. Spark
herself maintains that “I love economical prose, and would always try to find
the briefest way to express a meaning,” and that “the novel as an art form” is


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

“essentially a variation of a poem”: “I was convinced that any good novel, or
indeed any composition which called for a constructional sense, was essentially
an extension of poetry.”12 Alan Bold attributes to this conviction the “extreme
compression of her language” and her “elusive attitude to plot.”13 It is difficult
not to think of numerous sentences in Brodie in these terms. For example, in
one sentence on the novel’s first page – “The girls could not take off their
panama hats because this was not far from the school gates and hatlessness
was an offence” (1) – the school’s sexually repressive dress code and bourgeois
culture is mocked, but so subtly that it is easy to miss.

Set in Edinburgh in the 1930s, Spark’s novel concerns six girls – Monica
Douglas, Rose Stanley, Eunice Gardiner, Sandy Stranger, Jenny Gray, and
Mary Macgregor – who make up the “Brodie set” at the Marcia Blaine School
for Girls. All six of Brodie’s acolytes are “famous for something” (3); respectively,
for mathematical prowess and a bad temper, for sex, for athletics,
for having “small, almost nonexistent, eyes” (3), for beauty, and for being “a
silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame” (4). Moreover, the
“Brodie set” is

what they had been called even before the headmistress had given them the
name, in scorn, when they had moved from the Junior to the Senior school at
the age of twelve. At that time they had been immediately recognizable as Miss
Brodie’s pupils, being vastly informed on a lot of subjects irrelevant to the
authorized curriculum, as the headmistress said, and useless to the school as
a school. (1–2)

In the best single piece of criticism on this novel, David Lodge lays out the
superficially simple yet immensely complex plot of the novel most economically.
Miss Brodie dominates the lives and fantasies of the girls in many ways,
Lodge writes,

but they are particularly intrigued by the question of her relationships with the
two men on the teaching staff: the art master, Mr. Lloyd, who is Catholic and
married, and the singing master, Mr. Lowther, a bachelor and an Elder of the
Church of Scotland. Mr. Lloyd, who lost his arm in the Great War (in which
Miss Brodie’s first love fell), is the more romantically dashing, [but Brodie] also
appears to be deeply involved with Mr. Lowther. As the girls move up through
the Senior School . . . it becomes evident that Miss Brodie is in love with Mr.
Lloyd, but has “renounced” him because he is married. However, she continues
the romance vicariously through Rose, who models for Mr. Lloyd (though
his portraits always bear an eerie resemblance to Miss Brodie). Miss Brodie
conducts an affair . . . with Mr. Lowther, but refuses to marry him . . . At about


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

this time . . . a new girl called Joyce Emily Hammond, with a record of
delinquency, joins the school, and tries unsuccessfully to join the set. Later,
however, Miss Brodie befriends her. The Headmistress impotently plots Miss
Brodie’s removal. One day Joyce Emily disappears and it is learned that she has
been killed in an attack on a train in Spain. It is assumed she was trying to join
her brother who is fighting Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Miss Brodie continues
to nourish the idea that Rose will have an affair with Lloyd, but it is in
fact Sandy who does so, while Miss Brodie is enthusiastically touring Hitler’s
Germany, in the summer of 1938. Through Lloyd, Sandy gets interested in the
Catholic faith. One day Miss Brodie reveals to Sandy that she knew of and
encouraged Joyce Emily’s escapade, though she persuaded her to switch her
allegiance to Franco. [Sandy reveals Brodie’s indiscretion to the Headmistress.]
In the summer of 1939, Miss Brodie is forced to resign, by which time Sandy
has been received into the Catholic Church.14

Brodie is proven to be wrong about many things, but the novel leaves us with
a sense of her domineering influence over the girls nonetheless.

However “brilliantly woven” the novel’s plot may be,15 plot suspense itself
is subverted by virtue of the fact that we are told in the middle of the novel
both that Brodie is fired and that Sandy has betrayed her. Spark is clearly
therefore less interested in plot, conventionally understood, than she is in
character psychology and motivation, the real emphases of her novel. One of
Brodie’s chief narrative devices is the punctuation of the novel’s “present”
time (mainly in the 1930s) with a series of flash-forwards (extending into the
1950s) and fantasies, both of which are used by Spark in order to “demonstrate
the unforeseen ways in which” Brodie “influences her students, especially
Sandy Stranger.”16 David Lodge adds another purpose to the novel’s chronological
complexity, in particular its flash-forwards and fantasy-digressions:
such narrative methods constantly check “any inclination we may have to
‘lose ourselves’ in the story or to sink into [an unreflective] emotional identification
with any of the characters; it detaches us from the experience
presented and makes us think about its meaning, or meanings.”17 This, more
than anything else, accounts for Brodie’s difference from other novels that
eulogize influential teachers or the educational process.

One striking example of the novel’s flash-forward device comes early in the
text and is embellished often throughout it: “Mary Macgregor, although she
lived into her twenty-fourth year, never quite realized that Jean Brodie’s
confidences were not shared with the rest of the staff ” (13). In the middle of
a sentence that follows we learn that Mary, “before she died while on leave in
Cumberland in a fire in the hotel,” ran “Back and forth along the corridors
. . . through the thickening smoke. She ran one way; then, turning, the other


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

way; and at either end the blast furnace of the fire met her” (13–14). Still later
in the novel, Mary’s culpability in own her end is suggested when she takes
fright when a fire erupts in the school science lab, and she “ran along a single
lane between two benches, met with a white flame, and ran back to meet
another brilliant tongue of fire. Hither and thither she ran in panic between
the benches until she was caught and induced to calm down, and she was told
not to be so stupid” by the science teacher (81). Here the novel connects
Mary’s evident indecision and lack of intelligence with her death years later in
the hotel fire. In this same way Brodie’s nature and fate are probed in Spark’s
work. What is said of Brodie at one point – “it was only in retrospect that they
could see Miss Brodie’s affair with Mr. Lowther for what it was, that is to say,
in a factual light” (91) – is true more generally of all the characters in Spark’s
novel. Events in life cannot be understood at the moment of their occurrence,
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie seems to suggest, but only, if ever, in the
fullness of time.

The girls’ (and particularly Sandy’s) flights of fantasy, which are heavily
indebted to works of romantic literature, shed light on the meaning of their
experience and allow them a temporary respite from the more puritanical and
quotidian dimensions of school life. For example, Sandy and Jenny compose
“ ‘The Mountain Eyrie’, the true love story of Miss Jean Brodie” (41), a romance
about their teacher and her former fiancé, Hugh Carruthers, who was killed in
the Great War. In this composition, Hugh, who is very much alive, is spurned
by Brodie and has made his abode in a “mountain eyrie,” where he is holding
Sandy hostage (Jenny has successfully made her escape). Sandy and Jenny,
who take turns composing lines of this romance (17–18), also craft “the love
correspondence between Miss Brodie and the singing master” (72). When the
facts of Brodie’s romantic life fall short, the two embellish these facts and live
through them vicariously (just as Brodie later does with Rose, whom she
compares to a “heroine from a novel by D. H. Lawrence” [117]). Sandy not
only escapes into romances by Charlotte Brontë, Robert Louis Stevenson,
and Lord Tennyson; she even converses and interacts (in her imagination)
with romantic heroes from their works, among these Mr Rochester from Jane
Eyre, Alan Breck from Kidnapped, and the Lady of Shalott from Tennyson’s
eponymous poem.18 While the schoolgirls’ fantasies may be regarded as
normal mental outlets that will diminish as they age, this process seems not to
have occurred in the case of their teacher. As David Lodge observes, “Miss
Brodie continues to inhabit her own fantasies, rewriting the history of her
first love to fit the circumstances of her subsequent liaisons with Lloyd and
Lowther.”19 Indeed, Brodie at times seems to go beyond the girlish fantasizing
of her students, and is revealed to be incapable of distinguishing between
fact and fancy.


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

Sandy Stranger, as suggested by her surname, is somewhat outside the Brodie
set. That said, her view of things, and that of the novel’s narrator, seem closely
aligned. Although the novel’s narrator is “god-like” – one who both “sees the
future and looks back into the past,” possessing an “omniscience” that is
“wittily particularized by the use of a rather prim, Edinburgh voice”20 – and
therefore is not strictly speaking one of the novel’s characters, Sandy is the
character who nevertheless seems closest to the narrator’s perspective of things.
In fact, Sandy appears to be, in Lodge’s words, “the principal point-of-view
character in the novel. Not only do we see most of the action through her
eyes, but many of the authorial comments are in effect comments upon Sandy
and her perceptions.”21

Allan Massie has most strongly argued for Sandy’s centrality to the novel
and holds that, “However peripherally or obliquely it is presented,” Sandy’s
conversion to Catholicism is “the true center of the novel.”22 Although Massie
may overstate the case, it is nevertheless clear that Sandy, alone of all the
characters, understands Brodie “with a clear-eyed, dispassionate vision of the
hidden and even unconscious springs of her actions.”23 Lodge argues that
Sandy is “the shrewdest, most complex, and most interesting of the Brodie
set,” despite the small eyes that are her “distinguishing mark throughout the
novel,” and then adds: “She is the only character who is interiorized to any
significant extent – the only character whose thoughts we share intimately.”24
Indeed, Sandy’s irritable and ironic voice seems to stand behind many of the
narrator’s statements, from the mocking reference to Brodie as “the heroine
she was” (100), to the explanation that “The Lloyds were Catholics and so
were made to have a lot of children by force” (108).

David Lodge is correct to note that “middle-class life in Edinburgh between
the Wars” is “beautifully caught and communicated” in Spark’s novel;25 but
the connection between Jean Brodie and the city in which the novel takes
place goes considerably beyond this observation. Although Spark’s relationship
to and experience growing up in Edinburgh are well documented (she
has claimed that Edinburgh “has definitely had an effect on my mind, my
prose style and my ways of thought”26), Jean Brodie’s symbolic likeness to the
city of her habitation requires further scrutiny.

Brodie is no less than an emblem of the genus loci, or spirit of place, of
Edinburgh. The novel hints at this relationship in such passages as “Miss
Brodie looked beautiful and fragile, just as dark heavy Edinburgh itself could
suddenly be changed into a floating city when the light was a special pearly
white and fell upon one of the gracefully fashioned streets” (118); or when
Brodie’s beauty, like Edinburgh’s, is described as “a quality” that “came and
went” (121). Brodie is shown as self-divided or doubled; she appears to lead
“a double life” (19). In this she is like the famous Edinburgher who shares her


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

surname, Deacon William Brodie, town councillor by day and burglar by
night, who is the source for Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr
Hyde (1886). She has a parallel also in Edinburgh itself, with its Gothic and
squalid old town (with its “reeking network of slums” [32]), and its Georgian
and bourgeois new town, with its middle-class aura of respectability. The
city’s divided character is suggested when Brodie takes her students from
the bourgeois Marcia Blaine school on a tour of the uncouth and violent old
town, which seems a “foreign” land to the girls. It is perhaps for the “double
life” (19) that she appears to lead that one critic considers “The realization
that Jean Brodie can be two people, radical teacher with the best interests of
her pupils at heart, and immoral leader willing to sacrifice them in her own
interests,” to be the novel’s “main theme.”27 Alan Bold deftly articulates Brodie’s
myriad contradictions: she “idolizes the fascists yet deplores the team spirit;
she speaks of love and freedom yet sleeps with the dreary Mr. Lowther and
denies herself to one-armed Mr. Lloyd because he is married; she loves Rome
and the Italians yet opposes the Church of Rome.”28

In Curriculum Vitae, Spark remarks, “I do not know exactly why I chose
the name Miss Brodie.”29 As if in response, Jean Brodie, in her own novel,
answers: “I am a descendant . . . of Willie Brodie, a man of substance”; his
story is “the stuff I am made of ” (93). The self-divided Deacon Brodie is
regarded by many to be Edinburgh’s quintessential personage; he was understood
by Stevenson to express the very “character” of Edinburgh.30 Philip E.
Ray has noted that both Jean Brodie and Deacon Brodie, while “ ‘Edinburghborn,’
respectable citizens of the town,” are both “rebels against Edinburgh’s
elaborate social conventions and strict moral code.”31 Moreover, “That sense
of duality within a fictional hero or heroine (the destroyer who both loves and
hates the object of obliteration, the sinner who is justified”) is a major theme
in Scottish fiction.32 It recurs in the William Brodie legend, in Stevenson’s
Jekyll and Hyde, in James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified
Sinner, and, of course, in Spark’s novel.33 In all of these tales the hero’s “comeuppance”
is “due to over-reaching”; in all of them he or she nurtures a “sense
of secret alienation from society while at the same time claiming public
allegiance to its morality.”34

The plot of Spark’s novel hinges on the sharp and persistent conflict
between Miss Brodie’s charismatic and romantic pedagogy and that of the
more pragmatic and Calvinistic Marcia Blaine school faculty at large. As David
Lodge characterizes this schism, Brodie’s stimulating teaching style “contrasts
favorably with the dry-as-dust academic approach of the rest of the staff [one
teacher, revealingly in this connection, is named “Miss Gaunt”], and we feel a
good deal of sympathy with her in her struggle with the jealously disapproving
headmistress” Miss MacKay.35


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

Miss Jean Brodie’s roots are in Miss Christina Kay, Muriel Spark’s teacher
in Edinburgh when the author was 11 years old. For all of the differences
between the real and the fictional teachers – had Miss Kay met her fictional
counterpart, Spark speculates in Curriculum Vitae, she would have put Brodie
“firmly in her place”36 – there are many notable similarities. Kay, like Brodie,
never married; she was one “of the generation of clever, academically trained
women who had lost their sweethearts in the 1914–1918 war.”37 Like Brodie,
Kay was dynamic and theatrical, an “exhilarating and impressive” teacher
who admired “Il Duce” and who displayed in class “a newspaper cutting of
Mussolini’s Fascisti marching along the streets of Rome,” as well as reproductions
of “early Renaissance paintings, Leonardo da Vinci, Giotto, [and]
Botticelli.”38 Moreover Kay, like Brodie, referred to her acolytes as the “crème
de la crème” and took them to dance and other fine arts performances
(including one by dance legend Anna Pavlova), sometimes funding the outing
from her own pocket.39

The Marcia Blaine School is depicted as a “traditional” (43), Calvinist-
leaning, dourly rationalistic girls’ school that aims to prepare women to
become eligible wives of middle-class Edinburghers. This agenda conflicts
with that of Miss Brodie. Brodie’s romantic individualism is “out of key with
the rest of the school” staff (133), which instead privileges useful knowledge,
social conformity, and “the team spirit” (82). (Brodie frequently implies that
the “Girl Guides,” the British equivalent of the American Girl Scouts, are
guilty of mindless conformism.) This conflict between Jean Brodie’s mindset
and that of the Marcia Blaine school is figured as a conflict between high
culture (“Miss Brodie was reciting poetry to the class at a quarter to four, to
raise their minds before they went home” [19] ) and “hard knowledge” (69);
between “stories and opinions which had nothing to do with the ordinary
world” (13) and the ordinary world; between “glamorous activity” (119) and
the “unsoulful” expertise and “industrious learning” proffered by the other
teachers (81, 59); between experimental teaching methods (49) and more
traditional ones; and between Brodie’s eroticized view of the world and “gaunt
Miss Gaunt’s” puritanical one. Brodie dismisses the senior school staff as
“gross materialists,” and the junior school staff as “narrow-minded” and “halfeducated”
(114), while the other teachers dismiss Brodie as eccentric and
possibly even dangerous. In contrast, say, to Miss Gaunt’s austerity, Miss
Brodie is an “Edinburgh Festival all on her own” (26).

The first intimation of a feud (25) between Miss Brodie and the rest of the
teaching staff (7) over “her educational system” is registered on the novel’s
first page and only intensifies throughout the work. Brodie refers to this
conflict as a plot “to force me to resign” (5); and the headmistress comes
to think of Brodie as her “prey” (99). Brodie brings this very conflict into her


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

classroom in order to turn her girls against the administration, and remarks
to her class:

It has been suggested again that I should apply for a post at one of the progressive,
that is to say, crank schools. I shall not apply for a post at a crank school.
I shall remain at this education factory where my duty lies. There needs must be
a leaven in the lump. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for
life. (119)

Brodie here reveals her dictatorial and rebellious pedagogy, which masquerades
as philanthropic self-sacrifice.

Brodie (in a romantic vein and echoing a debate in Charles Dickens’s
novel Hard Times) elaborates on the conflict between the pedagogically more
conventional headmistress and herself in this way:

To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.
To Miss MacKay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is
not what I call education, I call it intrusion . . . Miss MacKay’s method is
to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of
knowledge. (36)

Brodie later adds, “my methods cannot be condemned unless they can be
proved to be in any part improper or subversive” (39). Eventually, of course,
these very accusations are proved.

The narrator looks ironically at the school’s absurd fear of “dangerous Miss
Brodie” (7) (and the false allegation that Brodie likes “her wee drink” [124] )
as much as it does her equally absurd bid to make her girls into “the crème de
la crème” and “heroines” (30). In one example that cuts both ways, Brodie
dismisses one of the girls’ more difficult mathematical problems by explaining
that the solution to such a problem “would be quite useless to Sybil Thorndike,
Anna Pavlova and the late Helen of Troy” (87). This comment reveals both
Brodie’s shallow pedagogy and the school’s exaggerated fears about the threat
posed by it.

Miss Brodie’s pupils are instantly recognizable in the school by virtue of
knowing much about “seditious” (25) and academically irrelevant topics
(“Mussolini, the Italian Renaissance painters,” the “love lives of Charlotte
Brontë and Miss Brodie herself ” [2]). Brodie’s girls, all of whom are “held in
suspicion and not much liking,” may know of “the existence of Einstein and
the arguments of those who considered the Bible to be untrue,” but they are
woefully ignorant of “the date of the Battle of Flodden” and “the capital of


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

Finland” (2), the kind of practical knowledge that schoolgirls, according to
the faculty at large, should possess.40

David Lodge is right to conclude that “Miss Brodie is a Romantic by taste
and temperament, and exemplifies the defects of the uncontrolled romantic
sensibility.”41 Chief among these defects is her narcissistic and domineering
teaching style. At one point, for example, when she is supposed to be teaching
prescribed material, she instead lectures her students “about my last summer
holiday in Egypt,” about “the care of the skin” and “the hands,” and about
“the Frenchman I met in the train to Biarritz” (7). “Get out your history
books and prop them up in your hands,” she later tells the girls, in case one
of the other teachers happens by her classroom during the lesson (48). While
the charismatic instructor promises to offer her charges a “life-enhancing
freedom,”42 then, she is in fact shown to offer them lessons that are “absurd
in their egocentricity” and “inconsequentiality”43 – and which are just plain
authoritarian. The following exchange with her pupils makes this latter point.
When Brodie asks her students in class, “Who is the greatest Italian painter?”
and a student answers “Leonardo de Vinci,” Brodie then responds: “That
is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favorite” (7–8). Brodie also tells
her students the order of importance of “the great subjects of life”: “Art and
religion first; then philosophy; lastly science” (24–5), as if such a ranking is
beyond question simply because it is her preference.

Lodge argues that Spark’s novel is “about education and religion” and that
the assessment of its heroine is ultimately “an ethical and theological matter,
not merely an educational one.”44 Central to his argument is the notion that
Miss Brodie is ultimately understood through Sandy’s eyes and that “Sandy’s
developing understanding of her teacher’s character is formulated more and
more precisely, as she grows up, in religious terms, and is inextricably connected
with the growth of her own religious awareness, from the secular indifferentism
of her family to her conversion to Roman Catholicism.”45 The upshot, for
Lodge, is that Spark’s novel suggests that “all groups, communions and institutions
are false and more or less corrupting except the one that is founded
on the truths of Christian orthodoxy – and even that one is not particularly
attractive or virtuous.”46

The nature and degree of Miss Brodie’s Calvinism have been much debated
by readers. For Lodge, “Miss Brodie, though superficially in reaction against
the Calvinistic moral code, in fact lives by a personal, secularized version of
it, ‘electing herself to grace,’ but fatally ignoring the possibility that her sense
of justification may be erroneous.”47 According to Sandy, Brodie believes
that “she is Providence”; she “thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the
beginning and the end” (129). As Lodge articulates Sandy’s understanding,


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

has created her own secular religion of which she is simultaneously the God,
Redeemer and minister to the elect. She tries to create the girls in her own
image, and to direct their destinies according to her own divine plan. Like
Christ she does not know she is going to be betrayed, and never discovers for
certain the identity of her Judas.48

In the words of another reader, Brodie’s relationship with her set “replicates
the relationship of the Calvinist God to humanity.”49 Ironically, she discourages
her students’ religious impulses, as Church authority recognized by the girls
would threaten and undercut her own.

The fullest treatment of Miss Brodie’s religiosity comes midway through
the novel, when it is explained that she “always went to church on Sunday
mornings,” attending a number of Protestant denominations and sects, yet
that she always avoided Roman Catholic houses of worship.

Her disapproval of the Church of Rome was based on her assertions that it
was a church of superstition, and that only people who did not want to think
for themselves were Roman Catholics. In some ways, her attitude was a strange
one, because she was by temperament suited only to the Roman Catholic Church;
possibly it could have embraced, even while it disciplined, her soaring and
diving spirit, it might even have normalized her. But perhaps this was the
reason that she shunned it, lover of Italy though she was, bringing to her
support a rigid Edinburgh-born side of herself when the Catholic Church was
in question . . . (90)

While rejecting Catholicism, then, Brodie’s Calvinism is admixed with a liberal
cosmopolitanism: though she adheres “to the strict Church of Scotland habits
of her youth” and keeps “the Sabbath,” she also attends “evening classes in
comparative religion at the University” (36). That is to say, by comparison with
Miss Gaunt and others on the staff who say “good morning” with “predestination
in their smiles” (79), Brodie is a Calvinist of only moderate leanings.

Sandy, an unpleasant and duplicitous “schemer who becomes Miss Brodie’s
Judas,”50 is a more extreme figure, religiously-speaking. She deems Miss Brodie’s
sense of omniscience to be due to her “defective sense of self-criticism” (91)
and to her having “elected herself to grace” (116). Eventually believing that
the “Brodie set, not to mention Miss Brodie herself, was getting out of hand”
(108), Sandy betrays Brodie to MacKay, accusing her of teaching fascism.
What really offends Sandy, however, is not Brodie’s politics at all but her
heretical view of her mortal self, as understood by the Catholic Church, which
Sandy later joins.51 Just as Brodie eventually expresses disappointment that


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

Sandy has joined a convent – thinking it a “waste” and wondering whether
it was done simply to “annoy” her (one might argue that it was) (66) – so
Sandy rejects

Brodie as a false Christ-figure and converts to the real thing by becoming a
Catholic nun . . . The shift from Calvinist predestination to the centrality of free
will within Catholicism points to a blunt theological divide.52

On the other hand, as Bryan Cheyette observes, “while Catholicism and
Calvinism are contrasted” in the novel “as Sandy Stranger and Jean Brodie,
Rome and Edinburgh, they are not straightforward oppositions,” as “both
Brodie and Sandy have strong and competing elements of Calvinism and
Catholicism within them.”53 Moreover, it is not clear whether Brodie, in the
final analysis, was really playing at God or was merely attempting to counter
middle-class conventions; whether she was the manipulator/victimizer or the
manipulated/victim in the novel.54

Sandy’s aversion to Calvinism is revealed to have roots in her childhood.
When younger she recoiled instinctively from the Scottish Church, as incarnated
in the austere and frightening “outsides of old Edinburgh churches,”
which “were of such dark stone” and “were built so warningly with their
upraised fingers” (35). She would stand “outside St. Giles’ Cathedral or the
Tolbooth, and contemplate these emblems of a dark and terrible salvation
which made the fires of the damned seem very merry to the imagination by
contrast, and much preferable” (115). Eventually seeking out “the religion of
Calvin” to “reject” and to define herself against, Sandy views it as a theology
in which “God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a
nasty surprise when they died” (115), a theology in which it is “God’s pleasure
to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that
their surprise at the end might be the nastier” (115–16). Later, Sandy associates
this doctrine with “the excesses of Miss Brodie in her Prime” (116). For
example, when the class is walking through Edinburgh, “Sandy looked back at
her companions, and understood them as a body with Miss Brodie for the
head.” She perceived them all, “in a frightening little moment, in unified
compliance to the destiny of Miss Brodie, as if God had willed them to birth
for that purpose” (30). When Sandy later converts to Roman Catholicism
she becomes “Sister Helena of the Transfiguration” (33), and writes a psychological
treatise, “The transfiguration of the commonplace” (39), which gains
notoriety. This conversion does not seem to bring her peace, however:
whenever she is depicted in the convent she is imaged, like an animal in a
cage, clutching “the bars of the grille as if she wanted to escape from the dim


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

parlour beyond”: she “always leaned forward and peered, clutching the bars
with both hands” (35). Catholicism may be said to have saved Sandy from
Brodie’s grip, but it is nevertheless represented as a trap in its own right.

Related to the novel’s treatment of Brodie’s secularized form of Calvinism
is its treatment of her politics, which inclines toward fascism and the cult
of personality associated with it. As Anne L. Bower concludes of the 1930s
setting of Spark’s novel, “This historical period, in which European fascism
developed, is a perfect backdrop against which to display Jean Brodie’s eccentric
authoritarianism.”55 For one critic Brodie is a tyrant “whose egoistic romanticism
is the link between an obsessive Calvinist doctrine of the Elect, of
Justification, and the fascism of Mussolini and Franco.”56 Whether one views
Spark’s novel in theological or political terms, it is in any case a “persuasive
study of the closed mind” and the “elitist mentality.”57

It is clear that Brodie worships the likes of Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini,
and that like them she seeks to influence her subordinates through her
charisma. As Lodge puts it, “Aspiring to be a charismatic leader herself, she
naturally admires [those three] successful dictators . . . The combination of
dedication, elitism, bravura style and heady rhetoric characteristic of fascist
movements appeals to her.”58

Brodie’s elitism is unmistakable. It underlies her regard of the girls under
her tutelage as “the crème de la crème” (5, 11, 21), and as “heroines in the
making” (30), and her boast “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she
is mine for life” (6). Her worship of and identification with Mussolini is
equally unmistakable.59 Like Mussolini, Brodie plays to the emotions of her
followers; like him, she revels in social ordering for its own sake. Just as
Brodie lauds “Mussolini’s marching troops,” his dark fascisti who, in the
picture she shows her class, are “all marching in the straightest of files, with
their hands raised at the same angle” (31), so Brodie insists that her girls
“walk tidily” (29) and comport themselves in the most disciplined of manners.
And Brodie herself appears “a mighty woman with her dark Roman profile”

(6) and, “in her brown dress,” like “a gladiator with raised arm and eyes
flashing like a sword” (47). Moreover, she identifies with the imperial Caesar
(47) and, as the leader of a set, with a “Roman matron” and an “educational
reformer” (118). This identification of Brodie with Mussolini is not lost on
Sandy, who thinks: “the Brodie set was Miss Brodie’s fascisti, not to the naked
eye, marching along, but all knit together for her need and in another way,
marching along” (31).
Although Brodie is perhaps less interested in Mussolini’s politics than in
his iconography, symbolism, and fascist aesthetics, she nevertheless admires
his political agenda and assails the Fabian socialists and pacifists (114) with
whom she works at the school. In contrast to Mussolini, who “had put an end


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

to unemployment with his fascisti and there was no litter in the streets” (31),
the British leadership, Brodie hints, is ineffectual. On the girls’ walk with
Brodie through Edinburgh, for example, the girls see unemployed Scots, of
whom it is suggested by Brodie that they drink their dole money. Brodie
comments that such a problem has been “solved” in Italy (40) because of the
“splendid things” Mussolini’s fascisti are doing (45). Sandy notes the “inconsistency”
between Miss Brodie’s disdain for the Girl Guides (and for the “team
spirit,” which cuts across “individualism, love and personal loyalties” [82] )
and her admiration for Mussolini’s fascisti.60

Brodie’s affinity with the fascist dictators of Europe only grows over the
course of the 1930s. By the middle of the decade Brodie has graduated from
making summer trips to Italy to making such trips “to Germany, where Hitler
was become Chancellor, a prophet-figure like Thomas Carlyle, and more
reliable than Mussolini; the German brown-shirts, she said, were exactly the
same as the Italian black, only more reliable” (103–4).61 Brodie’s remark to
Sandy after the war, “Hitler was rather naughty” (131), hints at the extent of
her unreconstructed attraction to fascist dictators, even after their genocidal
agendas have been revealed.

Unsurprisingly, it is Brodie’s “political ideas” (121) that allow MacKay finally
to be rid of her. Specifically, it is Brodie’s dealings with Joyce Emily Hammond

– a would-be member of the Brodie set whose anti-Franco brother (studying
at Oxford) has gone off to fight in the Spanish Civil War (126) – that leads to
her dismissal from the school. Joyce Emily mysteriously disappears from school,
and the girls only later learn her fate (126–7). Still later is it revealed that it
is because of Brodie that the student had gone to Spain – to fight for Franco
(133): “I made her see sense,” Brodie explains of Joyce Emily; “However, she
didn’t have the chance to fight at all, poor girl” (133). Brodie reveals her role
in Joyce Emily’s death to Sandy (though without appearing to feel any guilt),
and Sandy informs MacKay that Brodie is a “born Fascist” (134). Brodie is
fired for “teaching fascism,” and
Sandy, when she heard of it, thought of the marching troops of black shirts in
the pictures on the wall. By now she had entered the Catholic Church, in whose
ranks she had found quite a number of Fascists much less agreeable than Miss
Brodie. (134)

A final and unflattering connection between religious and political forms of
coercion is here suggested.

No reading of Spark’s novel is complete without a discussion of Brodie’s
love life (and sexual prime) and of the strange likeness the art master’s female


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

portraits bear to Miss Brodie, whoever his subject may be. Brodie finds herself
in a love triangle with the only two men on the staff: the bachelor Gordon
Lowther, the school’s singing master, a small man with “a long body and
short legs” (21), who falls for Brodie; and the married Teddy Lloyd, the senior
girls’ art master, who, despite having lost an arm in the Great War, is “by far
the better-shaped, the better-featured and the more sophisticated” (50) of the
two, for whom Brodie falls. The idea of the love triangle is reinforced when
we read that “the singing master was in love with Miss Brodie” and that “Miss
Brodie was in love with the art master” (64). Indeed, both male teachers
“were already a little in love with Miss Brodie, for they found in her the only
sex-bestirred object in their daily environment, and although they did not
realize it, both were already beginning to act as rivals for her attention” (50).
True to Brodie’s romantic bent, artistic and sexual energies become metaphors
for each other, and both teacher-artists come to have a sexual meaning
for Brodie, and for her girls. (For example, Rose believes that Teddy Lloyd
steals a kiss from Brodie because “Mr. Lloyd is an artist and Miss Brodie is
artistic too” [54].) This is suggested when Mr Lowther supplies Miss Brodie
with apples from his orchard (49), which she offers to her students, an Edenic
symbol of her passing on of carnal knowledge to her girls; and when Mr Lloyd
in class uses his phallic pointer “all round the draped private parts of one of
Botticelli’s female subjects” and “along the lines of their bottoms” (51), in
order to explicate the painting in question.

One of the reasons that Brodie’s love life seems enigmatic is that the facts
surrounding it remain vague for much of the novel. For example, Monica
claims to see “Mr. Lloyd in the act of kissing Miss Brodie” in the school art
room (52), yet the novel does not set the record straight for some time as to
whether this stolen kiss actually has occurred. Because “The question of whether
Miss Brodie was actually capable of being kissed and of kissing occupied
the Brodie set till Christmas” (55), the girls “kept an eye on Miss Brodie’s
stomach to see if it showed signs of swelling” (56). Later, Brodie admits to the
stolen kiss (58), and calls the love between the two a “great love” despite the
fact that they “never became lovers”: “I renounced him . . . He was a married
man. I renounced the great love of my prime. We have everything in common,
the artistic nature” (58).62 As if to help her renounce her love of Teddy
Lloyd, Brodie enters “into a love affair, it was the only cure,” with Gordon
Lowther: “he was a bachelor and it was more becoming” (62). She offers
Lowther her “bed-fellowship and her catering” (111), yet refuses his marriage
proposal. Lowther, in other words, proves to be “useful” (120) to Brodie as
she attempts to ward off her amorous feelings for Lloyd.

Because Brodie must renounce the already-married art master, she hatches
a plot to interest him in Rose, and thereby have an affair with him by proxy,


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

at least according to Sandy: “Sandy looked at [Brodie], and perceived that the
woman was obsessed by the need for Rose to sleep with the man she herself was
in love with” (128). Not only is Brodie “in a state of high excitement by very
contact with these girls [in her set] who had lately breathed Lloyd air” (97),
but she at one point, in Lloyd’s presence, puts “her arm round Rose’s shoulder,”
as if “she and Rose were one,” in a bid to convince Lloyd to ask Rose to model
for a portrait (74). Because she will not risk an affair with the art master herself,
Brodie imagines Rose to be enacting the role of “a great lover, magnificently
elevated above the ordinary run of lovers, above the moral laws, Venus
incarnate, something set apart” (38). According to Sandy, Brodie even stops
“sleeping with Gordon Lowther” because “her sexual feelings were satisfied
by proxy; and Rose was predestined to be the lover of Teddy Lloyd” (120).

Such displaced, projected affection works in many directions at once in
Spark’s novel: just as Brodie uses Rose as her sexual proxy, so the girls use
Brodie as theirs; just as Brodie uses Lowther in place of Lloyd, so Lloyd uses
the Brodie set in lieu of their teacher, his “muse” (129). This is suggested in
the following double-entendre spoken by Lloyd at one point to the visiting girls:
“one day ...I would like to do all you Brodie girls, one by one and then all
together . . . It would be nice to do you all together” (108). How else explain
the mystery of Lloyd’s portraits of the girls, all of which resemble Miss Brodie
herself: “Teddy Lloyd’s passion for Jean Brodie was greatly in evidence in all
the portraits he did of the various members of the Brodie set” (118). Yet the
nature of the resemblance itself is difficult to articulate, adding another enigmatic
dimension to the situation. As Sandy thinks of Lloyd’s portrait of Rose:

Where was the resemblance to Miss Brodie? It was the profile perhaps; it was
the forehead, perhaps; it was the type of stare from Rose’s blue eyes, perhaps,
which was like the dominating stare from Miss Brodie’s brown. The portrait
was very like Miss Brodie. (105)

Later she thinks:

The picture was like Miss Brodie, and this was the main thing about it and the
main mystery. Rose had a large-boned pale face. Miss Brodie’s bones were
small, although her eyes, nose and mouth were large. It was difficult to see how
Teddy Lloyd had imposed the dark and Roman face of Miss Brodie on that of
pale Rose, but he had done so. (107)

However, Brodie proves not to have the influence over the situation between
Lloyd and Rose that she believes she has: although “It was plain that Miss


Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

Brodie wanted Rose with her instinct to start preparing to be Teddy Lloyd’s
lover, and Sandy with her insight to act as informant on the affair” (116), it is
nevertheless “Sandy who slept with Teddy Lloyd and Rose who carried back
the information” (117).63

It remains to treat the novel’s enigmatic title. Although Brodie refers
frequently to her “prime” (as in: “my educational policy” reached its “perfection
in my prime” [135]; and “in this last year with me you [girls] will receive
the fruits of my prime” [48]), it remains a vague, ambiguous, perhaps even
misleading word in this usage, as it can be “both a noun and an adjective.”64
Brodie herself complains about the confusion of the word “social,” an adjective,
which is used as a noun (65), just as we might be confused by the different
possible usages of “prime.” Although “One’s prime is the moment one was
born for” (8), and also has connotations of spring and sexual fecundity (as in
Botticelli’s Primavera, a reproduction of which Brodie shows her girls) the
“launching of Miss Brodie’s prime” (45) seems to occur when the teacher is
already in her forties and, as Lodge surmises, may even be menopausal.65 That
is to say, Brodie’s “prime” is used ironically: she is associated not with spring
but with autumn,66 not with beginnings but with endings, not with her students’
menarche but with her own menopause. Brodie insists that her prime has
brought her “instinct and insight, both” (114), yet she imagines Rose will
be Lloyd’s lover and Sandy the informer when the reverse occurs (117); she
thinks she will never “be betrayed” (39), yet she is; she insists that Rose is
deservedly famous for sex when in fact Rose “did not really talk about sex, far
less indulge in it. She did everything by instinct, she even listened to Miss
Brodie as if she agreed with every word” (117).

For all of Spark’s proliferating enigmas, then, none is greater than the
enigma of Brodie’s influence over her “set,” which is paradoxically profound
yet tenuous. Bryan Cheyette puts this paradox well: “The Prime of Miss Jean
Brodie is a deliberately uncertain rendition of a figure who is defined par
excellence by her astonishing, if misplaced, certainties.”67 Brodie may be a
catalyst for “magical transfigurations” (118) of a kind she herself cannot
foresee, yet, just when she thinks her influence most abiding, she is revealed
to have an impact that is only skin deep. While on the one hand it is noted
that Rose “shook off Miss Brodie’s influence as a dog shakes pond-water from
its coat” (127), on the other we read that, even after betraying Brodie and
rejecting her teaching, Sandy admits that one of the main influences of her
school days was “a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime” (137). These last, the
novel’s final, words point to an enigma that Spark’s deceptively simple and
slight work lets stand rather than resolves.


Chapter 6

Jean Rhys’s
Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an
old text from a new critical direction – is for women more than a chapter in
cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions
in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves . . . We need to
know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known
it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.

Adrienne Rich, “When we dead awaken: writing as re-vision”1

She seemed such a poor ghost, I thought I’d like to write her life.
Jean Rhys, on Charlotte Brontë’s Bertha Mason2

There is always the other side, always.
Antoinette, in Wide Sargasso Sea3


It is no exaggeration to call Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea a literary masterpiece,
one of the great novels of the last half of the twentieth century. Wide Sargasso
Sea is also the most important twentieth-century novel to reimagine an earlier
“classic” novel; Rhys’s work reimagines Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane
Eyre, viewing its events and meanings not through the prism of Jane’s English
Victorian consciousness, but through that, largely, of the anti-heroine, Bertha
Mason, the “madwoman in the attic,” a Creole from the West Indies who
becomes the first Mrs Rochester. As Ellen G. Friedman puts it, “In an unprecedented
and aggressive revisionary move, Rhys enters and reimagines Brontë’s


Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

text – glossing and subverting, reversing and transforming it – writing it into
her own time and into her own frame of reference.”4 In other words, having
once read Wide Sargasso Sea we simply cannot read Jane Eyre in the same way
again; the Victorian novel is now – the perspective and mode of its telling
having been challenged – a different book. In Friedman’s view Rhys, with her
novel, “ruptures” Brontë’s text,

making holes and blank spaces through which a reader is compelled to look
with a self-consciously twentieth-century vision that will necessarily transform
what it sees. In a cunning and spectacular extension and reversal of intertextual
relations, Rhys transverses Brontë’s text with an otherness that postdates it,
forcing Brontë’s narrative to be measured by a set of assumptions outside those
of the master quest narrative in complicity with which Brontë wrote her novel.5

Caroline Rody puts this new situation baldly: “We can no longer think of our
cherished heroine Jane Eyre [or the ‘mad’ Bertha Mason] in the same way”
again.6 Jane must, in Friedman’s formulation, be “reconsidered, reevaluated.”7

While not completed until 1966, Rhys’s work, which the author began
twenty-one years earlier, in many ways harkens back to the heyday of the high
modernist novel, with its allusive, elliptical prose, its multiple (and often
fragmentary) narrative perspectives, its obsessive attention to literary form,
and its radically “interior” (psychological) orientation.8 Although Wide Sargasso
Sea is rooted in literary modernism and, as already noted, looks further back
in time, revising Brontë’s Victorian romance, Rhys’s “haunting and hallucinatory
prose poem of a novel”9 also looks forward, anticipating various feminist,
postcolonial, and postmodern preoccupations of the late twentieth century.
As V. S. Naipaul, another novelist who probes interstitial, postcolonial identity,
attests, “Jean Rhys thirty to forty years ago identified many of the themes
that engage us today.”10 Wide Sargasso Sea also challenged numerous British
representations of the West Indies, including Brontë’s, and opened “a space
for Caribbean writers, especially Caribbean women writers, to speak in their
own voice.”11


Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams was born in Roseau, Dominica, in 1890, the
daughter of a Welsh doctor father (who emigrated from Wales in 1881) and a
Dominican Creole mother of Scottish ancestry (I use “Creole” in the way in


Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

which Rhys understood the term, to designate a person of Anglo-European
descent who is born in the colonies).12 At 16, after her education in a convent
school in Dominica, she moved to England to attend the Perse School for
Girls in Cambridge, which was followed by a stint, in 1909, in London’s
Academy of Dramatic Art. These experiences, given her interstitial identity,
proved to be a strain on her late adolescence; while her British ethnicity made
life in Dominica difficult, her West Indian accent and dialect made it difficult
for her to integrate socially into the more homogeneous English schoolgirl
scene. In the words of one critic, “As a white descendant of British colonists
and slaveholders, she was both resented by the black population in Dominica
and despised in Great Britain for her odd accent and her lack of wealth,
family, or social position.”13

Her father having died suddenly in 1910, she supported herself as a chorus
girl, film-extra, and, later, model. It is at this point that the attractive young
woman became involved with the first in a series of men – most of whom
were older and far more affluent than she – and adopted a bohemian life-style
that included hard drinking. After her affair as mistress to a British aristocrat
twice her age came to an end, she married, in 1919, a Dutch journalist and
poet, moving with him to Paris, Vienna, and, finally, Budapest. In 1924 her
husband was incarcerated for trafficking in stolen art; Rhys then found herself
on her own in Paris, where she turned to writing in an attempt to support

An event of considerable importance to her future career then occurred:
she met and became the lover of novelist Ford Madox Ford, who encouraged
her literary ambitions and published her short fiction in his Transatlantic
Review, where he was also publishing work by such literary modernists as
Joyce, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Djuna Barnes. It is at this point too
that she changed her name, at Ford’s suggestion, to Jean Rhys. Rhys’s affair
with Ford lasted until 1927, at which time she published her first book, a
series of stories, and returned to London. The Left Bank: Sketches and Studies
of Present-Day Bohemian Paris (with a Preface by Ford) featured female
characters in situations similar to Rhys’s own who endured difficult relationships
with husbands or lovers. Four novels followed over the next decade:
Postures (1928; published in the US in 1929 as Quartet), After Leaving Mr
MacKenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight
(1939). These novels were followed by a hiatus during which her works went
out of print and were largely forgotten. During this period Rhys divorced her
Dutch husband and married her British literary agent. A third marriage, in
1947, coincided with increased alcohol-dependency and domestic acrimony.
In 1948 Rhys was arrested for assaulting neighbors and the police, for
which she was incarcerated in Holloway prison hospital in order to undergo


Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

psychological evaluation, an experience that doubtless informs her understanding
of her heroine’s experience in her final novel.

Rhys worked haltingly on Wide Sargasso Sea between 1945 and 1966, when
it was at last completed. Upon its publication the novel was immediately
hailed as a masterpiece, garnering for its author a W. H. Smith Award for
Writers and a Heinemann Award. In this same year Rhys was made a Fellow
of the Royal Society of Literature. In 1967 her novels of the 1930s began to
be reissued, bringing her earlier work to the attention of a new generation of
readers. Rhys went on to publish two collections of stories (in 1968 and 1976)
and, in 1978, was made a Commander of the British Empire. She died in
1979, after which her unfinished autobiographical memoir, Smile Please, was
published. A film version of Wide Sargasso Sea was released in 1993. Not quite
British and not precisely Caribbean, poised between the era of high literary
modernism and the rise of postmodern fiction, Rhys’s identity and career are
best understood as interstitial. As Mary Lou Emery writes, Rhys possessed
“plural and often conflicting outsider identities as West Indian writer, European
modernist, and woman writer at the closing of the era of empire.”14

Many readers of Wide Sargasso Sea may find it difficult to appreciate given
their unfamiliarity with the history of the West Indies, and particularly that
of Dominica and Jamaica, two islands on which the vast majority of Wide
Sargasso Sea is set. While a detailed treatment of this history is outside the
scope of this study, some historical context will be useful. Wide Sargasso Sea is
set between 1834 and 1845, three decades later than the setting of Jane Eyre
(the action of Brontë’s novel takes place in 1798–1808). Rhys altered Brontë’s
time-frame in order to have the events of her story correspond to the years of
the Emancipation Act of 1833, which outlawed slavery in Great Britain and in
its colonies. Joyce Carol Oates describes the years just following this Act, the
time of Rhys’s novel, as ones in which white landowners and black former
slaves “lived in a state of undeclared war,” with the former “forced to employ”
the latter “as servants and utterly helpless without them.”15

The island nations of Dominica and Jamaica share a similar (though
decidedly not identical) history. Dominica, located in the Windward Islands
and with its capital in Roseau, is populated by people of Carib, African, and
French descent. Named by Christopher Columbus after the day, a Sunday in
1493, on which he first spied the island from his ship, Dominica, like many
Caribbean islands, was fought over by France and Britain (in order to secure
control of its natural resources, sugarcane, cocoa, and coffee), during much of
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The British gained decisive control
of the island in the early 1800s, purchasing Dominica from France for 12,000
pounds sterling. It is only comparatively recently that Dominica became its
own republic, gaining independence from Britain in 1978.


Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

Jamaica, a much larger island to the west of Dominica, experienced its first
European settlement when the Spanish took control in 1510 (Columbus landed
there in 1494) and introduced sugarcane and slaves (African slaves arrived by
the boat-load between the middle of the 1600s and 1838). The Spanish controlled
Jamaica until 1655, after which the British annexed the island, establishing
it as a colony in 1670 (its capital, Kingston, was called Spanish Town at
the time of Wide Sargasso Sea). Although moving toward autonomy from
1938 onwards, Jamaica did not achieve formal independence until 1962
(significantly, during the time in which Rhys was drafting her novel). It is
important to keep in mind that while Britain ended its slave trade in 1807,
slavery itself was not abolished until the Emancipation Act of the mid-1830s;
and that after this Act working conditions for former slaves, under the new
“apprenticeship” system, were little improved from the days of slavery itself.
This latter point is made clear in Rhys’s novel.


Not surprisingly, critics have debated how best to understand the relationship
between Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, the latter of which has often been
called a “prequel” novel to its Victorian progenitor in that, as Joyce Carol
Oates puts it, “Bertha Rochester’s pathetic death will make Jane Eyre’s life
possible.”16 To be sure, Rhys’s working title for the novel, “The First Mrs
Rochester,” invites questions as to the extent to which her novel stands on its
own. At the forefront of one camp in this debate is Walter Allen who, in a
1967 review, questions whether Rhys’s novel is parasitically dependent on
Brontë’s for its meaning and worth, and concludes that Rhys’s novel does not
“exist in its own right” but needs Brontë’s to “complement it, to supply its full
meaning.”17 The other side of the debate is led by Francis Wyndham who, in
a 1966 Preface to the novel, argues that Rhys’s work “is in no sense a pastiche
of Charlotte Brontë and exists in its own right, quite independent of Jane
Eyre,” however much it takes its “initial inspiration” from Brontë’s novel.18
This debate continues into our own time, as evidenced by Thomas F. Staley’s
contention that Wide Sargasso Sea “is an independent creation of great
subtlety and skill,”19 and Sandra Drake’s recent assertion that Rhys’s “novel
stands on its own” and “could have been written without the relationship of
intertextual referentiality of Jane Eyre.”20

Even those critics who agree that Wide Sargasso Sea stands on its own
disagree about the precise nature of this “intertextual referentiality.” Rhys’s
novel has been called everything from a “recentering” of Brontë’s text,21 to a


Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

daughter text to Brontë’s “mother text” (“Rhys does not kill Brontë’s mother
text in an oedipal rivalry but instead treats it with gratitude and ambivalence”),
22 to a text that is not only antithetical to Jane Eyre but is its revisionist
“counter-text”:23 “[I]t is against Jane Eyre that Rhys writes.”24 I believe that
Judith Kegan Gardiner strikes the right balance when she concludes that Wide
Sargasso Sea “can stand on its own as a modernist text, self-enclosed and
consistent in its patterns of imagery,” with its “psychologically-convincing
portrait of a woman misunderstood, rejected, persecuted,” yet that, in our
experience of the novel, it does not. Instead, Gardiner holds, Wide Sargasso
Sea is experienced as a “rereading” of Jane Eyre, “perhaps the most influential
female novel of development,” and a re-evaluation of that work’s Victorian

Rhys herself, in a 1958 letter, explained that “It might be possible to
unhitch the whole thing from Charlotte Brontë’s novel, but I don’t want to do
that. It is that particular mad Creole I want to write about, not any of the
other mad Creoles.”26 While Rhys waxed enthusiastic about the Brontë sisters,
in particular admiring their literary “genius,”27 she also confessed to feeling
“vexed” at Charlotte’s depiction of Bertha Mason, “the ‘paper tiger’ lunatic”
who “shrieks, howls, laughs horribly, attacks all and sundry – off stage.” In
Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys counters, she will be placed “right on stage.”28 Rhys’s
goal was no less than to invest in Brontë’s Creole, with whom she clearly
identifies, a compelling past; to flesh out “the reason why Mr Rochester treats
her so abominably and feels justified, the reason why he thinks she is mad and
why of course she goes mad, even the reason why she tries to set everything
on fire, and eventually succeeds.”29

Wide Sargasso Sea is comprised of three parts, each of which is subdivided
into short sections. Part I is set near Spanish Town, Jamaica, at the Coulibri
estate, which has gone to seed after the abolition of slavery and the collapse of
the plantation system. This Part is narrated entirely by the young, isolated,
increasingly paranoid Antoinette, who feels “abandoned, lied about, helpless”
(12), and who possesses an interstitial identity as a “white nigger” (a Creole of
a formerly high class that has become déclassé [39]). Antoinette’s philandering
father, Cosway, who is partly to blame for the condition of Coulibri, is
now dead. Antoinette’s neglectful mother, Annette (“My mother never asked
me where I had been or what I had done,” Antoinette revealingly observes
[14]), is in the process of arranging a second marriage, to the English gentleman,
Mason, who hopes to use his wealth to restore the crumbling plantation
and who is cast in the role of rescuer of the family “from poverty and misery”
(20). Annette must also cope with the loss of her apparently retarded son,
Pierre, who dies as a result of an arson attack on Coulibri by former slaves,
who burn the estate to the ground. Her mother being in no condition to care


Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

for her, Antoinette is sent to the convent in Spanish Town, for a period of
eighteen months, during which time her mother dies. She turns, thereafter, to
Christophine, her mother’s Martinique-born servant, for maternal comfort.

Part II of the novel is set at Granbois, Dominica. It is narrated principally
by an unnamed Englishman, the Rochester figure who marries Antoinette,
during the course of their honeymoon. One section in the middle of Part II is
narrated by Antoinette; the confusion over this abrupt change of perspective
is surely intentional, as it highlights certain similarities of thinking and situation
between Antoinette and her husband. Like Antoinette’s stepfather, Mason,
Antoinette’s husband marries, among other reasons, to gain control of his
wife’s assets, which include a dowry of thirty thousand pounds (41). British
law at this time dictated that when two people married, the wife’s property
became the husband’s absolutely. This situation did not change until the
passing of the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1870. The Rochester figure’s
feeling of unease (he finds the West Indies threateningly foreign) is only
intensified by a letter he receives from a disgruntled Daniel Cosway, a mulatto
who claims to be a half-brother of Antoinette’s and who alleges that Rochester
has been duped into marrying a woman who is both a lunatic and a nymphomaniac.
His paranoia increasing and his desire for revenge kindled, the
Rochester figure proceeds to sleep with the “half-caste servant” girl (38) Amélie,
in an act that recalls Cosway’s alleged sexual exploitation of his mixed-race
female servants. The power-struggle between Antoinette and her husband
culminates in his banishing of Christophine, her most loyal ally, who is thought
to practice obeah (a form of black magic), from the property. Antoinette’s
mental condition continues to worsen over the course of Part II, toward the
end of which she even tells her husband that she wishes merely to remain “in
the dark . . . where I belong” (81).

Part III, by far the shortest of the novel’s three Parts, is narrated mainly by
Antoinette, who is now a prisoner both in the attic of the Rochester figure’s
English estate (the Thornfield Hall of Jane Eyre fame) and in her own mind
(Grace Poole, her attendant, describes her as “that girl who lives in her own
darkness” [106]). Her husband justifies locking Antoinette away by her lunacy
and abnormal sexual appetite. But unlike Brontë’s text, in which Bertha
Mason’s lunacy is dismissed as congenital and due to her West Indian ethnicity,
Rhys’s text explores, explains, and justifies Antoinette’s “madness.” Antoinette’s
narrative in Part III follows a brief introductory section that is narrated by the
Rochester figure’s hired female servant, Grace Poole. The reference to her,
as well as to the events of Antoinette’s end (she anticipates setting fire to
her husband’s estate and leaping from its roof, in an echo of the demise of
Coulibri), firmly ties Rhys’s novel to Brontë’s. Although Antoinette presumably
suffers physical death just after the close of her narrative, her true life, she


Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

realizes, has ended long before: “There are always two deaths,” she tells her
husband in an observation that is germane both to her and to her mother’s
situation, “the real one and the one people know about” (77).

Wide Sargasso Sea is best read as a modernist, feminist, postcolonial revision
of Jane Eyre’s Victorian, patriarchal, colonialist assumptions. The principal
effect of this revision is to humanize Antoinette, to rescue her from Brontë’s
effaced character. While some critics claim that Wide Sargasso Sea is best
understood as a postmodern novel,30 I believe that it is more accurately viewed
as a latter-day work of literary modernism.31 As Sylvie Maurel concludes,
“Jean Rhys’s writing shares some of the characteristics of modernist prose,”
especially “where the emphasis on subjectivity and the attention paid to form
are concerned.”32

This literary modernist “emphasis on subjectivity” is manifested in Rhys’s
novel, in contrast to Brontë’s, in its myriad credible (and competing) subjectivities.
For example, Jane Eyre’s single, privileged truth, as represented in
the Brontë novel, is challenged and relativized in the Rhys novel not only by
Antoinette’s competing truth but by the plurality of competing perspectives
represented therein (Antoinette’s versus Rochester’s, Daniel Cosway’s versus
Christophine’s, Grace Poole’s versus Antoinette’s, and so on). Jane Eyre’s
“truths” in the Brontë text are further relativized in the Rhys one in that
formerly marginalized characters in the earlier novel take center stage in the
later one, and vice versa (compare, for example, the respective treatments of
Bertha/Antoinette and Jane Eyre). The multiple points of view that comprise
Wide Sargasso Sea even become an explicit theme in the novel, such as when
Rhys has Antoinette observe that “There is always the other side, always” (77).

Brontë’s focused narrative trajectory, in which major questions are answered
and major problems are resolved, gives way in Rhys’s novel to a “mosaic of
narratives”33 and to the privileging of alterity; no psychologically satisfying
“narrative closure” is granted us in the latter work. Put differently, while “in
Jane Eyre’s imagination all things of significance are related to one another in
a universe in which God means well, in Antoinette’s experience nothing
is predictably related,”34 nor can it be meaningfully controlled. In Brontë’s
Victorian romance the “autonomous and self-defined” heroine frequently
determines her own course, while in Rhys’s modernist narrative things merely
“happen to” Antoinette; unlike “Jane Eyre, who both knows her personal
history and what she should think about it, Antoinette barely ‘knows’ her
story at all.”35

Rhys’s modernist pessimism undercuts Brontë’s Victorian optimism about
the possibility of achieving a comprehensive and objective view of one’s situation;
the characters in Wide Sargasso Sea are trapped within their own, sometimes
paranoid, subjectivities to an extent that would have been unthinkable


Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

to Brontë. Although Jane Eyre is a psychological novel, it does not plumb the
depths and shallows of character psychology to the degree that Rhys’s novel
does. In “Modern fiction” Virginia Woolf defends Joyce and other authors of
his ilk – and this would certainly include Rhys – for attempting in their work
“to come closer to life, and to preserve more sincerely and exactly what interests
and moves them,” by recording “the atoms as they fall upon the mind in
the order in which they fall,” and by tracing “the pattern, however connected
and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the
consciousness.”36 In a similar spirit of psychological realism Rhys comments
of Antoinette’s story, it has “to be implied, never told straight.”37

If Wide Sargasso Sea’s modernist orientation serves as a riposte to Jane
Eyre’s Victorian one, the later novel’s postcolonial and feminist orientations
challenge the former novel’s colonialist and (comparatively) patriarchal ones.
“Charlotte [Brontë] had a ‘thing’ about the West Indies being” a “rather
sinister [place],” Rhys commented, and she only provided “one side,” the
“English side,” of “the poor Creole lunatic[’s]” story.38 The colonial prejudice
that she attributes to the author of Jane Eyre is countered by her interrogation
of the Rochester figure, whose prejudice in this regard is blatant. Moreover,
related to Rochester’s view of the West Indies, Wide Sargasso Sea suggests, is
his understanding and treatment of women. That is to say, both women (and
particularly Antoinette) and the Caribbean landscape function for Rochester
as enticing yet threatening Others: foreign forces to be conquered and subjugated,
and from which considerable profit is to be derived.

Time and again Wide Sargasso Sea links Antoinette and the West Indies
in the mind of the Rochester figure. As M. Keith Booker and Dubravka
Juraga observe, “Rochester feels for Antoinette a mixture of fascination and
repulsion that can be seen as representative of the European attitude toward
the non-European world as a whole.”39 More specifically, “Rochester desires
to master and dominate Antoinette, while at the same time fearing that she
may be the bearer of mysterious powers. His feelings for her are thus not
only representative of patriarchal attitudes toward women, but of European
attitudes toward the colonial world.”40

The Rochester figure’s “reading” of the West Indian landscape reveals
more about what he expects to see there (and about English fears and desires
pertaining to its colonies) than about what is “actually” there. His views of the
island on which he and Antoinette sojourn in Part II derive less from his
experience of it than from then-current English myths and stereotypes about
the Caribbean. What he says of Antoinette’s preconception of England is
ironically and tragically true of his own preconception of the West Indies:
“Her mind was already made up [about the nature of England]. Some romantic
novel, a stray remark never forgotten, a sketch, a picture, a song . . . and her


Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

ideas were fixed” (56). Specifically, he imbues the West Indian landscape,
which he figures in sexual terms and to which he confers a malign agency,
with a threatening intent that is congruent with his own rapacious and
imperialistic designs upon his wife (and upon her assets). In this connection,

O. Mannoni’s provocative observation that colonizers “project upon the
colonial peoples the obscurities of their own unconscious – obscurities they
would rather not penetrate”41 is also pertinent to the Rochester figure’s reaction
to the colonial landscape.42
The Rochester figure’s view of the Caribbean landscape matches his view
of Antoinette: each is a sensual, “intoxicating” (43) (the “scent of the river
flowers” leads him to feel “giddy” [49]), superficially inviting entity that proves,
ultimately, to be a dangerous (55) and existentially threatening one. (“[I]t
seemed to me that everything round me was hostile,” he thinks [90]; “I feel very
much a stranger here . . . I feel that this place is my enemy” [78]). The man’s
initial enthusiasm for the West Indies gives way to “confused impressions” of
the place (45) (“the feeling of security had left me” [44]) and to the disturbing
feeling of being overwhelmed: “Everything is too much . . . Too much blue,
too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too
high, the hills too near. And the woman [his wife] is a stranger. Her pleading
expression annoys me. I have not bought her, she has bought me, or so she
thinks” (41). His description of a “bathing pool” he discovers on the island
could equally well serve as his description of his wife: “It was a beautiful
place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret
loveliness. And it kept its secret” (51–2).

Although the Rochester figure admits to feeling “lost and afraid among
these enemy trees, so certain of danger” (62), he nevertheless insists that the
enigma of the West Indies (and of his wife) is one in need of being solved:
“I did not love her [he thinks of Antoinette]. I was thirsty for her, but that is
not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a
stranger who did not think or feel as I did” (55). When he fails to dispel the
mystery he resorts to hating that which he cannot understand: “I was tired of
these people . . . And I hated the place. I hated the mountains and the hills,
the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its
beauty and its magic and the secret which I would never know . . . Above all
I hated her [Antoinette]” (103).43

Antoinette’s parallel misunderstanding of England (“their world,” she thinks
in Part III, when she is a prisoner in her husband’s English estate, “is, as I
always knew, made of cardboard” [107]) points to a situation shared by her
and her husband: both have become paranoid; both are duped and pimped
by family members; both inhabit “hostile” environments in which they imagine
themselves to be a laughingstock. This shared psychological condition,


Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

moreover, makes for dramatic irony: readers can appreciate the common
ground between the two (despite the great difference of power between them);
Antoinette and her husband, tragically, cannot. This cultural myopia leads
each to see his or her place of origin as “real” and the other’s place as a “dream”
or, more exactly, a nightmare. Antoinette views England as “quite unreal and
like a dream” (61) and “London” as “like a cold dark dream” (47); the Rochester
figure views Antoinette’s “beautiful island” in the same way, as “quite unreal
and like a dream” (48). If he finds the West Indies too sensual – too colorful,
too richly scented, too sultry – she finds the little corner of England in which
she finds herself too “cold and dark” (108), a two-dimensional, black and
white prison.44

The attic of Thornfield Hall, in which Antoinette is cared for yet imprisoned,
is only the final station on her journey from childhood in the West Indies
to adulthood in England. Indeed, there are numerous walled sites within
which, as a female Creole of precarious class standing, she experiences the
paradoxical condition of what might be called safety-in-imprisonment. And
the fleshing out of this paradoxical condition constitutes the most incisive
feminist critique staged by the novel. I use the term “paradoxical” to describe
a situation in which Antoinette must choose either the “safety” of patriarchal
confinement or the freedom from such confinement. Yet the freedom is
coupled with the abject vulnerability that accompanies such “independence”
for females. In other words, Antoinette can live within the cloistered walls
of a “patriarchal” household (whether Coulibri estate, the Catholic Church
convent at Spanish Town, or the attic of Thornfield Hall) and be “safe” and
cared for yet deprived of her freedom and sense of self-determination; or
she can reject such patronage and gain her freedom but risk violation and
death at the hands of the harsh patriarchal world without – a world, as Grace
Poole puts it late in the novel, that “can be a black and cruel world to a
woman” (106). Either way, Antoinette must give up something of significance:
self-determination or security. Molly Hite, in a provocative feminist analysis
of Rhys’s work, points to the necessity of this choice on the part of Antoinette
(and her mother Annette): “The defining characteristic of the Rhys woman
is her financial dependency on a man” or on men.45 It is Antoinette’s (and
Annette’s) financial dependence on men (fathers and husbands), coupled with
the laws and attitudes that support such a state of affairs, that is a prime target
of Wide Sargasso Sea.

Coulibri, the house of Antoinette’s father, is the protagonist’s first site of
“safety-in-imprisonment.” Her childhood is characterized by a feeling of
vulnerability, leading her to wish for “a big Cuban dog to lie by my bed and
protect me” (22). The walls of Coulibri are seen as providing that security
she seeks: “When I was safely home,” Antoinette thinks at one point, having


Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

returned to her house after temporarily leaving it, “I sat close to the old wall
at the end of the garden” and “never wanted to move again” (13). Later,
she remembers thinking, “I am safe. There is the corner of the bedroom door
and the friendly furniture. There is the tree of life in the garden and the wall
green with moss. The barrier of the cliffs and the high mountains. And the
barrier of the sea. I am safe. I am safe from strangers” (16). The patriarchal
dimension of this security is also suggested when Antoinette notes that her
widowed mother’s new husband, Mason, however unlikable he may be, at
least will provide them with peace, contentment, and protection (21–2, my

The safety provided to Antoinette by Coulibri proves to be illusory,
however, as former slaves set the estate on fire (presaging Thornfield Hall’s
fiery end). Just before Coulibri burns to the ground, the family parrot, Coco,
who is now on fire and whose wings, revealingly, have been clipped by Mason
(25), plummets to its death from the flame-engulfed upper storey of the
house (“He made an effort to fly down but his clipped wings failed him and
he fell screeching. He was all on fire” [25] ). This moment not only looks
forward to Antoinette’s death-leap from the flame-engulfed roof of her husband’s
English estate; it is a comment on Antoinette’s status as a caged bird: a
pet who is provided for yet imprisoned, one who is fed but denied its natural
freedom of flight, a subject turned into an object. Given the connections Rhys
forges between kept women and caged birds, it should come as no surprise
that Antoinette’s mother and the family’s talking parrot – both of whom are
figuratively if not literally done in by the family patriarch – are heard to utter
the same words, “Qui est la? Qui est la?” (25, 28)

After the demise of Coulibri, Antoinette is sent, for a period of eighteen
months, to the convent in Spanish Town. This convent, Wide Sargasso Sea
suggests, provides another patriarchal safe-haven-cum-prison, a walled and
gated (30) refuge that provides safety yet which delimits movement, thought,
and self-determination (“This convent was my refuge, a place of sunshine
and of death” [33, my emphasis], Antoinette thinks, apparently glimpsing the
paradox of her situation). The trope of the convent as prison is established
when Antoinette is teased by some neighborhood youths because her Aunt
sent her “for the nuns to lock up” (29); and the sense of the convent as a
paralyzing force is established when Rhys, in a moment out of Joyce’s Dubliners,
renders a nun’s hands “crippled with rheumatism” (31). The paradox of
“security in imprisonment” and “vulnerability in freedom” is further glossed
when Antoinette stops praying in the convent and then reports feeling “bolder,
happier, more free. But not so safe” (34). The nuns, by contrast, are depicted
as imprisoned within the gates of the convent yet as being perfectly “safe.
How can they know what it can be like outside?” (35)


Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

The final site of Antoinette’s “safety in imprisonment” is, of course,
Thornfield Hall, another patriarchal refuge with “thick walls” (106). The caged
bird is now literally “locked away” (103), a prisoner in the “cold and dark”

(108) attic of her husband’s estate, and in the cold and dark of her own mind.
Antoinette’s keeper, Grace Poole, calls the house “big and safe, a shelter from
the world outside” (105–6); yet we also see it as a place in which Antoinette’s
husband can imprison her while wresting control of her assets and enjoying
the company of other women (in Brontë’s novel he courts Jane Eyre during
this period). Rhys at one point even depicts Antoinette’s husband as deliberately
planning his wife’s imprisonment and dehumanization; back in Dominica,
for example, he draws a picture of a large house, on the “third floor” of which
he places “a standing woman – a child’s scribble, a dot for a head, a larger one
for the body, a triangle for a skirt, slanting lines for arms and feet” (98).
Turning his wife into a stick figure of a human being, turning her from a
subject into an object, Antoinette’s husband figuratively murders his wife, just
as Annette’s two husbands figuratively murder her. Indeed, Antoinette seems
fated to repeat her mother’s experience of victimization at the hands of her
husband: in the financial and sexual exploitation, the identity-theft, the decline
into madness and alcoholism. “Tied to a lunatic for life,” the Rochester
figure remarks of his wife, “a drunken lying lunatic – gone her mother’s way”
(99). While the novel treats this contention ironically there is no irony in
Christophine’s comment to the Rochester figure shortly before: “You want
her [Antoinette’s] money but you don’t want her. It is in your mind to pretend
she is mad . . . She will be like her mother” (96).
Antoinette’s patriarchy-induced madness leaves her a mere “ghost” of
herself by the novel’s end (111). Another sign of Antoinette’s loss of identity
is that she becomes an object of another’s subjectivity – an individual
determined and defined by another – rather than remaining a subject capable
of self-definition and self-determination. This is suggested not only when
Rochester renders his wife a stick figure in his drawing but when he insists on
calling her “Bertha” (68, 81, 82, 88) (because “Antoinette” reminds him too
much of his wife’s mother’s name, Annette). It reveals his desire to control
her: he is the subject who names and defines; she is the object who is named
and defined. While Antoinette at first has the strength to resist her husband’s
attempt to rename her (“Bertha is not my name,” she tells him; “You are
trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name” [88]),
eventually, like her mother before her, she succumbs to the identity-theft that
accompanies the theft of her assets and her decline into madness. The Rochester
figure also revealingly likens his wife to a “marionette” and a “doll” (92, 93),
to an agency-less object of another’s subjectivity. “The doll had a doll’s voice,
a breathless but curiously indifferent voice” (102); a “doll’s smile . . . nailed


Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

to her face” (103) is how he thinks of Antoinette. The Rochester figure
here implicitly blames his wife for her disappointing lack of humanity – for
being a mere marionette – yet it is he, ironically, who is guilty of pulling
the strings.

Seen in this light, Antoinette’s final, suicidal act of burning to the ground
Thornfield Hall, the patriarchal prison-house, takes on a rebellious and
even a heroic cast. Indeed, the novel links this incendiary act undertaken
by an aggrieved female Creole to that undertaken against Coulibri earlier
by the aggrieved Jamaican ex-slaves. This connection is also hinted at in
one of Rhys’s letters: “I want it [Antoinette’s end] in a way triumphant!”46
Thus, the closing pages of Wide Sargasso Sea squarely turn the tables
on Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Rochester’s reference to Antoinette as an “Infamous
daughter of an infamous mother” (110), for example, now rings ironically
in the reader’s ears. While in the Brontë novel Rochester is victimized by
a crazy wife, in the Rhys novel he relegates his wife to madness. Whereas
Brontë depicts Bertha Mason’s congenital lunacy as the cause of her alienation
from her husband and world, Rhys, by contrast, allies “madness with
rebellion” and makes “it the effect, not the cause, of her female protagonist’s
outcast status.”47

In addition to being a modernist, feminist, and postcolonial novel, it is
fair to characterize Wide Sargasso Sea as a psychological novel, one that
emphasizes perception and the ways in which the imagination makes meaning
of that which the senses perceive. For all of its differences from Brontë’s
novel, Rhys’s novel shares with it (and with Romantic thought at large) a
paradoxical sense both of the imagination’s salutary power (as a place of
escape from a painful reality) and of its potential to pose a dangerous,
potentially even lethal, threat to the well-being of the self. (Mental illness
may be understood as a condition in which one lives one’s life entirely
within one’s own mind, in which case the imagination becomes an imprisoning
force rather than a catalyst for the self ’s liberation.) This prison-house
of the imagination is explored in Rhys’s novel in her major characters’ penchant
for paranoia – for discerning malign meaning, and finding nefarious
patterns, wherever they look.

Indeed, Rhys’s novel is among other things a keen study of paranoia:
Antoinette’s, her husband’s, and the reader’s. Antoinette’s paranoia is revealed
as early as her childhood dream of being in the forest with “Someone
who hated me” hiding in the foliage but “coming closer” (15). This dream is
succeeded by another one in which the threat becomes more concrete: it is a
man who is looking at her, “his face black with hatred” (36). Tellingly, the
threatening man of Antoinette’s dreams eventually blurs into her husband.
Even her mistake in thinking her “plait [of hair], tied with red ribbon,” is


Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

“a snake” (27), contributes to our sense that it is a specifically male (phallic)
menace that she rightly fears, and sees everywhere she looks.

Antoinette’s husband too suffers from comparable bouts of paranoia. Early
on in their marriage he fears that Antoinette’s relatives view him with “Curiosity?
Pity? Ridicule? But why should they pity me?” (46) He too frequently
feels “uneasy as though someone were watching me” (50) and fears poisonous
snakes (52). He too admits of his fears of persecution (“It seemed to me that
everything round me was hostile,” he reports in Dominica. “The trees were
threatening and the shadows of the trees . . . menaced me” [90]), much as
Antoinette admits to such a fear later in England. Finally, like Shakespeare’s
Othello, the Rochester figure becomes paranoid over the question of his wife’s
sexual constancy – with tragic consequences for her as for Desdemona.48

That we readers become figurative paranoids as we read Rhys’s text,
seeking to make connections and find patterns that may or may not exist,
only heightens our sense of sympathy for Antoinette and, at times, even for
her husband. Like the novel’s two major characters, readers too must read
between the lines in experiencing Rhys’s complex narrative world; we too
must interpret the landscape of the text, negotiate and make sense of the
different versions of reality, of “truth,” with which we are presented. Indeed,
readers are often tempted to pose the same question of whatever account is
being given that the Rochester figure poses: “I began to wonder how much all
of this was true, how much imagined, distorted” (80). In this sense Wide
Sargasso Sea provides a model of reading as a paranoid – as an interpretively
suspicious, cripplingly self-conscious – enterprise.

This brings us, at last, to Rhys’s choice of title for her psychological novel:
a title, of course, that associates the geographical Sargasso Sea with the interior
life of her characters (and readers). The choice of title is also intriguing in
that the sea itself figures mainly off-stage; it is the island nations of Jamaica,
Dominica, and Britain in which the action of the novel takes place. The sea,
which separates these islands from each other, functions as an interstice; Rhys’s
title thus becomes one more way of emphasizing the interstitial. Specifically,
the Sargasso Sea denotes an area of the North Atlantic, in the vicinity of the
Bermuda Islands, that is characterized by “weak currents, very little wind, and
a free-floating mass of seaweed called Sargassum.”49 Far more interesting –
and more relevant to Rhys’s novel – than the fact of this seaweed is the myth
that surrounds it. As one authority comments, “The dense fields of weeds
waiting to entrap a vessel never existed except in the imaginations of sailors,
and the gloomy hulks of vessels doomed to endless drifting in the clinging
weed are only the ghosts of things that never were.”50 For Rhys, then, the
Sargasso Sea is a metaphor for the abyss of the imagination, for paranoia,
for fears, founded and otherwise, that end in the loss of identity and in death


Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

– yet also for the rich and creative possibilities of the psyche. Ezra Pound’s
1916 poem “Portrait d’une femme” opens with the line, “Your mind and you
are our Sargasso Sea.”51 In the case of the present novel, the wide Sargasso Sea
of the title pertains to the heroine’s interstitial identity as well as to the mental
state not only of the heroine but of her husband, the other characters, and
their readers: it is an emblem of the modern psyche.

Chapter 7

J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for
the Barbarians (1980)
The barbarian is . . . not only at our gates; he is always within the walls of our
civilization, inside our minds and our hearts. In times of storm and stress
within any society, his appeal is very strong. He offers immediate satisfaction
of the simple instincts, love, hatred, and anger. He offers to help us forget
our own unhappiness by making other people still more unhappy . . . He
gives us the simple satisfaction of violence and destruction, the destruction of
society . . .

Leonard Woolf, Barbarians Within and Without1

We push on towards [the barbarians] for half an hour before we realize that
we are getting no closer. As we move they move too . . . But when I call a halt
the three specks seem to halt too; when we resume our march they begin to
move. “Are they reflections of us, is this a trick of the light?” I wonder. We
cannot close the gap. How long have they been dogging us? Or do they think
we are dogging them?

the Magistrate, Waiting for the Barbarians2


Waiting for the Barbarians, by the South African author J. M. Coetzee, twice
winner of the Booker Prize and a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is
a novel of Kafkaesque allegorical power. A provocative interrogation of the
idea of empire and civilization, Waiting for the Barbarians is also a profound
exploration of self–other relations or alterity: of the ways in which groups and
individuals define themselves and each other in national, religious, ethnic,


J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
gender, racial, and/or class terms for purposes of invidious comparison.
Moreover, Coetzee’s uncanny first-person novel of ideas explores the psychology
behind such “tribal” identification and the ways in which such self/
other binary thinking can lead to prejudice, hostility, and violence. Coetzee
here joins Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, Mikhail Bakhtin, and other
modern thinkers in grappling with a problem articulated compellingly by
Sigmund Freud: “It is always possible to bind together a considerable number
of people in love, so long as there are people left over to receive the manifestation
of their aggressiveness.”3 Simone de Beauvoir puts this idea still
more baldly: “The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness
itself . . . Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought.”4 Coetzee’s
novel is among the most thoughtful literary explorations and treatments of
this dire truth.


J. M. Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1940, and grew up
in a home in which both English and Afrikaans were spoken. He attended
the University of Cape Town, graduating in 1961, after which he worked in
London as a computer programmer. While in England he also wrote his
master’s thesis, on the work of novelist Ford Madox Ford, for the University
of Cape Town. In 1965 Coetzee began doctoral work in linguistics and literature
at the University of Texas at Austin. His doctoral thesis, a stylistic analysis of
Beckett’s English-language novels, was completed in 1969. After a teaching
stint at the State University of New York in Buffalo, Coetzee, in 1972,
returned to the University of Cape Town, this time to join the faculty. In 1984
he was named Professor of General Literature at this institution. In more
recent years he has also been a member of the University of Chicago’s
“Committee on Social Thought” and a Fellow of the University of Adelaide.
The years following Coetzee’s return to South Africa were politically
turbulent ones for his country: racist apartheid policies, which had been in
force since 1913 (the Union of South Africa, a semi-autonomous state under
British colonial rule, was founded in 1910), were challenged as never before,
leading the government to adopt repressive measures on a grand scale; and
Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress party gained political ground.
The ANC swept to power in 1994, toppling F. W. de Klerk’s Nationalist Party,
after the first-ever democratic elections in South African history (in 1990
Mandela, after nearly thirty years in jail, was released from prison and his
African National Party was legalized). The details of South Africa’s civil strife


J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
are conspicuously absent from many of Coetzee’s fictions, which instead treat
history and politics in an oblique or allegorical fashion.

Coetzee is the author of nine highly acclaimed novels and four works of
non-fiction (on subjects ranging from African literature to censorship to animal
rights). He is also the author of Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997), in
which he explores his own coming-of-age, using an intriguing second-person
narrator, and a sequel volume, Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002). In
addition to being awarded the Booker Prize in 1983 and 1999, Coetzee received
France’s Prix Etranger Femina (1983) and Israel’s Jerusalem Prize (1987). In
2003 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

This sketch of the author reveals Coetzee’s dual career path. Like John
Barth, Saul Bellow, Umberto Eco, William Gass, and Milan Kundera, Coetzee
is a novelist who is also a practicing academic. A literary artist as well as a
linguist and “powerful critic and intellectual historian of colonialism and the
history of racist thinking, apartheid, and censorship,”5 Coetzee views his two
vocations as interanimating, mutually reinforcing ones. “I don’t see any disruption
between my professional interest in language and my activities as a
[creative] writer,”6 he has commented. Indeed, it is Coetzee’s “dual allegiance”
that makes possible what one critic calls the author’s “unique combination of
intellectual power, stylistic poise, historical vision, and ethical penetration.”7
That is to say, Coetzee’s familiarity with numerous intellectual and artistic arenas

– among these, the history and development of the novel, literary modernism
(in particular the fiction of Kafka, Beckett, Nabokov, Borges, Conrad, and
Ford), modern linguistics, and poststructuralist and postcolonial theory – has
shaped his erudite and intellectually demanding novels. It has also made
Coetzee, as one critic writes, “the first South African writer to produce overtly
self-conscious fictions drawing explicitly on international postmodernism.”8
Although Coetzee’s novels treat numerous problems and issues typically
associated with postmodernism – the nature of power, both individual and
institutional, subject–object relations, and the self’s presentation to itself,
for example – the author’s brand of postmodernism does not take autotelic
experimentation or aesthetic innovation as its goal. Rather, as David Attwell
puts it, “reflexivity here is a mode of self-consciousness” that “is directed at
understanding the conditions – linguistic, formal, historical, and political –
governing the writing of fiction in contemporary South Africa.”9 Moreover, as
Derek Attridge observes, the formal properties of Coetzee’s novels enable
them to “engage with – to stage, confront, apprehend, explore – otherness,
and in this engagement” to broach “the most fundamental and widely significant
issues involved in any consideration of ethics and politics.”10

Coetzee’s first novel (really two interrelated novellas), Dusklands (1974),
announces the author’s fictional agenda. The first of the novellas, “The Vietnam


J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
project,” concerns the US Department of Defense during the Vietnam War;
the second, “The narrative of Jacobus Coetzee,” is set in eighteenth-century
South Africa. The juxtaposition of these two seemingly disparate narratives
reveals a surprising similarity between the respective colonial projects and
mentalities. Coetzee’s next work, In the Heart of the Country (1977), concerns
the political mentality and social implications of “settler-colonialism” in rural
South Africa. Narrated in diary form, this novel is indebted to the French
nouveau roman, which is defined by its proponent Alain Robbe-Grillet as
a novel concerned with “the problems of writing,” in which “invention and
imagination” themselves “become the subject of the book.”11 This work was
followed by the allegorical and parable-like Waiting for the Barbarians (1980),
a novel set in an invented “world out of place and time,”12 which won the
CNA Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and the James Tate Black
Memorial Prize. Coetzee then published Life and Times of Michael K. (1983),
which was awarded the Booker prize and which revisits the more “realistic”
South African settings of the earlier novels. Despite this return to comparative
realism (specifically, to an apartheid South Africa torn apart by civil war),
the Kafkaesque echo in the novel’s protagonist, “K,” alerts us to this work’s
allegorical dimension.

Foe (1986), Coetzee’s “most allegorical” and “most obviously metafictional”
work,13 retells Robinson Crusoe as an account of the relations between the
literary establishment, Foe (based on Defoe), a colonial storyteller, Susan
Barton, and the silenced voice of a colonized manservant, Friday. The 1720
narration is told largely by Barton, who seeks Foe’s help in getting the story
of Crusoe’s island to readers; “but the true authority, indeed potency, of the
tale,” as David Attwell holds, “belongs to Friday, whose tongue has been
severed in an unspecified act of mutilation and who therefore cannot speak or
articulate that authority.”14 This novel was followed by Age of Iron (1990), the
most historically concrete and specific novel that Coetzee had yet written.
Narrated by the terminally ill Elizabeth Curren, formerly a lecturer in classics
at the University of Cape Town, this work takes place against the backdrop of
the Cape Town riots of 1986 and treats the social chaos and moral corruption
of the apartheid regime. The Master of Petersburg (1994), a mystery set in
Russia in 1869 and concerning Dostoyevsky, and Disgrace (1999), then followed.
Disgrace won Coetzee a second Booker Prize and confirmed his standing
as one of the foremost living Anglophone novelists. This work returns
Coetzee to many of his earlier concerns: “the nature of literary realism and
the solitary confinement of the self, the cathartic potential of art as set against
brute actuality, [and] the interaction of parent and child as a microcosm
of domination.”15 Set in post-apartheid South Africa, the novel centers on
David Lurie, a 52-year old university professor who is fired for taking sexual


J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
advantage of a student, and his daughter Lucy, who inhabits a smallholding to
which he retreats after losing his job. The controversial Disgrace, which first
appears to be an academic satire, ends up an enigmatic meditation on alterity.
Coetzee’s ninth novel, Elizabeth Costello (2003), which concerns an aging,
Australian novelist whose eight formal addresses comprise the backbone of
the narrative, further probes and problematizes the boundary between fiction
and nonfiction.

For all the geographical and chronological differences among Coetzee’s
novels – the works are set in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries,
in abstracted landscapes and in readily identifiable ones in the USA, Russia,
and South Africa – they all share a concern, as Derek Attridge writes, with the
political issues that have rent South Africa, “most obviously colonialism and
its legacy of racial, sexual, and economic oppression.”16 Yet all of these novels
do so by eschewing “loosened abundance for impacted allegory.”17 It is perhaps
for this reason that Coetzee “remains the most elusive of writers, one whose
fictions seem almost deliberately constructed to escape any single framework
of interpretation.”18

As well received as Coetzee’s novels have been, the author’s predilection
for allegory has troubled many readers on political grounds. Some have charged
Coetzee with “quietism and rarified aestheticism”19 for writing novels that
appear to be “insufficiently engaged with the contingencies of the South
African situation.”20 Coetzee himself has admitted that his novels, unlike many
others in South Africa, were never censored because they were “too indirect in
their approach, too rarified, to be considered a threat to the order.”21 As one
critic affirms, “There is no doubt that Coetzee’s engagement with history
seems oblique when his work is compared with the forms of gritty realism
associated with black prose fiction [or] with the novels of [fellow South
African] Nadine Gordimer”.22 However, Coetzee’s “allegorical tales” can be
defended as reflecting “the metaphysical ground and philosophical landscape
in which the present historical controversies and political disputes of his
country are rooted,”23 even if the author himself has called the novel a “rival
to history” that must resist “the discourse of history.”24

In the light of this description, it would be a mistake to construe Coetzee’s
fictions as attempts to evade South African history and politics. In eschewing
realism for allegory, Coetzee, as novelist Caryl Phillips puts it, can free “himself
from being viewed as a mere commentator on the political situation in
South Africa”; that is, his works can “isolate” and hence better “scrutinize the
psychological traumas of his exposed characters.”25 As confirmed by another
critic, in “steadfastly refusing to specify either the geographic or historical
setting” of Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee can successfully dramatize “the
moral dilemmas and political paradoxes of all imperial enterprises,” including


J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
but not limited to those relevant to South African history.26 It is perhaps for
this reason, as Coetzee himself notes, that “The magistrate and the girl [in
Waiting for the Barbarians] could as well be Russian and Kirghiz, or Han and
Mongol, or Turk and Arab, or Arab and Berber,”27 and that these characters
inhabit “a landscape I have never seen”28 rather than any readily identifiable
locale. To the extent that Coetzee sees South African literature as “unnaturally
preoccupied with power and the torsions of power, unable to move from
elementary relations of contestation, domination, and subjugation to the
vast and complex human world that lies beyond them,”29 it is arguable that,
paradoxically, Coetzee’s abstracted worlds better challenge and subvert this
political reality than any “realistic” portrait could.30


The six-chapter Waiting for the Barbarians takes place within about one year.
The novel concerns an unnamed “civil magistrate,” our first-person narrator,
at a remote colonial outpost “on the roof of the world” (2). The magistrate
possesses a liberal-humanist and even anthropological bent (his hobby is to
excavate the antique ruins in the vicinity and attempt to decipher the “illegible”
script he finds painted on numerous “wooden slips” [14–15]). He is the chief
government figure in the town; that there has not been a “military commandant”
there for years (21) suggests that this outpost is of little strategic
importance to the Empire. At the beginning of the novel the magistrate is
content with his comfortable, humdrum, bureaucratic existence (23). His life
changes, however, with the arrival of an official, Colonel Joll, from the “Third
Bureau,” the “most important division of the civil guards nowadays” (2). If
the magistrate is the novelist’s sympathetic, tolerant, and kind protagonist,
Joll is its unsympathetic, intolerant, and ruthless antagonist. Joll oversees the
“interrogation” of captured “barbarians” who are said to be plotting an attack
on the town and the Empire. “Interrogation” is the Bureau’s euphemism for
torture, and Joll, who is described as “worse than a bureaucrat with vicious
tastes” (22), appears to take pleasure in his gruesome work. The sadistic
practices that Joll and, when he is away from town hunting barbarians,
Warrant Officer Mandel bring to the sleepy outpost remove the “joy” from
the magistrate’s life (22): “I curse Joll for all of the trouble he has brought me,
and for the shame, too” (20).

Joll’s description of his torture techniques, undertaken in order to compel
captured “barbarians” to admit to and reveal their devious plans – “First, I get
lies . . . then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break,


J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
then more pressure, then the truth. That is how you get the truth” (5) –
reveals the circular reasoning of the Bureau’s interrogation procedures. Victims
will confess to anything when the pain becomes sufficiently excruciating, and
the confessions then “justify” the torture. As Barbara Eckstein observes, such
interrogation sessions represent “an inversion of a trial. In a trial, evidence
may lead to punishment but punishment is not used to produce ‘evidence’.”31
Witnessing such interrogation sessions, the magistrate comes to recognize the
extent to which the Third Bureau torturers “have inverted animal and angel,
barbarity and civilization.”32

The turning point in the magistrate’s evolving relationship with the Empire,
however, comes following his encounter with a girl, one with “the straight
black eyebrows, the glossy black hair of the barbarians” (25), who is left
behind after a group of “barbarians” is captured and tortured. The narrator’s
unusual relationship with this girl, which occasions his meditations on sexuality,
power, and otherness, leads him, at great personal and political risk to himself,
to voyage a considerable distance in order to return her to her people. Upon
returning to the outpost he is accused by the Third Bureau of “consorting”
with the barbarians, following which he becomes an “enemy” of his own
people and is imprisoned and tortured. Rather than representing the law in
the town he is now a victimized “other” of the community, on the losing end
of the outpost’s crude and unforgiving social hierarchies. Finally, when the
outpost is all-but-abandoned by the Empire – its soldiers and Third Bureau
representatives having fled in the belief that the town is now a lost cause – the
narrator returns to his earlier “routine” as the magistrate of an overlooked
backwater of Empire, and to his old hobby deciphering “the archaic writing
on the poplar slips” (154).33 His story may be simple but its implications are
not. As James Phelan articulates this complexity, Waiting for the Barbarians is
concerned with the magistrate’s

complicity with torturers as well as his own experience of being tortured; [with]
his attempts to expiate the pain of one tortured woman, attempts that actually
perpetuate her pain and oppression; [and with] his humiliation by the forces of
his Empire and his continued complicity with the Empire.34

Waiting for the Barbarians alludes to numerous canonical works of European
literature: works by George Orwell, Henrik Ibsen, Samuel Beckett, Franz
Kafka, Joseph Conrad, and Constantine Cavafy, among others. One critic
speaks of the “Orwellian power” of Waiting for the Barbarians;35 and, indeed,
Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the government uses the threat, real
or fabricated, of a foreign “Other” to maintain internal social control, informs


J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
Coetzee’s novel. So too does Ibsen’s drama An Enemy of the People, in which
the sole man willing to speak the truth about the corrupt society, in the hope
of saving that society, ironically suffers the fate of an “enemy” of the people;
and Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, with its resonant title. In both Waiting
for Godot and Waiting for the Barbarians the subject of the title never arrives
and may not even exist (Coetzee’s townspeople wait in vain for the “barbarian”
onslaught just as Beckett’s characters apparently wait in vain for Godot).

Kafka is the most important literary influence on Waiting for the Barbarians,
however. Not only do Coetzee’s abstract and austere landscapes and his
parable-like prose passages at many points resemble Kafka’s (these descriptors
equally suggest Coetzee’s debt to Beckett), but the Empire’s torture techniques

– particularly its disfigurement of barbarian “criminals” – are reminiscent of
events in Kafka’s “In the penal colony.” The barbarians in Coetzee’s novel are
punished by having the word “enemy,” which is written on their backs, beaten
off them until it is illegible (105), while the criminals in Kafka’s story are
tortured by a machine that inscribes on their bodies the lesson that they are
condemned to learn.36 In both works the “disturbing congruence of writing,
torture, and the execution of the law” is explored.37 However, one might best
describe Coetzee’s prose in Waiting for the Barbarians as combining elements
of Kafka and Beckett, “his two great literary masters.”38 Whatever Coetzee’s
influences here, the author is clearly drawn to “spare prose and a spare, thrifty
world;”39 indeed, what one reviewer holds of Disgrace – that it is written
with a “scapel-like economy of effect”40 – is equally true of Waiting for the
Although Coetzee’s title echoes Beckett’s, it also echoes that of a well-
known poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” by the turn-of-the-nineteenthcentury
Greek poet C. P. Cavafy. This poem, which concludes with a couplet,
“Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? / Those people were
a kind of solution,”41 is highly germane to Coetzee’s novel. The poem suggests
that “civilized” imperialists need a threatening, external “Other” (“barbarians”)

– against whom to define themselves, to hold themselves together, and to
rationalize aggressive impulses and violent activities that might otherwise
be turned inward. Like Cavafy’s poem and like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of
Darkness, another work critical of imperialism to which Waiting for the Barbarians
alludes, Coetzee’s novel, as one critic observes, is
a meditation on the question of whether all civilizations are not necessarily
founded upon some arbitrary distinction between the civilized and the barbarian,

a . . . distinction that seems to require an element of force and compulsion, an
act of discrimination that has no moral basis.42

J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
Waiting for the Barbarians interrogates and subverts the barbarism/
civilization distinction, “the most salient binary opposition in the novel,”43 in
order to “exorcise the ghost of colonial and imperial consciousness.”44 This
interrogation and subversion is achieved, first of all, by questioning the very
existence of the “lurking barbarians” (124) who are said to plan “a great war”
against “the Empire” (10–11). Although such barbarian hordes have never
been seen, they are nevertheless rumored to exist; indeed, all of the setbacks to
the homeland – as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – are blamed on shadowy
foreigners bent on destroying the civilization. It is hinted, however, that these
“barbarians” merely provide an excuse for the state to maintain a fascistic
control over its own people. When a period of “emergency” is declared at
the outpost, “the administration of justice is out of the hands of civilians
and in the hands of the Bureau” (113). Early in the novel the magistrate
remembers that

once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the
barbarians. There is no woman living along the frontier who has not dreamed
of a dark barbarian hand coming from under the bed to grip her ankle, no man
who has not frightened himself with visions of the barbarians . . . raping his
daughters . . . (8)

Later in the novel the magistrate reports that, at night,

the barbarians prowl about bent on murder and rapine. Children in their dreams
see the shutters part and fierce barbarian faces leer through . . . Clothing disappears
from washing-lines, food from the larders, however tightly locked. The
barbarians have dug a tunnel under the walls, people say . . . no one is safe any
longer . . . Three weeks ago a little girl was raped. (122)

It is implied that the barbarians are seen everywhere simply because they are
expected to be everywhere. For example, when a portion of an embankment
on the outskirts of town disappears, leading to the flooding of the fields, the
barbarians are immediately blamed, despite the lack of evidence. Although
“No one saw them,” they nevertheless somehow “came in the night.” Refusing
to “stand up and fight,” their way “is to creep up behind you and stick a knife
in your back” (98–9). What may be the result of internal sabotage or natural
cycles, then, is blamed on nefarious “Others” who may not even exist.

Even if it were possible to determine that the barbarians exist, however,
it is doubtful that they are the rapacious and threatening savages that they
are imagined to be. Rather, it is hinted that these “barbarians” are merely


J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
scapegoats for the society’s failure to distribute its wealth fairly and to discipline
its own members effectively. What W. J. B. Wood writes of the Cavafy
poem applies equally well to Coetzee’s outpost society: “the apparent threat
from without is symptomatic of the source of the problem which lies within.”45
Wood continues: “[T]he barbarians serve to reveal not what is inimical to
Empire so much as what ails it: in misconceiving the barbarians, [the] Empire
misconceives its own nature and condition – which must doom it to the
disaster course it so much dreads.”46 Put simply, the external barbarity that
the townspeople fear is actually an expression of their own inherently aggressive
and violent tendencies. It is no surprise, then, that the raping and thieving
attributed to the barbarians are eventually revealed to be acts of the Empire’s
own soldiers.

Hints abound that the barbarians are merely a double of, or a mirror image
of, members of the “civilized” outpost society, that they are an expression of
this society’s darkest fears and unspoken desires. O. Mannoni’s observation
that colonizers “project upon the colonial peoples the obscurities of their own
unconscious – obscurities they would rather not penetrate”47 is of particular
relevance here. So is an observation made by the authors of The Empire Writes

In order to maintain authority over the Other in a colonial situation, imperial
discourse strives to delineate the Other as radically different from the self, yet at
the same time it must maintain sufficient identity with the Other to valorize
control over it. The Other can, of course, only be constructed out of the archive
of “the self,” yet the self must also articulate the Other as inescapably different.48

When the magistrate seeks to bring “the girl” back to her people, for example,
he wonders whether the barbarians are “reflections of us,” and then reports,
“As we move they move too . . . We cannot close the gap” (68).49 Later in the
novel, after an unsuccessful expedition to root out the scheming barbarians, a
beleaguered assistant of Joll admits, “We froze in the mountains . . . [and]
starved in the desert . . . We were not beaten – [the barbarians] led us out into
the desert and they vanished . . . They lured us on and on, we could never
catch them” (147). Ultimately, there is no evidence that such subversives exist
at all. One thing nevertheless seems clear: whoever these “barbarians” are,
they are far less threatening than they are imagined to be. Rather than being
“thieves, bandits, invaders of Empire,” they are in all probability impoverished
“fishing people” (17), “destitute tribespeople with tiny flocks,” who live “along
the river” (4). “These river people are aboriginal, older even than the nomads,”
the magistrate muses, and then asks: “Living in fear of everyone, skulking in


J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
the reeds, what can they possibly know of a great barbarian enterprise against
the Empire?” (18). The magistrate notes that while the habits of these
“pastoralists” (15) may be “frank and filthy” (19), the people themselves in no
way threaten the outpost.50

The opposite is not the case, however. Indeed, it becomes clear that the
“civilized” are the real barbarians in Coetzee’s novel; the more they insist
upon their difference from the “barbarians,” the more barbarian the “civilized”
themselves become.51 As David Attwell observes, the Empire depends “on the
maintenance of absolute differences, and it employs men like Joll to sustain
these differences through torture.”52 Barbarian prisoners are routinely treated
like “animals,” are accused of carrying disease (19, 20), are tortured behind
closed doors, are the victims of “patriotic bloodlust” (104), and, when they are
not murdered outright, are rendered “sick, famished, damaged, terrified” (24).

Coetzee’s novel continually associates the “civilized,” not the “barbarians,”
with savage and bloodthirsty activity in an effort to subvert the “civilized/
barbarian” binary opposition that rationalizes the victimization of the weaker
group by the stronger. References to people “roasting whole sheep” (13), to
hunting parties returning home “with huge catches” of “birds with their necks
twisted” (57), describe not the barbarians but the civilized “expeditionary
force against the barbarians”; this returns home not having encountered the
foe but instead, in the magistrate’s imagining, having roamed “the up-river
country, hunting down unarmed sheep-herders, raping their women, pillaging
their homes, scattering their flocks” (90).

That the “civilized” violence eventually turns inward underscores the
identity of the true barbarians in the novel. During the “emergency” period
there is increased “drunkenness,” “arrogance towards the townspeople” (123),
and stealing on the part of the soldiers, culminating in the breaking in and
burning of houses, the smashing of furniture, and the fouling of floors (130–
1). When the soldiers eventually withdraw from the town, which is to be
abandoned to barbarian hordes (hordes that never materialize), the narrator
registers the Empire’s final act of “betrayal” – the wholesale looting of the
townspeople’s possessions – by the departing soldiers (141). The magistrate
asks, “Of what use is it for the shopkeeper to raise the alarm when the criminals
and the civil guard are the same people?” (123). The idea that the “civilized”
become victims not of the barbarians but of themselves is most clearly
revealed when we recognize that the entire outpost has come to resemble a
gigantic prison – its “jutting watchtowers” visible “against the sky” (75) – in
which the citizenry itself is imprisoned and victimized. As the magistrate tells
Joll late in the novel, when the outpost appears to be on the brink of collapse:
“When some men suffer unjustly . . . it is the fate of those who witness their
suffering to suffer the shame of it” (139). He later adds: “The crime that is


J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
latent in us we must inflict on ourselves” (146). Surely it is poetic justice that
the outpost collapses under the weight of its abusive treatment of the Other.

In all of his novels Coetzee seeks to challenge “the authority of masternarrators”
53 and to explore the “self ’s presence to the self.”54 The first-person
narrator of Waiting for the Barbarians is no exception to either rule. What
makes the magistrate particularly interesting is that, like Marlow in Heart of
Darkness, he actively resists the worst abuses of Empire yet also works for and
therefore furthers the aims of Empire. That is to say, the magistrate, like
Marlow before him, “is not a man apart from his socio-political context as he
might suppose or his mode of life might suggest.”55

It is clear that the magistrate wishes to assert his moral distance from
the Third Bureau; he repeatedly declares his distaste at being “drawn into” (8)
its work.

I did not mean to get embroiled in this. I am a country magistrate, a responsible
official in the service of the Empire, serving out my days on this lazy frontier,
waiting to retire. I collect the tithes and taxes, administer the communal lands
[and] preside over the law-court twice a week. (8)

The moral complexity of the magistrate’s position is here revealed: he both
breathes and seeks to evade the Empire’s ideological atmosphere.56

There is a period during which the magistrate can boast being an outright
“enemy” of Empire, however. This is when, after returning the “barbarian
girl” to her native people, he is accused of “treasonously consorting” with the
enemy (77) and of warning “the barbarians of the coming campaign” (83).
He is stripped of his authority, imprisoned, and tortured (“I am now no more
than a pile of blood, bone and meat that is unhappy” [85] ). He becomes
an “Other” and is reduced to the status of a “beast” (80, 124–5), “dog” (117),
“scapegoat” (120), and, figuratively speaking, woman (he is forced to wear a
dress-like “salt-bag” [118] during his mock-execution). Like Dr Stockmann
in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, the magistrate is branded an outcast by the
community for telling the truth. For example, he tells Warrant Officer Mandel,
“we have no enemies . . . unless we are the enemy” (77). He then declares that
“the false friendship between myself and the bureau” is coming to an end
(77), that “my alliance with the guardians of the Empire is over.” “I have set
myself in opposition, the bond is broken, I am a free man” (78), he insists.
He even takes a public stand against Colonel Joll during one of the public
torture and humiliation sessions of the “barbarian” captives, accusing him of
“depraving these people!” (106) He tells Joll: “You are an obscene torturer
[and] deserve to hang!” (114).


J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
This period in the magistrate’s saga, however, proves to be the exception; as
much as he would like to distance himself from Joll’s work and the Empire’s
aims, he ultimately is forced to acknowledge how much “he and Joll are
merely two aspects of the same imperial system.”57 With characteristic insight
the magistrate asks the question, “[W]ho am I to assert my distance from
[Joll]? I drink with him, I eat with him, I show him the sights, I afford him
every assistance as his letter of commission requests, and more” (5–6). He
and Joll, though they have not become friendly, “have managed to behave
towards each other like civilized people” (24). “I cannot pretend to be any
better than a mother comforting a child between his father’s spells of wrath,”
he thinks when he condemns the Third Bureau’s practice of torture yet fails
effectively to counter it: “It has not escaped me that an interrogator can wear
two masks, speak with two voices, one harsh, one seductive” (7). At another
point the magistrate registers “his own twinges of [self-]doubt” (108), which
later blossoms into outright fear that he is no less “infected” with the “mad
vision” of Empire than the “faithful Colonial Joll as he tracks the enemies
of Empire through the boundless desert, sword unsheathed to cut down
barbarian after barbarian” (133).58

In his study of South African literary culture, Coetzee insists upon the
importance of “reading the other: gaps, inverses, undersides; the veiled; the
dark, the buried, the feminine; alterities”59 – an issue that is of course germane
to the magistrate’s moral and intellectual journey in Waiting for the Barbarians.
His desire to “read” the Other is expressed both in his excavation of the
nearby ruin of a former civilization – to discover a “special historical poignancy”
in the “vacuousness of the desert” (17) by deciphering script painted
on “wooden slips” (15) – and in his enigmatic washing and oiling “ritual”
with the naked “barbarian girl”:

I wash her feet . . . her legs, her buttocks. My soapy hand travels between her
thighs, incuriously, I find. She raises her arms while I wash her armpits. I wash
her belly, her breasts. I push her hair aside and wash her neck, her throat . . . I
feed her, shelter her, use her body, if that is what I am doing, in this foreign
way. There used to be moments when she stiffened at certain intimacies; but
now her body yields when I nuzzle my face into her belly or clasp her feet
between my thighs. She yields to everything. (30)

Unlike Joll’s crude binary envisioning of self–other relations, the magistrate’s
grasp of alterity is intersubjective: self and other are for him inseparable if
distinct categories. As one critic observes, “inter-subjective relatedness and
responsiveness” are things to which the magistrate aspires and that Colonel
Joll avoids.60


J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
Mikhail Bakhtin, one of the twentieth century’s foremost theoreticians
of the novel and philosophers of language, addresses alterity in ways that
shed light on the magistrate’s situation. In his “Toward a reworking of the
Dostoevsky book,” for example, Bakhtin articulates his vision of self–other
interdependence and interanimation:

I am conscious of myself only while revealing myself to another, through
another, and with the help of another. The most important acts constituting
self-consciousness are determined by a relationship toward another consciousness
. . . To be means to be for another, and through the other, for oneself.
A person has no internal sovereign territory, he is wholly and always on the
boundary; looking inside himself, he looks into the eyes of another or with the
eyes of another . . . I cannot manage without another, I cannot become myself
without another; I must find myself in another by finding another in myself (in
mutual reflection and mutual acceptance).61

As Giles Gunn puts this Bakhtinian perspective, “Otherness is not alien to
consciousness but instrumental to its experience. Consciousness is not inimical
to otherness but dialectically related to it and essential to its understanding.”62
Bakhtin elaborates on the crucial importance of the other to the self, and one
culture to another culture, in his essay, “Response to a question from the
Novy Mir editorial staff,” in which he writes:

In order to understand, it is immensely important for the person who understands
to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding – in
time, in space, in culture. For one cannot really see one’s own exterior and
comprehend it as a whole . . . our real exterior can be seen and understood only
by other people . . . In the realm of culture, outsideness is a most powerful
factor in understanding. It is only in the eyes of another culture that foreign
culture reveals itself fully and profoundly . . . We raise new questions for a
foreign culture, ones that it did not raise itself; we seek answers to our own
questions in it . . .63

Put simply, for Bakhtin, “Life is dialogical by its very nature. To live means to
engage in dialogue, to question, to listen, to answer, to agree.”64 In other
words, “Self ” means nothing without “Other,” and the “truth” of any matter
lies somewhere in between.65

However should one understand the magistrate’s “inexplicable attentions”

(33) to the girl? He uses her variously for purposes of achieving sexual release,
“rapture” (29), and “blissful giddiness” (28); ablution or absolution (for
purposes of healing, mending, soothing, cleansing, assuaging his guilt, and

J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
obtaining “penance and reparation” [81] ); and self-understanding (“I take
her face between my hands and stare into the dead centres of her eyes, from
which twin reflections of myself stare solemnly back” [41] ). There can be no
doubt that he seeks with her (even if he does not achieve it) a dialogue of self
and other, culminating in what Bakhtin calls “mutual reflection and mutual

The magistrate feeds and shelters the girl yet also uses her body, he comes
to understand, for purposes of violation, mastery, and possession. At numerous
points he is aware of his “questionable motives” (81) and “questionable
desires” (73) and eventually comes to learn that he has made her “very unhappy”
(152). Indeed, the magistrate’s relationship with the “barbarian girl,”
who is nearly crippled and blinded by the Third Bureau “interrogators,” is
linked by the magistrate himself to the Empire’s treatment of its “barbarian”
victims.67 For example, the magistrate asks:

Is this how her torturers felt hunting their secret, whatever they thought it was?
For the first time I feel a dry pity for them: how natural a mistake to believe that
you can burn or tear or hack your way into the secret body of the other! The girl
lies in my bed, but there is no good reason why it should be a bed. I behave in
some ways like a lover – I undress her, I bathe her, I stroke her, I sleep beside
her – but I might equally tie her to a chair and beat her, it would be no less
intimate. (43)

Elsewhere he comments:

[I]t has not escaped me that in bed in the dark the marks her torturers have left
upon her, the twisted feet, the half-blind eyes, are easily forgotten. Is it then the
case that it is the whole woman I want, that my pleasure in her is spoiled until
these marks on her are erased and she is restored to herself; or is it the case . . . that
it is the marks on her which drew me to her but which, to my disappointment,
I find, do not go deep enough?” (64)

At yet another point the magistrate asks himself “whether, when I lay head to
foot with her, fondling and kissing those broken ankles, I was not in my heart
of hearts regretting that I could not engrave myself on her as deeply” (135).
The significant moral and intellectual distance between Joll and himself, which
he works so hard to maintain, all but dissolves at such points. Indeed, the
magistrate shudders to recognize that “The distance between myself and her
torturers . . . is negligible” (27). As Barbara Eckstein observes, “To the degree
that the magistrate recognizes that his civil rule allows for Joll’s more extreme


J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
military rule and that his seduction and questioning of the girl is like Joll’s
questions and willful penetrations” of her body, “he begins to acknowledge
his complicity.”68

The magistrate’s desire to “read” the barbarian girl (as he might a foreign
text) involves his desire to know what the torturers did to her and know
which soldiers demanded sex from her; his actions thus may be related to the
Empire’s torturing of barbarians to attain a different sort of information.
After all, the “interpretation” and the “mastery” of the girl are closely allied
here, as are entering and claiming “possession” of women for the magistrate
generally (45).69 Indeed, the word “pressing” is used within the context of
both the rape and the interpretation of the Other. Just as the magistrate
imagines that the girl “cannot but feel my gaze pressing upon her with the
weight of a body” (56), so he later asks, “What have I been doing all this time,
pressing myself upon such flowerlike soft-petalled children . . . ?(97).70 Like
Colonel Joll when he tortures his victims, the magistrate attempts to trespass
“into the forbidden” (12) with the barbarian girl. As Barbara Eckstein argues,
“When the silence and the scars of the tortured girl thwart his will – even his
good will – he wants to penetrate, rape, possess her, so that from her body will
arise a certain interpretation of her . . . soul.”71 When he returns the girl to
her people he freely associates himself with her torturers, referring to her as “a
body we have sucked dry” and to himself as “a jackal of Empire in sheep’s
clothing” (72).

If Bakhtinian thought helps explain the magistrate’s (and the novel’s) dialogic
intention, postcolonial theory helps us grasp the limits of dialogism when the
two parties engaged in a dialogue possess vastly different degrees of power. As
much as the magistrate would like to challenge the subject–object model of
relations and achieve a dialogue of equals, he cannot. Try as he might to
overcome the social hierarchy, he is frozen, as are all individuals in imperial
situations, “into a hierarchical relationship in which the oppressed is locked
into position by the assumed moral superiority of the dominant group, a
superiority which is reinforced when necessary by the use of physical force.”72
The magistrate for this reason eventually comes to question the possibility of
dialogue; as one critic puts it, “the tension between Self and Other engenders
in the magistrate profound doubt about both.”73 He sees no way to overcome
the power relations inherent in dialogue, which “bears a certain tragic potential,
borne out repeatedly in the linked realms of the personal and political, where
violence as a response” represents “the negative correlative of dialogue.”74

That the girl is ultimately indecipherable to the magistrate – that she remains
stubbornly unreadable and obscure, “opaque” and “impermeable” (75), “blank”
and “incomplete” (42) – is beyond question. Just as the “sand drifts back”
(14), frustrating his attempts at excavation, just as the wooden slips of script


J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
from the former civilization remain stubbornly unreadable, so the girl yields
little of her foreign meaning to him. Finally, the magistrate is not even sure
what he seeks from her; the reasons for his interest in her “remain as obscure
to me as ever” (64). Yet he is certain that “until the marks on this girl’s body
are deciphered and understood I cannot let go of her” (31). Eventually, his
need for her even strikes him as a sort of reverse tyranny: he is “in a measure
enslaved” to her (42) and comes to resent his “bondage to the ritual of oiling
and rubbing” (41). “There is only a blankness,” he concludes, “and desolation
that there has to be such blankness” (73).75

Coetzee’s ambivalent ending – the magistrate likens himself to a man who
“lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere”

(156) – may be appropriate to a novel that suggests “the situation of the contemporary
South African liberal, facing the fact of complicity in apartheid.”76
But it does not necessarily follow, as Abdul R. JanMohamed maintains, that
Waiting for the Barbarians “epitomizes the dehistoricizing, desocializing
tendency of colonialist fiction” or that it “refuses to acknowledge its [South
African] historical sources or to make any allusions to the specific barbarism
of the apartheid regime,” thereby implying that “we are all somehow equally
guilty and that fascism is endemic to all societies.”77 Rather, as this same critic
shortly thereafter admits, the novel demonstrates “without any hesitation that
the empire projects its own barbarism onto the Other beyond its borders.”78
However one assesses Coetzee’s novelistic challenge to political, cultural, and
sexual forms of imperialism, Waiting for the Barbarians powerfully anatomizes
the difficulty faced by even the most well-intentioned Self in understanding
and valuing the Other.

Chapter 8

Margaret Atwood’s
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without
shoes. I have trouble remembering what I used to look like. I have viable
ovaries. I have one more chance.

Offred, in The Handmaid’s Tale1

Tota mulier in utero (Woman is nothing but a womb)
Old Latin saying


In equal measure social satire and feminist dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale, by
Canadian author Margaret Atwood, is a tour de force in the tradition of
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the late twentieth-century Republic of Gilead
(formerly the US) that follows a right-wing religious-political coup. The chief
goal of this theocratic government, which claims to base its laws on “biblical
precedents” (305), is to increase the population in a society where man-made
ecological disasters have reduced fertility rates to dangerously low levels. With
the exception of three epigraphs and an epilogue, Atwood’s novel is narrated
in the first person by a 33-year-old “Handmaid,” Offred.2 Through her eyes
we learn of her own past and present life and of the feats of social engineering
achieved by the Gilead regime, which has its capitol in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Ironically, the headquarters of this totalitarian regime is what was once
the campus of Harvard University, Offred’s (and Atwood’s) alma mater and a
center for critical inquiry in the service of a once open and democratic society.


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

Although the novel depicts both futuristic technological developments and
retrogressive puritanical practices, it is best regarded as addressing contemporary
social reality. Despite having a narrative frame set in 2195, The Handmaid’s
Tale is not really “about the future but about the present”;3 like other dystopic
satires it portrays an “exaggerated version of present evils” in the hope of
bringing “about social and political change.”4 Indeed, like all political satires,
dystopian novels possess a “social-political message, a didactic intent to address
the Ideal Reader’s moral sense and reason as it applies to the protagonist’s –
and our own – place in society and in history.”5 In this case the catalyst for
Atwood’s dystopia was the resurgence in the US of the vocal religious right
of the early 1980s. As in Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, in
The Handmaid’s Tale “There’s not a single detail in the book that does not
have a corresponding reality, either in contemporary conditions or historical
fact.”6 As Atwood herself admits, “I didn’t invent a lot” in The Handmaid’s
Tale. “I transposed” material “to a different time and place, but the motifs are
all historical motifs.”7 In this sense, Atwood’s “genius,” like that of the Gilead
regime she constructs, lies in “synthesis” (307).

Although largely a dystopian satire, Atwood’s novel also has the feel of an
elegy, a nostalgic lament for an idealized past. At many points in the narrative
Offred reminisces over her days as a college student, during which time
quotidian freedoms, such as the right to question gender roles and the right to
associate with people of her own choosing, could be taken for granted. These
memories clash profoundly with her present, straitened circumstances, in which
compulsory sex with her assigned Commander – a monthly rape of sorts – is
the mandatory focus of her schedule. Handmaids such as Offred are directed
to pray, as she puts it, for “emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled:
with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen and babies” (194). The novel
proceeds by, and gains its eerie power from, Offred’s ironic juxtaposition of
her imprisoned present and comparatively self-determined past.

Offred’s powerful yet understated narrative, told in sparse yet poetically
evocative language (Atwood began her career as a poet), depicts a government
that claims to take the Book of Genesis at its word, with devastating consequences
for the women of Gilead. I say “claims” to follow the Bible because,
in fact, “the men of Gilead appropriate the text of the Bible” merely “to fit
their political, social, and sexual goals.”8 Moreover, “sexual relationships are
regimented and supervised by the ruling elite, ostensibly in the interest of
producing the maximum number of children for the state but actually
eliminate chances of forming personal relationships and private loyalties”9
that could counter the regime’s authority. Sex in Gilead is understood to
be for purposes of procreation only, as it was understood by the Puritans in
Massachusetts centuries earlier. In Gilead “Anatomy is destiny”;10 Handmaids


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

who do not become pregnant have no value to the society. “The handmaid’s
situation,” writes one critic, “lucidly illustrates Simone de Beauvior’s assertion
in The Second Sex about man defining woman not as an autonomous being”
but merely as of value “relative to him.”11 Offred’s name in Gilead – a patronymic
“composed of the possessive preposition and the first name [in her
case, Fred]” of her Commander (305), but also suggesting “afraid,” “offered,”
and “off-read” (misread)12 – is a linguistic emblem of the regime’s misogynistic
social system. By contrast, the use of Offred’s pre-Gilead name (her “real”
name, which we never learn) is now “forbidden” and must remain “buried”:
“I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll
come back to dig up, one day” (84).

In Gilead it is not only sexual rights that are denied to women; most personal
liberties, including the right to hold property (178), choose a mate (marriages
are now arranged [219] ), and read and write are banned to most females,
insuring that wealth and knowledge – and therefore power – remain decisively
out of their reach. The price to women of transgressing Gilead’s rules (or of
being infertile) is high: the ever-present threat of being declared “Unwoman”
and sent to the Colonies beyond the pale (where Offred’s mother has been
sent), in effect to die while working in a toxic dump or radiation spill (248)
clean-up squad. As Offred’s friend Moira puts the regime’s use of these squads,

They figure you’ve got three years maximum . . . before your nose falls off and
your skin peels away like rubber gloves. They don’t bother to feed you much,
or give you protective clothing or anything, it’s cheaper not to. Anyway [the
people in the squads are] mostly people they want to get rid of. (248)

Gilead’s toxic waste problem is the result of such ecological catastrophes
as “nuclear-plant accidents,” “leakages from chemical and biological-warfare
stockpiles and toxic waste disposal sites,” and “uncontrolled use of chemical
insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays” (304), all of which explain the
society’s low birthrate and rationalize its sexual and social engineering (and
the social hierarchy that supports such engineering). Although less commented
on than the novel’s status as a “feminist Nineteen Eighty-Four,”13 the novel
also functions as an “environmentalist Nineteen Eighty-Four.”


Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Canada in 1939. She attended Victoria
College of the University of Toronto, graduating in 1961 with honors in


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

English. In this same year Atwood published a chapbook, Double Persephone,
for which she won the prestigious E. J. Pratt Medal for Poetry, and entered a
graduate program at Radcliffe College of Harvard University, graduating in
1962 with an MA in English. She then accepted a series of instructorships in
English departments at various Canadian universities, during which time she
started writing a novel and continued her work in verse; in 1967 she published
The Circle Game, which won Canada’s highest literary prize, the Governor
General’s Award. Her third volume of poems, The Animals in that Country,
followed in 1969, as did her first novel, The Edible Woman. In a burst of artistic
productivity, a volume of poetry, Power Politics (1970), a work of nonfiction,
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), and a novel, Surfacing
(1973), then followed, the latter two while Atwood was Writer-in-Residence
at the University of Toronto. These works solidified her reputation as among
the most prolific and intellectually wide-ranging of Canadian authors.

Numerous novels (eleven), poetry collections (fifteen), short fiction collections
(five), non-fiction and edited volumes (nine), and children’s books (four)
emerged in the next three decades. In particular, her novels Bodily Harm
(1981), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985; filmed in 1990 by the German filmmaker
Volker Schlondorff with a screenplay by Harold Pinter), Cat’s Eye (1988), The
Robber Bride (1993), Alias Grace (1996), The Blind Assassin (2000; winner of
the Booker Prize), and Oryx and Crake (2003) assured Atwood’s standing as
the most celebrated late-twentieth-century Canadian poet-novelist (writer Alice
Munro has this standing in the short story category). Collectively, her novels

– which explore among other things the socially-constructed nature of gender,
male–female and female–female power relations, and “the notorious victim
positions Canadians have adopted to survive in the face of domination by
imperial powers”14 – have been translated into thirty-five languages. The
author has received sixteen honorary degrees (from universities in Britain,
Canada, and the US) and her work has been recognized by numerous awards
in addition to the Booker Prize: two Canadian Governor General’s Awards
(the second for The Handmaid’s Tale), the Norwegian Order of Merit, the
French Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts at des Lettres, the Welsh Arts Council
International Writer’s Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The author presently
resides in Toronto.
Just where to place The Handmaid’s Tale, generically speaking – it has been
called a “dystopia,” a “political satire,” and a “postmodern subversion”15 – has
been much debated. Indeed, one critic, electing not to choose among the
various possible options, has called the work a “dystopian-science fictionsatirical-
journal-epistolary-romance-palimpsest text.”16 The question of the
novel’s generic affiliations is all the more vexing when one notes that Offred’s
story, which is narrated on cassette tapes that have been discovered and


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

transcribed in the year 2195 by a male scholar, is flanked by other texts.
Beforehand are three prefatory epigraphs (one from Genesis, one from Swift’s
“A modest proposal,” and one a Sufi proverb),17 and after it are the “Historical
notes” of scholars in 2195. These notes constitute “not just a history of
patriarchy but a metahistory, an analysis of how patriarchal imperatives are
encoded within the various intellectual methods we bring to bear on history.”18
Indeed, the novel’s narrative strategy – which we encounter in various
incarnations in novels by Coetzee, McCabe, Rhys, and Swift – is postmodern
to the extent that it is “designed to call attention to the acts of reading and

Although the genetic emphasis of The Handmaid’s Tale is reminiscent of
Huxley’s Brave New World,20 it is largely Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – with
its emphasis on social engineering in the service of a nefarious totalitarian
regime – that stands behind Atwood’s dystopia. As Jocelyn Harris writes, The
Handmaid’s Tale is “recognizably Orwellian” in both “structure” and in
“minute detail.”21 Specifically, in Atwood’s novel, as in Nineteen Eighty-Four,
spies, secret police agents, and crack troops – “Eyes,” “Angels,” and “Guardians”

– penetrate all dimensions of the society. In Orwell’s novel denizens of
Oceania are constantly reminded that “Big Brother is Watching You,”22 while
in Atwood’s a standard greeting between two Handmaids is “Under His
Eye” (45). In both novels manipulative neologisms and slogans are deployed
by the state in order to control not just the behavior but the thought of its
citizens. In Nineteen Eighty-Four “The Principles of Newspeak”23 and such
party slogans as “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is
Strength” (examples of “doublethink”) are everywhere to be found, while in
The Handmaid’s Tale such public events as “Prayvaganzas” and “Salvagings”
and such expressions as “God is a natural resource” (213) are commonplace.
“Unpersons” populate Orwell’s novel, “Unwomen” Atwood’s.
In both dystopias the regime in question places the population on a constant
war-footing and on food rationing (in Atwood’s novel we read that “the war
seems to be going on in many places at once” [82] and that “They only show
us victories, never defeats” [83] ) and seeks to control the present by altering
the past. In Orwell’s novel, for example, the party recognizes that “Who
controls the past . . . controls the future: who controls the present controls
the past”;24 and in Atwood’s novel the regime works to erase accurate
recollections of the past (the “Aunts,” armed with cattle prods, attempt to
condition the Handmaids to believe that their lot is actually better now than
in pre-Gilead days).

In both novels the state manipulates emotion and rouses “bloodlust” through
public spectacles, and uses scapegoats and public violence as “steam valves”

(307) to defuse hostility to state oppression. In Nineteen Eighty-Four this takes

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

the form of “two minutes of hate” and “Hate Week”; in The Handmaid’s
Tale, in the “Prayvaganzas” and “Salvagings,” Handmaids actually take part in
the brutal murder of state “traitors” (who turn out to be subversives). Finally,
and perhaps most importantly, in both novels “sexual repression assists” the
government in maintaining “social control.”25

Winston Smith’s utter resignation at the end of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-
Four, when he realizes that he has “won the victory over himself” and at last
loves “Big Brother,”26 is the forerunner of Offred’s startling realization near
the end of her tale:

I’ll stop complaining. I’ll accept my lot. I’ll sacrifice. I’ll repent. I’ll abdicate. I’ll
renounce. I know this can’t be right but I think it anyway . . . I don’t want
pain . . . I want to keep on living, in any form. I resign my body freely, to the
use of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject. I feel, for the first
time, their true power. (286)

Both Orwell’s and Atwood’s originally free-thinking protagonists, then, are
eventually coerced into submission by the state. Although they may do so for
different reasons, both finally surrender themselves up to the state, in body,
mind, and soul.

That said, as one reader remarks, “For all the parallels to that powerful
precursor Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale is a work with an entirely
different scope and feel.”27 Specifically, while the earlier text focuses on “the
design” and mechanics of dystopian social engineering, the latter one focuses
on “the experience of living under it,” as such knowledge of the totalitarian
society’s ways and means can be taken for granted, having become “part
of the readers’ cultural and generic awareness.”28 Seen in this light, The
Handmaid’s Tale both “participates in and extends the dystopian genre”29 that
was pioneered by Orwell and others in the mid-twentieth-century.30

To the extent that it may be regarded as a feminist dystopia, The Handmaid’s
Tale is “a clever appropriation of a predominantly male literature for feminist
purposes.”31 That said, a little-acknowledged feminist precursor to Atwood’s
novel can be identified: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s satire “The yellow wallpaper.”
Like the female protagonist of Gilman’s 1892 novella, one whose
situation harkens back in turn to that of Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the
attic of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 Jane Eyre, Offred is a prisoner of a patriarchal
domestic tyranny, and passes the time, like her predecessor in the Gilman
story, who also keeps a secret journal, doing whatever she can in the straitened
circumstances of her bedroom-prison. She recalls wishing to explore her
bedroom slowly:


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
I didn’t want to do it all at once, I wanted to make it last. I divided the room
into sections, in my head; I allowed myself one section a day. This one section
I would examine with the greatest minuteness: the unevenness of the plaster
under the wallpaper, the scratches in the paint of the baseboard and the
windowsill, under the top coat of paint, the stains on the mattress . . . (51)
Another moment of Offred’s life that is strongly reminiscent of Gilman’s
“The yellow wallpaper” occurs somewhat later, when she is lying on her
I would like to rest, go to sleep, but I’m too tired, at the same time too excited,
my eyes won’t close. I look up at the ceiling, tracing the foliage of the wreath
[around the missing chandelier, which Offred’s predecessor used to commit
suicide]. In a minute the wreath will start to color and I will begin seeing things.
That’s how tired I am . . . (128)
Toward the end of her narrative Offred feels the “presence” of this predecessor,
this “ancestress” and “double,”
turning in midair under the chandelier . . . a bird stopped in flight, a woman
made into an angel, waiting to be found . . . How could I have believed I was
alone in here? There were always two of us. Get it over, she says . . . There’s no
one you can protect, your life has value to no one. I want it finished. (293)
Similarly to Gilman’s protagonist (and for that matter Brontë’s Bertha), then,
Atwood’s contemplates suicide and imagines her double in a domestic prison
of her “husband’s” making.32
Glenn Deer observes that The Handmaid’s Tale faces a challenge that is typical
of satiric dystopias: “to portray the mechanisms of oppression as credible
enough, as sufficiently powerful and seductive, to represent a believable
evil, not an irrelevant or farfetched one.”33 This is a challenge that the novel
handily meets. Everything from Offred’s sense of space (she wears “white
wings” around her face, “blinkers” that are “prescribed issue” and keep her
from “seeing” and “being seen” [8]), to time (“There’s a grandfather clock in

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

the hallway, which doles out time” [9] ), to speech (“Blessed be the fruit,”
Ofglen greets Offred; “May the Lord open,” Offred answers [19] ), is controlled
by the Gilead regime. It is no surprise that Offred succumbs to fatalism,
admitting, “I try not to think too much” (8).

While the Gilead regime claims that its social system is designed to “protect
women,” this system’s “actual purpose is to control them and reinforce the
notion that their biology is their destiny.”34 Lucy M. Freibert lays out the
many-tiered female hierarchy of Gilead:

The blue-clad Wives of the Commanders preside over their homes and gardens,
and attend public functions . . . Sexual duties fall to the red-clad Handmaids,
drilled in self-denial and renunciation and reduced to fertility machines. The
green-clad Marthas clean and cook. The Econowives, married to upper-level
menials, combine the functions of the other groups and consequently wear
striped blue/red/green dresses. At the Rachel and Leah Center, the Aunts use
electric cattle prods to keep the Handmaids in line. The black-clad widows, a
rapidly diminishing group, live in limbo. The gray-clad Unwomen, those who
refuse to cooperate with the system, work in the Colonies . . .35

Despite the widespread acceptance of this social hierarchy, the Wives of
husbands with Handmaids remain uncomfortable with the monthly coupling
ceremony and therefore view Handmaids as necessary evils. “I am a reproach
to her,” Offred imagines of the childless Serena Joy, her Commander’s wife,
but also “a necessity” (13).

This monthly event is the centerpiece of the Handmaid’s life; it is her chief
“duty” (95) and the focus of her schedule:

I lie on my back, fully clothed . . . Above me, toward the head of the bed, Serena
Joy is arranged, outspread. Her legs are apart, I lie between them, my head on
her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either
side of me. She too is fully clothed. My arms are raised; she holds my hands,
each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh,
one being. What it really means is that she is in control, of the process and thus
the product . . . My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below
the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body.
I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating
too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is
involved . . . What’s going on in this room . . . is not exciting. It has nothing
to do with passion or love or romance . . . It has nothing to do with sexual
desire . . . (93–4)


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

It goes without saying that this most “serious business” of the Handmaid’s
monthly calendar dehumanizes her, so completely is she determined – like the
“hands” in Dickens’s Hard Times – by the service her body performs for her
master (63). Her worth is wholly bound up with whether or not she is a
“worthy vessel” (65) and can fulfill her promise as a “natural resource” (65).
“We are containers,” Offred observes of the role of Handmaids; “it’s only the
inside of our bodies that are important” (96). “We are for breeding purposes:
we aren’t concubines, geisha girls, courtesans,” she later concludes. “We are
two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (136). Success
or failure hinges exclusively on whether pregnancy ensues. “Each month
I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure. I have failed
once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own”
(63). Worse than even this, however, would be for Offred to become sick:
Handmaids who succumb to illness and therefore cannot bear children are
regarded as “terminal” cases (155). As one critic puts this state of affairs,
Atwood’s novel “gives a new and ominous meaning to the phrase ‘the body

The regime’s assault on intellectual freedom and its bid to colonize the
minds of its subjects (“The Republic of Gilead,” said Aunt Lydia, “knows no
bounds. Gilead is within you” [23] ) is perhaps best symbolized in the regime’s
closing of the universities and in its use of Harvard’s buildings as a center for
“the Eyes” (166). Ironically, the wall around Harvard yard, which at one time
delineated a place of intellectual freedom, now functions as a part of the
state’s prison apparatus.37 This red-brick wall is “hundreds of years old,” Offred
muses, “and must once have been plain but handsome. Now the gates have
sentries and there are ugly new floodlights mounted on metal posts above it;
and barbed wire along the bottom and broken glass set in concrete along the
top” (31). The past and present function of Harvard’s buildings are in even
starker contrast, in that the dead bodies of murdered enemies of Gilead are
typically hung from the wall for all to see. “It’s the bags over the heads that are
the worst, worse than the faces themselves would be,” Offred comments of
the corpses; “It makes the men look like dolls on which the faces have not yet
been painted; like scarecrows, which in a way is what they are, since they are
meant to scare” (32). Needless to say, the educational glory of Harvard’s former
days is over, to be replaced, for the Handmaids in Gilead at any rate, with a
curriculum of “Gyn Ed” (117) at the Rachel and Leah Re-education Center.

Linda Kauffman is correct to argue that “The Handmaid’s Tale functions
as an anatomy of ideology, exposing the process by which one constructs,
psychologically and politically, subjects of the state, and then enlists their
cooperation in their own subjection.”38 This is particularly true of Gilead’s use
of women to enforce their own victimhood, to help release pressure built up


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

by their oppression, and to spy on each other (19). The Gilead regime
understands that the “best and most cost-effective way to control women
for reproductive and other purposes” is through the women themselves, and
that no “empire imposed by force or otherwise” ever succeeded without the
“control of the indigenous by members of their own group” (308).39

Take, for example, the “crack female control agency known as the ‘Aunts’,”
who are motivated by the logic that, “When power is scarce, a little of it is
tempting” (308). The Aunts help oppress the Handmaids by monitoring their
behavior generally and by presiding over such events as “Salvagings,” aimed at
eliminating the regime’s “political enemies” (307), and “Particicutions,” “steam
valve[s] for the female elements in Gilead” (307). Women’s Salvagings (such
ceremonies are always single-sex events) take place at what was once Harvard
University, again highlighting the intellectual freedoms that have been lost.
“We take our places in the standard order,” Offred describes one such event,
“Wives and daughters on the folding wooden chairs placed towards the back,
Econowives and Marthas around the edges and on the library steps, and
Handmaids at the front, where everyone can keep an eye on us” (273). Two
Handmaids and one Wife are to be executed on this occasion. As always,
the event involves the participation of the entire audience: when the women
accused of committing crimes against the state are hung on the stage, the
assembled women lean forward and touch the rope placed in front of them
and then place their hands on their hearts to signify their “unity with the
Salvagers,” “consent” to the murder, and “complicity in the death” of the
victim (276).

Particularly ingenious are “Particicutions,” in which Handmaids en masse
murder a Guardian or other male former regime functionary who is accused
of rape or the like. In one such Particicution, the victim is supposedly a
Guardian who has “disgraced his uniform.” “He has abused his position of
trust,” Aunt Lydia charges, citing the Bible; and “The penalty for rape, as you
know, is death. Deuteronomy 22: 23–9” (279). On this occasion even Offred
is moved, against her better judgment, by the accusation: “It’s true, there is a
bloodlust; I want to tear, gouge, rend. We jostle forward . . . our nostrils flare,
sniffing death” (279). Just when the man, who is reduced in this ceremony to
an “it” (280), begins to contest the charge against him, the crazed and enraged
Handmaids “surge forward”; in this moment they are “permitted anything
and this is freedom.” They violently assault their scapegoat-victim, kicking
him, punching him, ripping out clumps of his hair (280). Although the women
do not really know anything about their victim – and the reader knows that
they would be wise to distrust the information furnished them by the Aunts –
the abused women are eager to blame anyone they can get their hands on for
their misery. Temporarily, at least, the Handmaids have the opportunity to


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

violate a male in retaliation for being violated by one. Such male scapegoats
are useful to the regime, then, in that the Handmaids, who are “so rigidly
controlled at other times,” at least have the opportunity “to tear a man apart
with their bare hands every once in a while” (307– 8). Only with such a safety
valve could the risk of rebellion at some unexpected time be avoided. Later,
we learn that their victim on this occasion was not a rapist at all but “a
political,” and that the Handmaids, ironically, butchered someone who was
working on their behalf and against the state. After the event, like Lady Macbeth
in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Offred wants to wash her guilty hands of their complicity
in the murder of this innocent victim: “I want to go back to the house
and up to the bathroom and scrub and scrub, with the harsh soap of pumice,
to get every trace of this smell [of the warm tar of the rope] off my skin. The
smell makes me feel sick” (281).

A further example of the regime’s use of individuals to further their own
oppression can be found in the phenomenon of the “Soul Scrolls” (nicknamed
“Holy Rollers”): five different pre-recorded prayers – “for health, wealth, a
death, a birth, a sin” – that can be purchased from the state by the denizens
of Gilead. “You pick the [prayer] you want, punch the number, then punch in
your own number so your account will be debited, and punch in the number
of times you want the prayer repeated” (167). The machines “run by
themselves,” and “Once the prayers have been printed out and said, the paper
rolls back through another slot and is recycled into fresh paper again” (167).
Ironically, then, citizen-purchasers of prayers subsidize the state’s infringement
of their choice, freedom, and power while being given precisely the illusion of
choice, freedom, and power.

In another cruel and ironic twist, the Gilead regime claims to adhere to a
feminist philosophy in its treatment of women and paints a picture of a
utopian future in which female society will at last become the sorority it was
formerly prevented from being. Aunt Lydia preaches to her Handmaids-intraining
that sacrifices in the present will justify social achievements in the
future, “Women united for a common end!” Eventually “women will live in
harmony together, all in one family,” and there will be “bonds of real affection”
among them. “Your daughters will have greater freedom [than you],” Aunt
Lydia continues, “But we can’t be greedy pigs and demand too much before
it’s ready, now can we?” (162–3). As we have seen in Jean Rhys’s Wide
Sargasso Sea, the patriarchy in Gilead embraces the paradox of protection-inimprisonment:
the more imprisoned the woman is, the safer she is; the less
imprisoned she is, the less safe she is. Unlike today, runs the official Gilead
line, “Women were not protected” in the past (24). “There is more than one
kind of freedom,” Aunt Lydia explains, “Freedom to and freedom from. In
the days of anarchy [before], it was freedom to. Now you are being given


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

freedom from. Don’t underrate it” (24). The Commander similarly justifies
the ways of Gilead to Offred by claiming that in the new order of things
women will be “protected” and will at last be able to “fulfill their biological
destinies in peace.” He then adds, in an appeal to nature that rings hollow in
Offred’s ears, that all that Gilead society has done between the sexes is to
return “things to Nature’s norm” (219–20).

The net effect of this oppression is that Handmaids are reduced to the
agency-less level of children, dolls (16, 124, 182), and animals in a cage: to
objects, in other words, of another’s subjectivity. Offred interprets the
anchorman on state-run television, for example, as encouraging viewers to
“trust” the regime. “You must go to sleep, like good children” (83). She
remembers, “They used to have dolls, for little girls, that would talk if you
pulled a string at the back; I thought I was sounding like that, voice of a
monotone, voice of a doll” (16). Another time, she likens one Handmaid she
knows to “a puppy that’s been kicked too often, by too many people, at
random: she’d roll over for anyone, she’d tell anything, just for a moment of
approbation” (129). And when considering the death of her predecessor in
her Commander’s house, Offred muses: “If your dog dies, get another” (187).
“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze”
(165), she also observes. And Offred is tattooed (65) – like livestock, like a
Holocaust victim – so that she can be identified and processed. Atwood’s
implication is clear: children, dolls, and domesticated animals share a lack of
self-determination and agency that epitomizes the plight of Handmaids.

There is little escape from the state of affairs that Offred must endure save
for that which memory can afford. In this way, memory, which is capable
of assessing Gilead’s social structure from a critical distance, is subversive of
and threatening to that structure. It is for this reason, among others, that the
regime seeks to suppress it. As one critic notes, time in Gilead “is carefully
manipulated so that all remnants of the past, pre-Gilead reality are obliterated:
there are no dates after the 1980s [and] all historical documents are
destroyed.”40 Offred nevertheless remembers the days “before,” commenting,
“I’m a refugee from the past, and like other refugees I go over the customs
and habits of being I’ve left or been forced to leave behind” (227). She reminisces
over her earlier days with her mother, her college friend Moira (whom
she later runs into in the “present” of the novel), her husband Luke (“We
thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were happy?”

[51] ), and, most poignantly, her daughter whom she has not seen for three
years (since the regime came to power) and who would now be 8 years old:
“She fades, I can’t keep her here with me, she’s gone now” (64). “Sometimes,”
however, Offred’s reminiscences are involuntary, and “these flashes of normality
come at [her] from the side, like ambushes. The ordinary, the usual, a

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

reminder, like a kick” (48). Such reminiscences, which also come to her at
times in dreams, are especially painful.41

Although resistance to the Gilead regime mainly takes on such a mental
and nostalgic dimension, there are indications that an organized resistance
exists. The first hint of the existence of such resistance is the Latin inscription,
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum (52) (“Don’t let the bastards grind you
down” [187] ), which Offred discovers scratched lightly into the floor of her
bedroom by her predecessor (apparently, this predecessor, an eventual suicide,
could not keep the regime from grinding her down). Offred then comes to
believe in the existence of an organized resistance on philosophical grounds:
“Someone must be out there, taking care of things. I believe in the resistance
as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless
there is also light” (105). She finally learns from another Handmaid, Ofglen,
that there is in fact such a group, the members of which identify themselves
with the distress signal “Mayday” (from the French M’aidez) (202). This Mayday
underground is quasi-military and has a connection with another group,
the “Underground Femaleroad” (246), a “rescue operation” (309) that helps
Offred’s friend Moira, then a Handmaid-in-training, to escape temporarily
from the clutches of the regime. As one critic observes, the “underground
Femaleroad” clearly alludes to “the Underground Railroad by means of which
the runaway slaves of the American South” entered Canada.42 Ofglen is finally
found out by the regime and is forced to hang herself (“She saw the van
coming for her” [285] ), and Moira is recaptured and sent to work as a prostitute
in an illicit sex-club for Commanders. But this does not diminish the
likelihood that such organized resistance, comprised of both male and female
members (even Nick, the chauffeur of Offred’s Commander, was probably
“a member of the shadowy Mayday underground” [309] ), has a potentially
negative impact on Gilead’s hold on power.

On the other hand, Offred’s belief that an organized resistance exists does
not ensure that she can successfully resist the regime’s hegemony. As Linda
Kauffman observes, despite “Offred’s efforts to remember her prior existence,
she has begun to take on the perception the regime wants her to have of
herself.”43 For example, toward the end of the novel, when Ofglen offers to
help Offred escape if ever she is in immediate danger, Offred no longer wishes
“to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom” and instead wishes to remain
in Gilead with Nick (271), with whom she is having an affair (and by whom
she may be pregnant). She justifies her change of heart in terms of both love
and expedience: “I have made a life for myself, here, of a sort” (271). As
Kauffman points out, Offred “repossesses her body by making love with
Nick, an act for which she could be executed,” and in telling Nick her real
name, “she unburies the body, the voice, the self that the regime sought to


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

annihilate.”44 It is nevertheless also the case that Offred feels relief when she
hears about Ofglen. Ofglen, the only person outside of her household with the
knowledge to betray her, has committed suicide, which means that Offred can
maintain the status quo, at least for the time being:

So she’s dead, and I am safe, after all. She did it before they came [to get her]. I
feel a great relief. I feel thankful to her. She has died that I may live. I will
mourn later. (286)

That said, what is true about Winston Smith and Julia in Orwell’s novel is
true about Offred and Nick in Atwood’s: their forbidden relationship (and
illicit sex) constitutes “a political act.”45

Despite the lack of immediate success for the resistance, a careful look at
Gilead society does reveal cracks in its edifice. For example, illicit and deceptive
activities committed by officials are rife. As Celia Floren observes of Gilead
society, a “Lack of freedom and strong restrictions” encourage a “circle of deceit”:

[T]he Commander deceives his wife; he sees the handmaid in secret . . . and
even smuggles her into an unofficial brothel for high-ranking officers; Serena
Joy, the wife, deceives the Commander, as she helps the handmaid meet their
chauffeur, Nick, in secret, hoping that he will make the latter pregnant; Nick
cheats the Commander, when he complies with Serena’s wishes and makes love
to the handmaid, and his wife as he helps the Commander see the handmaid,
and take her to the brothel. The handmaid deceives both the husband and the
wife with Nick and the Commander, respectively; Nick and the handmaid
deceive their masters. The handmaid, with the help of another handmaid Ofglen,
deceives them all, trying to connect with the underground network.46

Offred’s illicit relationship with her Commander, who is apparently at the
very top of the Gilead power structure, is the most interesting of these deceptions.
It is especially ironic, given their obligatory monthly sex, that Offred
becomes her Commander’s “mistress” at all (163). For another, their secret
trysts in his office involve not sex but the playing of Scrabble, during which
time Offred engages in the forbidden pleasure of forming words, an emblem
of what one critic calls the novel’s focus on the “political nature of language
use” and on “the self-liberating potential of an individual’s act of storytelling.”
47 Their affair takes another strange turn when the Commander brings
Offred to an illicit Bunny Club of sorts, where Commanders, other male
senior officials, and trade delegations (237) are entertained and provided with
sexual favors by former prostitutes, political prisoners, and a few women who


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

prefer this sort of work to the alternatives (238). Although the activities that
take place at the club are “strictly forbidden,” the Commander hypocritically
affirms, violating his own repressive sexual and social codes, that “everyone’s
human, after all” (237). Offred imagines that such a transgression of the rules
is a power-trip for her Commander: “He’s breaking the rules, under their
noses, thumbing his nose at them, he’s getting away with it” (236). Although
Offred, when at the club, feels like “used glitz” (254) and “an evening rental”

(233) – and is even purple-tagged around the wrist, “like the tags for airport
luggage” – she at least takes pleasure in being “no longer in official existence”
(233) as a Handmaid. Indeed, Offred justifies going along with the Commander
out of her desire for “anything that breaks the monotony, subverts
the perceived respectable order of things” (231). At the Club she runs into
Moira, who earlier was caught trying to escape from Gilead, was sterilized,
and was sent to serve a term in the club. In Moira’s view, Commanders bring
women to the club against the rules just for kicks: “It’s like screwing on the
altar or something” (243). The evening ends with the Commander and Offred
retreating to a private room for sex, which the latter finds even more objectionable
and depressing than the Commander’s officially sanctioned monthly
attempts at impregnating her (255).
When Serena Joy (an ironic name for one neither serene nor joyful) learns
of Offred’s and the Commander’s affair, she accuses Offred of being like her
predecessor, “A slut. You’ll end up the same [a suicide]” (287). Just exactly
what happens to Offred at the end of her narrative – the black van with a
white eye painted on the side comes to pick her up, and Nick convinces her
to go quietly (he claims that the van is staffed not by members of the regime
but by members of “Mayday” [“Trust me,” he tells her] [293–5]) – we cannot
know for sure. Her narrative proper ends on a note of ambiguity: “Whether
this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given
myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped. And so
I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light” (295). It therefore lacks
a telos or “closure.”

Atwood’s recent lecture collection, Negotiating with the Dead,48 might
well be the subtitle of the present novel, for this is precisely what the academics
in 2195, in resurrecting her narrative, attempt to do with Offred. Indeed,
the entire meaning of Offred’s story is altered by the thirteen-page appendix
“Historical notes on The Handmaid’s Tale.” As Atwood reminds us, the last
chapter of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is in fact the eleven-page “Appendix:
The principles of newspeak,” which functions in the same way as the “Historical
notes” to The Handmaid’s Tale: it suggests a future in which the totalitarian
regime in question is no more.49 In both cases, then, the epilogue retrospectively
influences our reception of the main body of the narrative.


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

In this connection, although Atwood may dismiss the classification “postmodernist,”
she is clearly problematizing the “modernist, open-ended narrative”
by seeming to offer two “endings” while actually providing none.50 Offred’s
narrative proper, which does not (and cannot) detail her fate, simply stops
(rather than ends); and the “Historical notes,” which suggest that she survived
long enough to narrate her story (onto 30 cassette tapes), throws into doubt
the degree to which the meaning of Offred’s narrative has been grasped by the
scholars.51 After all, the narrative is a transcription and hence an interpretation
of a spoken text arranged and titled by its editors, who resorted at points
to “guesswork” (310). And the novel “resists closure,” leaving readers “with
disturbing questions rather than soothing answers.”52 “The Handmaid’s Tale,”
one critic concludes, is thus a “highly daunting, ambitious, postmodernist
metafictional novel,” in which the “form” is very much “part of the content.”53
To be sure, the novel’s epilogue embroils Atwood’s readers “in complex
author-narrator-reader interrelationships.”54

The appended “Historical notes” – comprising “a partial transcript of the
proceedings of the Twelfth Symposium on Gildean Studies” held in the year
2195, chaired by Maryann Crescent Moon, Professor of “Caucasian Anthropology”
at the University of Denay, Nunavit, and keynoted by Professor James
Darcy Pieixoto, Director of Cambridge University’s “Twentieth- and Twentyfirst-
Century Archives” (299) – has a parodic feel yet establishes how Offred’s
“private record has become a public document.”55 The “Historical notes” are
also a version of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century preface rationalizing
the discovery of a lost manuscript.

Although this transcript of Gildean Research Association proceedings
provides “comic relief from the grotesque text of Gilead,” it is at the same
time “the most pessimistic part of the book”:56 the academics, who condescend
to their object of study and take their job to be to “understand” rather than to
“censure” Gildean society (302), seem bound to repeat many of Gilead’s
indiscretions. Debrah Raschke, in addressing the novel’s three systems of
language and representation, puts this problem well:

The first is the Gilead system, a fixed system dominated by empirical realism,
rigid binary oppositions, and implacable boundaries. The second system of
representation (the narrator’s) threatens to disrupt Gilead’s patriarchal power
by a slippery poststructuralist refusal of fixity and truth. The third, the academic
rhetoric of the closing “Historical Notes,” poses an open, liberated discourse,
but, in effect, in its insidious insistence on univocal representation, is a repetition
of Gilead. Thus, the narrator’s method of representation functions not only
as a challenge to Gilead, but to the Academy as well.57


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

Put another way, while the “Historical Notes” provide a gloss on the “social,
historical, and political origins of Gildean society,” they also serve to satirize
the academics as “trivializers of history” who have turned “Gilead into a matter
of textual authentication”58 and a means of securing professional advancement.
Offred’s politico-sexual victimage at the hands of the regime is reduced
by the assembled “historians, archeologists, and anthropologists” to “a source
of quaint curiosity.”59 As Amin Malak concludes, “The entire ‘Historical Notes’
at the end of the novel represents a satire on critics who spin out theories
about literary or historical texts without genuinely recognizing or experiencing
the pathos expressed in them: they circumvent issues, classify data, construct
clever hypotheses garbed” in “jargon, but no spirited illumination ever comes
out of their endeavors.”60 As such, these scholars, again ironically, furnish
readers “with an example of how not to read Atwood’s novel.”61 The keynote
speaker of this academic conference acknowledges that

[T]he past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from
it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of
which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot decipher them properly in the
clearer light of our own day. (311)

Yet his analysis of Gilead belies his own testament to the limitations of
historical interpretation.

Offred, by contrast, is a sensitive and self-conscious narrator, who is aware
of the inherently problematic and fictive nature of all narratives. She is keenly
aware of the extent to which her fears, desires, and lapses of memory necessarily
impinge upon her ability to paint a comprehensive picture of her experiences.
Although she “will try” against all odds “to leave nothing out” of her story
(268), she nevertheless acknowledges:

This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction, now,
in my head . . . [I]f I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form
of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another
remove. It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you
say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too
many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean
this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described . . . (134)

At times Offred fills out the details of a conversation herself because she
cannot “remember exactly” what was said (243); at others she admits to wishing
to be able to tell a different story than the version she offers us (250, 267,


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

273), but that her powers of imagination are not vivid enough to fabricate a
more palatable version:

I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed
me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less
distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape . . . I’m sorry there is so much pain
in this story. I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled
apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it. (267)

At times she even takes to revising her story midstream, offering us a series of
versions of what might have occurred, as when she describes her illicit sexual
encounters with Nick: “I made that [last part] up. It didn’t happen that way.
Here is what [really] happened” (261). Lois Feuer concludes that while Offred’s
narrative strategy is an expression in part of the “now-familiar twentieth century
obsession with the unreliability of language and narrative, part of the self-
reflexivity of the novel in our time,” it is also about the “distrust of certainty”
and the “cherishing” of “ambiguity” – those “multiple meanings” and “alternate
possibilities” – “that the regime is ultimately unable to control.”62

With this in mind, the fact that Offred narrates her story at all is a challenge
to the regime’s authority. Although it is true that the yarn she narrates keeps
her busy and gives her a sense of purpose, as the Wives’ knitting of yarn for
scarves for “Angels at the front lines” is designed to do, Offred’s “story” also
allows her to theorize a sympathetic audience and an alternate reality to the
one Gilead forces upon her:

I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must
believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better
chance. If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there
will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up
where I left off. (39)

She later adds: “By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I
believe you’re there, I believe you into being.” “Because I’m telling you this
story I will your existence,” Offred continues in a tweaking of the foundation
of Cartesian philosophy, “I tell, therefore you are” (268).

The novel’s title also speaks to the misogynistic tenor of the scholars in
2195. This title was appended to Offred’s tapes, Professor Pieixoto explains
in the “Historical notes,” by one of his colleagues, “partly in homage to the
great Geoffrey Chaucer” but also as an intentional pun on “the archaic vulgar
signification of the word tail; that being [the] bone, as it were, of contention,


Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

in that phase of Gildean society of which our saga treats” (301). As one critic
explains, “The dual effect of the double-entendre in the pun on the word tale,
as literary creation and anatomic part,” combines “humor and denigration”
and is an emblem of the “conflict between the protagonist and the society that
regards her as a sexual object.”63 Similarly, Professor Pieixoto, in “bracketing”
Offred’s tale, “reiterates the tension between Offred’s words and [the] patriarchal
control of her story,” which is the very crux of the novel’s meaning.64
Like Gilead’s “computer prayers” that “fall upon deaf ears,” Offred’s “voice
falls upon deaf ears, unheard [in her own time] or misheard [in Pieixoto’s].”65
As in Dickens’s Hard Times – which ends with the narrator’s entreaty to
readers of the novel to alter the state of social affairs for the better – in
Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale it falls to the novel’s readers to “hear” what
was apparently inaudible both to Offred’s contemporaries and to Pieixoto’s
colleagues 200 years later.


Chapter 9

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The
Remains of the Day (1989)

The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional
role and inhabit it to the utmost. . . . They wear their professionalism as a
decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstance
tear it off him in the public gaze.

Stevens, in The Remains of the Day1

People are in general not candid over sexual matters. They do not show their
sexuality freely, but to conceal it they wear a heavy overcoat woven of a tissue
of lies.

Sigmund Freud, Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis2


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a profound novelistic exploration
of narrator and narrative repression and of emotional fascism. Ishiguro’s third,
best-known, Booker Prize-winning novel is also a provocative examination
of England’s nostalgic, sentimental myths about its past and a commentary on
its presently burgeoning “heritage industry.” Like all of Ishiguro’s protagonists,
Stevens the butler, despite his ostensible eagerness to divulge his life story,
works hard to conceal the alarming significance and troubling consequences
of his past. Indeed, all of Ishiguro’s first-person protagonists – Etsuko in
A Pale View of Hills (1982; Winifred Holtby Prize of the Royal Society of
Literature), Ono in An Artist of the Floating World (1986; Whitbread Book of
the Year Award), Stevens in the present novel, Ryder in The Unconsoled (1995;
Cheltenham Prize), and Christopher Banks in When We Were Orphans (2000;


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

Booker Prize finalist) – tell stories that mask or distort rather than uncover
the most revealing implications of their tales. In The Remains of the Day, as
in all of these works, one must read between the lines of the narrative to grasp
its subtle meanings and hidden intentions. As one critic writes, “Few writers
dare to say so little of what they mean as Ishiguro.”3 Salman Rushdie puts the
serene surface yet disturbing depths of The Remains of the Day this way: “Just
below the understatement of the novel’s surface is a turbulence as immense as
it is slow.”4 Ishiguro is above all a novelist of the unspoken.


The five novels by Ishiguro published in the period up to 2000 are intricately
crafted, psychologically absorbing, hauntingly evocative works that betray
the author’s grounding not only in the realist European novelistic tradition
(Ishiguro speaks often of his debt to Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, Chekhov, and
Dostoyevsky) but in the discourse of modern psychology (before beginning
to write fiction, Ishiguro was a social worker with the homeless in various
Glasgow and London shelters). In all of these novels – whether the protagonist
is a bereaved mother, an aging artist, a professional butler, a world-famous
pianist, or a celebrated detective – the narrative moves back and forth seamlessly
across events spanning several decades of the protagonist’s life to form a vast
web of personal and historical traumas. Whether these events take place in
postwar Nagasaki, in an interwar England flirting with rising fascism, or in
the war-torn, besieged Shanghai of the 1930s, it is always the central character’s
quietly anguished interior landscape upon which the novel’s most compelling
drama is enacted.

Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954 and was raised and educated
in England, his family having moved to Guildford, Surrey, after his father,
an oceanographer, was hired to work on a North Sea oil project. Brought
up as English by Japanese parents in a Japanese-speaking home, and hence
feeling neither English nor Japanese, Ishiguro came to identify himself as an
“international” or a “homeless writer,” one who lacks a natural constituency
or audience: “I had no clear role, no society or country to speak for or write
about. Nobody’s history seemed to be my history.”5 Kazuo studied English
and philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Kent, graduating in
1978, and then creative writing as a postgraduate with novelist-critic Malcolm
Bradbury at the University of East Anglia, graduating in 1980. Ishiguro is now
one of Britain’s most celebrated contemporary novelists, and the author’s
acclaim extends far beyond the world of Anglophone readers. His works have


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

been translated into twenty-eight foreign languages, and The Remains of the
Day, in addition to being awarded the Booker Prize, was produced as a feature
film by Merchant-Ivory Productions, in an adaptation by novelist Ruth
Prawer Jhabvala. The 1993 film, which co-starred Anthony Hopkins and Emma
Thompson, was nominated for eight Academy Awards, assuring the author
an even wider global following.6

Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills, concerns the post-World War II
remembrances of a middle-aged Japanese woman, Etsuko, who has made
a permanent move to a house in the English countryside. It focuses in particular
on Etsuko’s relationship with her two daughters (from two different
marriages), one of whom has recently visited from London and the other has
recently committed suicide. In the background lurks the nuclear devastation
of Nagasaki and Etsuko’s painful personal history. Ishiguro’s second novel,
An Artist of the Floating World, centers on an aging Japanese painter, Masuji
Ono, who reminisces and agonizes over his career as artist in Japan during
the war years. Like Etsuko, he has two daughters as well as unacknowledged
regrets and unarticulated feelings of guilt about his earlier wartime activities.
He too must alter his personal history in order to make it more palatable – for
himself as well as for his readers. Ishiguro deems The Remains of the Day,
his next novel, “more English than English,”7 and reports having felt “a great
sense of liberation” when moving his novelistic terrain from the Japan of
his first two works to the England of his third. “There was a part of me that
wanted to find out if my acceptance was conditioned on the fact that I
was acting as mediator to Japanese culture. I wanted to see if people could
appreciate me purely as a novelist as opposed to a Japanese novelist.”8

Ishiguro’s fourth novel, The Unconsoled, marks another significant shift in
direction for its author. The work centers on a world-famous English pianist,
Ryder, who visits an unidentified central European city for a few days in order
to give a recital and to help the city resolve its nagging artistic and identity
crises. This shift in Ishiguro’s focus is not merely one of terrain – from Japan
and England to continental Europe – but one of tone and temperament
as well: in The Unconsoled the elegant Jamesian prose of the earlier novels
gives way to a disturbing Kafkaesque dreamscape, just as the short and
tightly-structured novel form is abandoned for a “baggy monster” of epic
proportions. Yet even here self-deceptive memory, as in the earlier novels,
takes center stage. Ishiguro’s fifth novel, When We Were Orphans, bears
a superficial resemblance to its predecessor and revisits certain themes and
narrative devices found in the earlier three novels. Otherwise, it breaks new
ground for its author. Christopher Banks, the thirty-something, ethnically
English protagonist, tells of his childhood in Shanghai between 1910 and
1920: first recalling it in 1930, from London, to which he moved after losing


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

his parents and in which he has established himself as “the most brilliant
investigative mind in England”; and then in 1937, from Shanghai, where he
returns after twenty-two years in the hope of solving the mystery of his missing
parents and undoing his status as an orphan – a status that both haunts and
defines him. Like Ishiguro’s first novel, his fifth one may be viewed as a
meditation on cultural and linguistic displacement, a phenomenon that recalls
the author’s own life experiences.

Ishiguro has received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to
literature (1995) as well as honorary doctorates from the two English universities
he attended. He also has received Italy’s Premio Scanno for Literature
(1995) and was named a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the
French government. At present Ishiguro, who lives in greater London, divides
his time between novel-writing and original screenplay work.


In a series of interviews he granted after the publication of The Remains of the
Day (1989), Ishiguro revealed his own understanding of Mr Stevens, the novel’s
first-person protagonist and aging butler of Darlington Hall, who narrates
his 1956 “expedition” to the English West Country against the backdrop of
an even more significant journey: a journey into his past life at Darlington
Hall during the politically turbulent 1920s and 1930s. In these interviews,
Ishiguro emphasizes repeatedly Stevens’s “suppression of emotion,”9 his use
of “memory” to “trip” himself up or to “hide” from himself and his past.10
Stevens, Ishiguro contends,

ends up saying the sorts of things he does because somewhere deep down he
knows which things he has to avoid. . . . Why he says certain things, why he
brings up certain topics at certain moments, is not random. It’s controlled by
the things that he doesn’t say. That’s what motivates the narrative. He is in this
painful condition where at some level he does know what’s happening, but he
hasn’t quite brought it to the front.11

Ishiguro here describes what Freud would call “repression,” a function of
the unconscious “that censors, displaces, and condenses dangerous material,
driving it from the conscious into the unconscious.”12 Stevens is repressed in
his sexual and political life: in his relationship with his co-worker Miss Kenton,
a woman to whom he is deeply attracted, though he never admits it; and in


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

his relationship with his two “fathers,” his natural father, also a butler,
and his employer and father-substitute, Lord Darlington, behind whom he
hides his “political conscience” and on whom he bestows his uncritical
loyalty. But while it is difficult to miss Stevens’s repression, it is easy to overlook
the myriad ways in which Stevens conceals his striking sexual and
political disengagement, by clothing it under a “heavy overcoat woven of a
tissue of lies.”13

This concealment is first hinted at in the novel’s Prologue, where Stevens
initially considers a “five or six day” round-trip expedition to the West
Country to visit Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn), whom he has not seen in two
decades. Here, Stevens muses on the matter of his traveling “costumes” (20),
the “question of what sorts of costume” would be “appropriate on such a
journey, and whether or not” it would be worth while investing “in a new set
of clothes.” Noting that he already possesses “a number of splendid suits,
kindly passed on to me over the years by Lord Darlington himself,” Stevens
nevertheless worries that “many of these suits” may be “too formal for the
purposes of the proposed trip, or else rather old fashioned these days” (10).
Interestingly, this early, seemingly insignificant, reference to Stevens’s “traveling
costume” announces one of the novel’s chief concerns and controlling
metaphors: the literal and figurative ways by which the butler clothes his
private self from his own understanding and from the “public gaze.” More
specifically, literal and figurative forms of clothing function to conceal – yet
also, paradoxically, to reveal – Stevens’s sexual and political repression to the
extent that it is cloaked in the garb of “professional dignity.” It is precisely this
“dignity,” after all, which in his view “comes down to not removing one’s
clothing in public” (210). As Stevens also tellingly insists at one point, “A
butler of any quality must be seen to inhabit his role, utterly and fully; he
cannot be seen casting it aside one moment simply to don it again the next as
though it were nothing more than a pantomime costume” (169).14

Stevens’s clothes conceal yet also paradoxically reveal his identity; clothes
disguise the true nature and shape of the body, but they also serve as vehicles
of self-expression in that something about identity is divulged in one’s choice
of attire. Similarly, Stevens’s narrative “thread,” his “public” presentation of
his “private” life, functions as an attempt to clothe his sexual and political
repression, however much it finally reveals about both. Indeed, his narrative
(the novel itself ) obscures as much as it illuminates the true nature of his
earlier life at Darlington Hall and his present voyage west. Although Stevens
remains largely oblivious of the idea, this physical trip, as figured and prefigured
in the novel, is a voyage not only out of the house but out of his mental
routine and psychological paralysis in search of amatory and political engagement.
The journey, however, fails to accomplish its purpose, culminating not


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

comically, in his new-found ability to cast off his “professional suit,” but
pathetically, in his reaffirmation of the necessity of wearing it at all times.
Indeed, the nearly (spatially and temporally) circular novel closes on a note of
“sorry disappointment” (245), with Stevens’s projected return to Darlington
Hall (without Miss Kenton and without a thorough reassessment of his role
in Darlington’s political blunders) and to the “professional” status quo ante.

Ishiguro’s use of clothing metaphors is not original. As Marshall Berman
observes, in modern culture “Clothes become an emblem of the old, illusory
mode of life; nakedness comes to signify the newly discovered and experienced
truth; and the act of taking off one’s clothes becomes an act of spiritual
liberation, of becoming real.”15 What is original about Ishiguro’s use of
clothing tropes is that Stevens conceals his sexual and political disengagement
beneath his “professional suit” – that he hides his avoidance of amatory
and social intimacy beneath the garb of his “professional demeanour” and
“emotional restraint” (43). In this sense, it is no surprise that Stevens is
incapable of removing what Rousseau calls “the uniform and deceptive veil of
politeness” and instead insists upon wearing “mythic draperies heavy enough
to stifle” his own self-knowledge.16 However, Ishiguro is also original in that
he invokes but then transforms the traditional English novelistic treatment
of the relationship between servants and their aristocratic masters. Rather
than cutting his master down to size in the eyes of the reader, Stevens
instead idealizes Lord Darlington despite his familiarity with his superior’s
many patent faults. As Frank E. Huggett notes in Life Below Stairs, a study
of domestic servants in England in the modern period, although some
“Victorian servants seem to have had a genuine respect for aristocratic
masters,”17 many others were their “constant and inflexible judges.” “Behind
the servants’ mask of perfect politeness and consummate gentility, there were
dark thoughts and hidden feelings.”18 Salman Rushdie rightly characterizes
Remains as “a brilliant subversion of the fictional modes from which it
at first seems to descend”;19 put differently, the novel both “perfects and
subverts” its own literary tradition.20

Before exploring the ways in which Stevens clothes his repression, it will
be useful to examine the precise contours of this disengagement, “repression”
having become, in John Kucich’s words, “such a buzzword in the
post-Freudian world that we rarely reflect on what we mean by it.”21 Freud
defines “repression” as a device protecting “the mental personality,” by which
“forgotten memories” or “intolerable wishes” are originally “pushed” out
of “consciousness.” He defines the attendant phenomenon of “resistance” as
that “force” which prevents these “intolerable wishes” from “becoming conscious”
and compels them “to remain unconscious.”22 Freud further argues
that the “forgotten material” originates in


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

a wishful impulse which was in sharp contrast to the subject’s other wishes
and which proved incompatible with the ethical and aesthetic standards of
his personality. There had been a short conflict, and . . . the idea which had
appeared before consciousness as the vehicle of this irreconcilable wish fell
a victim to repression, was pushed out of consciousness with all its attached
memories, and was forgotten . . . An acceptance of the incompatible wishful
impulse . . . would have produced a high degree of unpleasure; this unpleasure
was avoided by means of repression . . .23

Put simply, the essence of repression “lies in turning something away, and
keeping it at a distance,” from conscious scrutiny.24

This “device” for protecting the “ethical and aesthetic standards of personality”
illustrates nicely Stevens’s ingrained habit of self-deception and
self-censorship. The butler clearly represses his sexual attraction to Miss Kenton,
a woman with whom he works “at close quarters . . . during her maiden years”
(47); represses his disappointment upon learning that she is engaged to be
married to another (218); represses his “political conscience” through a total
identification with his “master,” Lord Darlington; and represses his emotional
turmoil on the evening of his father’s death, which he conflates with
his successful professional trial-by-fire during that same evening at Lord
Darlington’s first international political conference – an evening which he
now recalls, “for all of its sad associations,” with “a large sense of triumph”
(110). He at one point even represses his “disappointment” in his entire past,
concluding, “Perhaps . . . I should cease looking back so much” and instead
“should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what
remains of my day” (244).

Stevens betrays his inability to acknowledge what he has done, many times
throughout the novel.25 One striking example occurs in 1956 when Stevens is
caught “denying” having known Lord Darlington during the era in which his
master was, in effect, aiding and abetting Hitler’s war effort. Once caught
in this lie, Stevens lies again, rationalizing his betrayal with the claim that
although his original explanation was “woefully inadequate,” it was not
“entirely devoid of truth”: “I have chosen to tell white lies . . . as the simplest
means of avoiding unpleasantness” (my emphasis).26 But “when one has so
much else to think about,” the butler adds soon afterwards, “it is easy not to
give such matters a great deal of attention,” and so I “put the whole episode
out of my mind for some time” (125–6). At other points Stevens is seen
deliberately refusing to face that which causes him pain, such as when, having
run out of fuel, he walks through some muddy fields on the third evening of
his journey and dirties the “turn-ups” of his trousers: “I deliberately refrained


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

from shining my lamp on to my shoes and turn-ups for fear of further
disappointment” (163). In another example, Stevens has the opportunity to
comfort Miss Kenton after a death in her family, just as she has sought to
comfort him on the death of his father. Kenton loses an aunt who is, “to all
intents and purposes, like a mother to her” (176). However, rather than offering
Kenton his “condolences,” as he at first intends, Stevens excuses himself
from such activity for fear of intruding “upon her private grief.” The belief
that she may have been “crying” provokes “a strange feeling to rise within”
him, and he is reduced to standing “there hovering in the corridor” (176–7).
And when he later catches up with her, he can only engage her in a “little
professional discussion” during which he upbraids her for being “complacent”
as regards some new employees under her charge (177–8).

Ishiguro has Stevens unwittingly and obliquely refer to the unconscious,
painful issues that his conscious mind will not let itself address. Comments
such as “I had become blind to the obvious” (5) and “I could gain little
idea of what was around me” (117) abound, as do various visual metaphors
for Stevens’s lack of self- and world-engagement. The numerous references
to “a mist rolling across” his path (160), “a mist” starting “to set in,” a “mist”
“thickening” and “encroaching,” a “Great expanse of fog” (151–2) describe
not only local meteorological conditions but Stevens’s self-censoring, self-
deceptive psychological orientation. In another example, his perceptions
from the vantage point of old age sum up a melancholy life lived in isolation:
it “was not a happy feeling to be up there on a lonely hill, looking over a
gate at the lights coming on in a distant village, the daylight all but faded,
and the mist growing ever thicker” (162). What the protagonist of Ishiguro’s
short story “Getting poisoned” says at one point applies equally well to
Stevens’s psychological predicament: “I don’t want to think about things too

More significantly, Stevens’s sexual and political repression is figured
on nearly every page of the novel. Near the beginning he is embarrassed by
the way the new American owner of Darlington Hall, Mr Farraday, refers to
Miss Kenton as his “lady-friend” and jokes about Stevens’s sex-life (14–15).
Throughout, Stevens never addresses Kenton other than by her family name,
despite their “close working relationship” (234) for nearly fifteen years. To be
fair, Stevens’s sexual inhibitions reflect those of the culture at large. This is
apparent when Sir David Cardinal asks Lord Darlington, who then asks Stevens,
to explain “the facts of life . . . birds, bees” (82) to his 23-year-old son Reginald
Cardinal before he is to be married (“Sir David has been attempting to tell his
son the facts of life for the last five years” [82] ). Unsurprisingly, Stevens is
only too happy to escape this responsibility when “professional” obligations
prevent him from carrying it out (85, 90).


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

The most striking instances of sexual repression in the novel occur in the
Stevens–Kenton relationship. Stevens’s fear of his own sexuality is associated
with his dislike of flowers in his pantry; indeed, it is associated with his dislike
of “distractions” there of any kind (52), which Kenton persists in supplying
(he remembers Kenton trying “to introduce flowers to my pantry on at least
three occasions over the years” [164]). Other attractive women are viewed by
him as unbearable “distractions.” Kenton observes that Stevens does “not like
pretty girls on the staff,” and then asks, “Might it be that our Mr. Stevens fears
distractions? Can it be that our Mr. Stevens is flesh and blood after all and
cannot fully trust himself ?” (156).

The “turning point” in their relationship comes in the mid-1930s, when
Kenton makes an unmistakable sexual “advance” on Stevens in his pantry.
Arriving there with flowers (Stevens believes he remembers), Kenton – who is
described as “advancing,” “invading,” and “pursuing” (166), as if she were
trying to break into Stevens’s pantry and rip off his clothes – asks to see the
book Stevens is reading. Stevens responds by “clutching” the book to his
“person” and insisting that she respect his “privacy” (166). Charging him with
hiding his book because it is “something rather racy” and “shocking,” she
promises to leave him to the “pleasures” of his reading after he shows her his
book. When she finally pries the book from his hands, revealingly, he judges
“it best to look away while she did so” (166–7). She discovers, of course, that
he is merely reading “a sentimental love story.” His claim that he reads these
romances strictly “to maintain and develop” his “command of the English
language” (167) does not allay but rather heightens the reader’s suspicion
of his fear of his own sexuality. Caroline Patey here accuses Stevens of
“impotence,”28 but the evidence instead suggests repressed sexuality. This would
also explain Stevens’s monk-like existence, his choice of quarters, in Kenton’s
words, “so stark and bereft of colour” (52). In this connection, it is not
surprising that Stevens possesses voyeuristic rather than exhibitionistic
tendencies. At many points he listens in on others (94, 122, 171, 217), yet
he always justifies this spying as prompted by “professional” considerations.

The parallel example of Stevens’s political blindness occurs in the early
1930s. It is when Reginald Cardinal attempts to explain to Stevens that Lord
Darlington is being maneuvered by the Nazis “like a pawn” (222), “the single
most useful pawn Herr Hitler has had in this country for his propaganda
tricks” (224). Naturally, Stevens does not want to acknowledge this, for,
if true, it would render Stevens no more than the pawn of a pawn. Insisting
that he does not see or notice what is really going on between Lord Darlington
and the Germans (223, 224, 225), Stevens disowns his own political views,
reasoning, “it is not my position to display curiosity about such matters”
(222): “I have every trust in his lordship’s good judgment” (225). Cardinal’s


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

response to Stevens – “you never think to look at it for what it is!” (223, my
emphasis) – further emphasizes the butler’s willed political blindness.29

Yet the clearest and most compelling example of Stevens’s political repression
is his total identification not with his lower-class natural father, who
suffers both a literal fall (on Darlington’s property) and a figurative one (in
vocational status), but with his upper-class “cultural” father and master, Lord
Darlington. It is clear that Stevens prefers his “gentleman” to his lower-class
father, the latter of whom is depicted at one point “pushing a trolley loaded
with cleansing utensils, mops, [and] brushes” that “resembled a street hawker’s
barrow” (78). Although Stevens emulates his natural father’s “expression
balanced perfectly between dignity and readiness to oblige” (38), his renewed
contact with him at Darlington Hall, which begins in 1922, the year of Miss
Kenton’s arrival, nevertheless precipitates awkwardness and “an atmosphere
of mutual embarrassment” (64).

That Stevens “substitutes” his adopted father for his actual one is made
clear the night of his actual father’s death, which coincides with the climax of
his master’s international conference. At first responding to his dying father’s
final words to him, “I hope I’ve been a good father to you,” by nervously
laughing and repeatedly saying, “I’m so glad you’re feeling better now” (97),
Stevens then quickly returns downstairs to his conference duties for his
master. When his father dies later that evening, Stevens still claims not to have
time for him, remarking to Kenton, who offers to close the dead butler’s eyes,
“Please don’t think me unduly improper in not ascending the stairs to see my
father in his deceased condition just at the moment. You see, I know my
father would have wished me to carry on just now.” He then adds, “To do
otherwise, I feel, would be to let him down” (196). But by this point the
reader is unsure whether the “him” Stevens wishes not to disappoint is his
birth or his class father.

David Gurewich is thus correct but does not go far enough when he notes
that “it is only through his master that Stevens manages to establish his
own worth.”30 Indeed, Stevens’s willingness to be a pawn of a pawn of Hitler
betokens not any fascistic political leanings on his part but rather an “emotional
fascism”: an extreme, even perverse identification with his father-substitute.
Appropriately, Stevens inherits many of Lord Darlington’s “splendid suits”
over the years (10), just as he dons his master’s political beliefs. Moreover,
Stevens “becomes” an aristocrat merely by following orders. As he explains to
Miss Kenton,

[M]y vocation will not be fulfilled until I have done all I can to see his lordship
through the great tasks he has set himself. The Day his lordship’s work is
complete, the day he is able to rest on his laurels, content in the knowledge that


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

he has done all anyone could ever reasonably ask of him, only on that day . . . will
I be able to call myself . . . a well-contented man. (173)

Surprisingly, Stevens’s identification with his employer reaches its culminating
point after Lord Darlington’s death, when Stevens allows others to take
him for a gentleman rather than the servant of a gentleman (184–8). Reginald
Cardinal at one point tells Stevens that Darlington has “been like a second father
to me” (221), yet it is even more truly the case for the butler to whom he speaks.

Having observed Stevens’s amatory and political disengagement, it remains
to discover the means by which the butler attempts to clothe this disengagement
– to cover it up or justify it to himself and to his audience – beneath his
“professional suit.” In an interview Ishiguro commented of The Remains of
the Day, “It seemed to me appropriate to have somebody who wants to be this
perfect butler because that seems to be a powerful metaphor for someone
who is trying to actually erase the emotional part of him that may be dangerous
and that could really hurt him in his professional area.”31 This remark is
misleading. Rather than viewing Stevens’s emotional life as a threat to his
professional life, it is far more convincing to view his obsession with “professional
dignity” as an excuse to remain sexually and politically disengaged; and
the obsession with his “professional suit” as an emblem of his desire to keep
this repression under wraps. Stevens sublimates his sexual and political
instincts by directing them to a higher and consequently unobjectionable
purpose: his professional life. Hence, it is no coincidence that Stevens likens
one who cannot “maintain a professional demeanour” to “a man who will, at
the slightest provocation, tear off his suit and his shirt and run about screaming”
(43). Cynthia F. Wong writes that “Stevens’s motor trip” is a “journey
reflecting on his repressed love for Miss Kenton . . . which had resulted from
his loyalty to Lord Darlington.”32 Rather, Stevens’s “professionalism” is best
understood as a means of defending himself against “the messiness of life: sex,
marriage, personal interests”;33 it is the “wall” he “labors to construct” against
“his regrets,”34 and not the other way around.35

There is much evidence of Stevens “clothing” his sexual disengagement
beneath his professional costume – his “professional viewpoint” (48), “professional
matters” (165), or “professional ambition” (115). It is clear that he
views romantic encounters, with their anarchic, emotionally intimate, informal
natures – during which clothing, after all, is often removed – to be a grave
threat to the “professional order” of the house. Nothing saddens him more,
he admits, than his memory of a housekeeper and an under-butler on his staff
deciding “to marry one another and leave the profession”: “I have always
found such liaisons a serious threat to the order in a house.” In particular,


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

Stevens views as a “blight on good professionalism” those “persons – and
housekeepers [that is to say, women] are particularly guilty here – who have
no genuine commitment to their profession and who are essentially going
from post to post looking for romance” (50–1). Kenton highlights the mutually
exclusive nature of professional and romantic life when she asks exclaims
(with some irony) to the unattached Stevens: “Here you are . . . at the top of
your profession, every aspect of your domain well under control. I really
cannot imagine what more you might wish for in life” (173).

Particularly notable is the way in which Stevens uses his professional identity
as a means of masking his obvious attraction to Miss Kenton – obvious to
readers even if not to himself. When she begins taking days off from Darlington
Hall for the first time, for example, Stevens admits,

I found it hard to keep out of my mind the possibility that the purpose of these
mysterious outings of Miss Kenton was to meet a suitor. This was indeed a
disturbing notion, for it was not hard to see that Miss Kenton’s departure would
constitute a professional loss of some magnitude. (171, my emphasis)

Stevens repeatedly and defensively justifies his and Kenton’s evening cocoa
sessions in the “privacy of Miss Kenton’s parlour” as “overwhelmingly professional
in tone” (147), as “essentially professional” in character (157), and
as exclusively for purposes of “professional communication” (174). But when
she enters his pantry uninvited – a pantry in which all things must be “ordered

– and left ordered – in precisely the way I wish them to be” (165) – revealing
her attraction to him, and forcing him to reveal that he reads romance novels
there, he resolves “to set about reestablishing” their “professional relationship
on a more proper basis” (169). And things have not changed twenty years
later when Stevens hides his “growing excitement” (12) at the prospect of
taking the car-trip to see her once again beneath the garb of “professional
matters” (5), that is, the “professional motive” of re-staffing Darlington Hall:
“I would expect our interview . . . to be largely professional in character” (180).
Stevens even worries that he has exaggerated the evidence in her letter that she
wishes to return to “service” at Darlington Hall, calling it “wishful thinking of
a professional kind” (140).36
Ishiguro contends that his “butler is a good metaphor for the relationship
of very ordinary, small people to power,”37 which announces the other major
item Stevens hides under the folds of his “professional suit”: a repressed
“political conscience.” Insisting that a butler’s “professional prestige” lies “most
significantly in the moral worth” of his employer (114), and that, as a professional,
he serves “humanity” (117) by serving “the great gentlemen of our


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

times in whose hands civilization” has been “entrusted” (116), Stevens contends
that “a butler’s duty is to provide good service. It is not to meddle in the great
affairs of the nation” (199). For “it is, in practice, simply not possible to
adopt . . . a critical attitude towards an employer and at the same time provide
good service”; a butler “who is forever attempting to formulate his own ‘strong
opinions’ on his employer’s affairs is bound to lack one quality essential in all
good professionals: namely, loyalty” (200). Stevens’s sacrifice of his “political
conscience” to his “professional loyalty” is revealed no more clearly than when
he remembers that Darlington alone made the decisions “while I simply confined
myself, quite properly, to affairs within my own professional realm” (201).

Stevens’s political capitulation might have remained insignificant, at least
morally speaking, were it not for Lord Darlington’s flirtation, in the early 1930s,
with anti-Semitism, and his decision, “for the good of this house” (146), to
dismiss two maids from his staff purely on the grounds that they are Jewish.
Naturally, it falls to Stevens to do the firing, forcing him to “cross the fine line
between the loyalty that is the essence of his professionalism and the blind
obedience of ‘just following orders’.”38 And while Stevens claims that “my
every instinct opposed the idea of their dismissal,” he nevertheless also reasons
that “my duty in this instance was quite clear . . . there was nothing to be
gained at all in irresponsibly displaying such personal doubts. It was a difficult
task, but . . . one that demanded to be carried out with dignity” (148). Raising
the matter with Miss Kenton in a “businesslike” way, Stevens counsels her,
“we must not allow sentiment to creep into our judgment” (148): “our professional
duty is not to our own foibles and sentiments, but to the wishes of
our employer” (149).

As for Darlington himself, it is hinted that his “going to bed with Hitler”
(politically speaking) is motivated by his homoerotic feelings for the aristocratic
German Herr Bremann. Bremann, we read,

first visited Darlington Hall very shortly after the [Great] war while still in his
officer’s uniform, and it was evident to any observer that he and Lord Darlington
had struck up a close friendship. . . . He returned again . . . at fairly regular
intervals. . . . It must have been towards the end of 1920 that Lord Darlington
made the first of a number of trips to Berlin. (71)

Further, when Darlington talks about his German friend, his voice resounds
“with intensity” (73). Although this German officer is apparently married,
Darlington is never able “to discover the whereabouts of any of Herr Bremann’s
family” (74). And Stevens describes Darlington’s international conferences
by reference to the “unbroken lines of gentlemen in evening suits, so


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

outnumbering representatives of the fairer sex” (98), and to the “rather
feminine room crammed full with so many stern, dark-jacketed gentlemen,
sometimes sitting three or four abreast upon a sofa” (92).39

Stevens also uses language and memory itself to clothe a painful reality –
and wasted life – from scrutiny. Like Joseph Conrad, who associates “words”
with “mist” and comments, “like mist, [words] serve only to obscure, to make
vague the real shape of one’s feelings,”40 Ishiguro states of the language of his
novel, “I’m interested in the way words hide meaning . . . The language I use
tends to be the sort that actually suppresses meaning and tries to hide away
meaning.”41 Elsewhere Ishiguro puts this even more baldly: The Remains of
the Day “is written in the language of self-deception.”42

Readers have noted that Stevens is “a great manipulator of language,”43 that
he uses “his words and his narrative to convey information to us of which he
is unaware.”44 Most significantly, Stevens can talk about himself only when he
talks about others; when he talks about himself directly, he is compelled to lie.
As with the route of his meandering car-trip, his story itself might seem
“unnecessarily circuitous” (67), but that is precisely the point: his narrative
intentionally impedes his voyage of self-discovery. For example, when Stevens
concludes that Lord Darlington’s “life and work have turned out today to look,
at best, a sad waste” (201), or that Kenton’s life has come to be “dominated by
a sense of waste” (48), he in fact describes his own “life and work”; when he
addresses Kenton’s “guilt” at helping to precipitate his father’s decline in
professional status at Darlington Hall (66–7), he addresses his own; when he
speaks of Kenton’s “nostalgia” for the Darlington Hall of the old days (49,
180), he accurately reveals his own nostalgia; when he refers to Kenton’s
“sadness” and “weariness” (233), he instead registers his own (“you do not
seem to have been happy over the years,” he tells her [238]). When Stevens
remarks that Kenton undoubtedly “is pondering with regret decisions made
in the far-off past that have now left her, deep in middle age, so alone and
desolate,” and that “the thought of returning to Darlington Hall” must therefore
be “a great comfort to her” (48), it is clear of whom he really speaks.45

Stevens also uses what he calls the “hindsight colouring” his “memory”

(87) as a means of clothing his disengagement. He often uses the present to
escape a failed past; at others times he uses the past to escape a failed present.46
In either case, Stevens’s ability always to be somewhere that he is not allows
him to live what might be called a vicarious existence during the 1920s, 1930s,
and 1940s. It is only in 1956, after all, that he ventures forth from Darlington
Hall to see England “at first hand” (28) rather than through “Mrs. Jane
Symons’s The Wonder of England” (11); it is only then that he actively seeks
the company of a woman rather than reading “sentimental” love stories from
Darlington’s romance collection “about ladies and gentlemen who fall in love

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

and express their feelings for each other” (167–8); and it is only at that time
that he seeks to engage his “political conscience” rather than blindly follow
Darlington’s lead. In this way, Stevens’s trip to the West Country promises
to be an act of self-liberation following a life of self-imprisonment (Kenton
tellingly likens Stevens’s quarters to “a prison cell,” a place “one could well
imagine condemned men spending their last hours” [165]; and Farraday
rebukes Stevens, “You fellows, you’re always locked up in these big houses
helping out” [4] ). Stevens’s present voyage to the West may even be understood
as his first (semi-conscious) attempt to engage the muted erotic and political
sides of his character.

Indeed, Stevens’s journey is figured as an attempt to break out of the house,
out of himself, and out of his physical and psychical routine – to overcome his
amatory and political disengagement – in the guise of a “pleasure” trip with
business implications, the “professional motive” of re-staffing Darlington Hall
(13). In this sense, the entire novel, which begins with the sentence, “It seems
increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been
preoccupying my imagination now for some days” (3), concerns Stevens’s
present attempt to change his life after years of unacknowledged unhappiness,
to gain self- and world-knowledge to supplement his “house knowledge” (54).
Veiled references to the deeper significance of his proposed trip to the West of
England – like Gabriel Conroy’s proposed trip to the West of Ireland in
Joyce’s “The dead,” replete with sexual and political undertones – are in profusion.
In both fictions, a physical voyage is associated with the protagonist’s
increased understanding of himself and the world. As Stevens himself seems
to detect of his own case, “it is perhaps in the nature of coming away on a trip
such as this that one is prompted toward such surprising new perspectives on
topics one imagined one had long ago thought through thoroughly” (117).

That the butler’s physical departure from Darlington Hall is also a psychological
one is suggested early on in Remains. Stevens, we read, “motored
further and further from the house” until the “surroundings grew strange”
around him. “But then eventually the surroundings grew unrecognizable”
and he knew that he had “gone beyond all previous boundaries.” The psychological
dimension of this physical description soon becomes unmistakable:
“The feeling swept over me that I had truly left Darlington Hall behind, and I
must confess I did feel a slight sense of alarm” (23–4, my emphasis). Of course,
Stevens would never have ventured forth from Darlington Hall during the
time when Darlington himself lorded over the house; it is the new American
owner, Farraday, who urges Stevens to “get out of the house for a few days”
(4). That Stevens initially finds this proposal extravagant is underscored
by the fact that he worries that such a “journey” may keep him away from
Darlington Hall “for as much as five or six days” (3).47


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

Despite Stevens’s half-acknowledged desire to throw off the yoke of his
repression, however, he ultimately resists the temptation. In the novel’s own
metaphor, the butler is involved in a struggle between the side of him that
wishes to cast off his clothing and the side that wishes to keep it securely
wrapped about him. There is much evidence of this internal conflict. Not only
does Stevens, during his journey, refrain from exploring some beautiful
English countryside for fear of “sustaining damage” to his “traveling suit”
(121), but he at first responds negatively to Farraday’s proposal that he take
the trip to see his own country, countering, “It has been my privilege to see
the best of England over the years” right within the walls of Darlington Hall
itself (4). He adds that he remains reluctant “to change too much of the old
ways” (7) and that “strange beds have rarely agreed” with him (47).

Stevens does not ultimately succeed in overcoming his repression. On the
political front, he does not gain true insight about his own political disengagement;
there is no change in what David Gurewich calls “Stevens’s lack of
awareness of the world outside his master’s estate.”48 Specifically, his encounter
with the middle-class Harry Smith, who represents democratic “political conscience”
(209), who has strong political “opinions,” and who therefore stands
in stark contrast to the politically disengaged Stevens, makes no impact on
the butler whatsoever. While the “common” Smith remarks that “it’s one of
the privileges of being born English that no matter who you are, no matter if
you’re rich or poor, you’re born free and you’re born so that you can express
your opinion freely, and vote in your member of Parliament or vote him out”
(186), that “England’s a democracy, and . . . it’s up to us to exercise our rights,
everyone of us” (189), Stevens stubbornly adheres to his earlier elitist and
oligarchic perspective: “There is, after all, a real limit to how much ordinary
people can learn and know, and to demand that each and every one of them
contribute ‘strong opinions’ to the great debates of the nation cannot, surely,
be wise” (194). Smith also contends that protecting democracy is “what we
fought Hitler for”: If “Hitler had had things his way, we’d just be slaves now”
(186). This comment is more telling of Stevens’s situation than either realizes:
Stevens indirectly worked for Hitler and directly worked to maintain his
status as a “slave,” at least intellectually-speaking, of Lord Darlington.

That Stevens fails to overcome his sexual repression is equally clear.
This failure is mirrored in the “ferocious downpour” of rain, the “ominous
stormclouds,” the “gloomy” light, and the subsequent “drizzle” (232, 238)
that surround the present meeting between Stevens and Kenton. It is appropriate
that rain falls when they meet, just as it does on Gabriel and Gretta in
Joyce’s “The dead,” in which precipitation foreshadows a downpour of tears
betokening a love affair that pales in comparison with what it might have
been. The entire novel prepares its readers for the Stevens–Kenton encounter


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

which, however “pleasant” he claims it to be, is a brief, uneventful disappointment:
rather than returning to service at Darlington Hall, Kenton vows
instead to return to her husband from whom she has been separated.

Ironically, given the expectations that the novel raises in its readers, the gap
between Stevens’s private belief and public expression – his inner feeling and
outer demeanor – is never so wide as in this final chapter. There, Stevens
consistently calls his former co-worker “Mrs. Benn” to her face but “Miss
Kenton” to himself; and he literally “smiles” at her even though his “heart” is
“breaking” (239). This duplicity helps the forlorn Stevens convince us (and
himself ) that, despite a clearly failed excursion and failed life, “there is plenty
of daylight left” – that “the evening” may well be “the best part of the day”
(240). Although he breaks down when speaking with a retired butler whom
he encounters two days after his meeting with Kenton, lamenting that he
“gave it all to Lord Darlington” who “at least” had “the privilege of being able
to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes” (243), Stevens
nevertheless insists that his tears are the result of the fatigue that follows
traveling: “I’m so sorry, this is so unseemly. I suspect I’m over-tired. I’ve been
traveling rather a lot, you see” (244). He then adds:

Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small
contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are
prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely
that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment. (244)

Stevens’s concluding thoughts may strike the reader as surprising. After all, he
has voyaged such a long way to go nowhere at all (Stevens’s car journey forms
a giant circle across southwest England, suggesting in geographical terms that
he is merely going around in circles or “spinning his wheels” in personal or
psychological terms). His thoughts are surprising only until they are viewed
within the context of his failure to overcome his disengagement, his failure to
cast off the “professional suit” that is a metaphor for his repression.

However, Stevens does make one new resolution that might appear to be a
viable way for him to gain necessary emotional intimacy with others: he will
learn to “banter,” to engage in conversations of “a light-hearted, humorous
sort” (13). In “bantering,” Stevens now contends, “lies the key to human
warmth” (245). But while Stevens is not being ironic here, Ishiguro undoubtedly
is. For Stevens’s new resolution promises not to be a panacea for his
sense of emptiness and loneliness. Like Stevens’s first-person narrative style
itself, which, as Ishiguro writes, is as much a “form of cowardice” as dignity,
“a way of actually hiding from what is perhaps the scariest arena in life, which
is the emotional arena,”49 bantering actually precludes rather than enables the


Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

“human warmth” that Stevens now seeks. This is suggested by a standard
ancillary definition of “bantering,” “to delude or trick, especially by way of
jest.” For this secondary definition, bantering functions less to promote
intimacy than to maintain distance. The Remains of the Day thus ends neither
comically nor tragically (despite the deathly resonance of the novel’s title)50
but on a pathetic and ironic note, as “old habits” of Stevens’s “mind reassert
themselves in a new guise.”51

The Remains of the Day is one of the most profound novelistic representations
of repression masquerading as professionalism, yet it is also aimed at an
entire nation’s mythical self-identity. Indeed, the novel associates Stevens’s
deceptive self-conception with that of England’s at large. Stevens equates the
significance of events in Darlington Hall with those in England generally,
confuses “house knowledge” with world knowledge, and moves freely between
the subject of what makes a “great butler” great and what makes “Great
Britain” great, arguing that both exhibit “calmness” and a “sense of restraint”
(28–9). And Stevens clearly equates a decline in the status of Darlington
Hall52 with the decline of English prestige, with the postwar Americanization
of England,53 and with what David Gurewich calls “the disintegration of the
good old world where Stevens and his ideals held value.”54 (It is surely no
coincidence that the present of the novel is set in July of 1956, the time of the
Suez crisis, “a turning point for the British Empire,”55 which decisively marked
the end of England’s claim to world military supremacy.) Yet if Stevens exhibits
nostalgia for this “good old world” of “grand old English houses,” The Remains
of the Day does not. Rather, Ishiguro’s novel exhibits only a mock nostalgia,
one that throws into question the “good old world” and the grandeur of
Stevens’s “professional dignity” as much as it does England’s recently burgeoning
heritage industry. As Ishiguro himself maintains,

The kind of England that I create in The Remains of the Day is not an England
that I believe ever existed. . . . What I’m trying to do there . . . is to actually
rework a particular myth about a certain kind of mythical England. . . . an England
with sleepy, beautiful villages with very polite people and butlers . . . taking
tea on the lawn. . . . The mythical landscape of this sort of England, to a large
degree, is harmless nostalgia for a time that didn’t exist. The other side of this,
however, is that it is used as a political tool. . . . It’s used as a way of bashing
anybody who tries to spoil this “Garden of Eden.”56

Clearly, Ishiguro “undermines” this particular ideal of England by showing
how the soil in this “Garden of Eden” could nourish the seeds of a destructive
fascism, and how the protagonist’s professionalism – which nurtures those
same seeds – could mask a paralyzing emotional and political disengagement.


Chapter 10

Patrick McCabe’s
The Butcher Boy (1992)

As to our city of Dublin; Shambles [slaughterhouses] may be appointed for
this Purpose, in the most convenient Parts of it; and Butchers we may be
assured will not be wanting; although I rather recommend buying the Children
alive, and dressing them hot from the Knife, as we do roasting Pigs ...

Jonathan Swift, “A modest proposal”1

Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man2

It was a good song but I didn’t know what was going on in it.
Francie, on the song “The Butcher Boy,” in The Butcher Boy3


The Butcher Boy, by Irish novelist Patrick McCabe, is a tour-de-force of linguistic
verve and black comedy. Winner of the Irish Times Literature Award
in 1992 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize the same year, McCabe’s novel
was filmed by Neil Jordan in 1996, bringing The Butcher Boy and its author to
the attention of a wider audience. McCabe’s novel is at once a first-person
Irish Bildungsroman – it has been called a sort of “Irish Huckleberry Finn”4 –
and a “chronicle of cultural and artistic responses to the clash between colonizer
and colonized, tradition and modernity, sacred and secular, ancient Celtic
tradition and American popular culture.”5 Set in 1962, the year of the Cuban
Missile Crisis and of the introduction of Ireland’s national television service,


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

in an unnamed rural village that closely resembles the Irish border town of
Clones, approximately 60 miles from Dublin and the place of McCabe’s birth
and upbringing, The Butcher Boy was the author’s third and breakthrough
novel.6 This work is narrated retrospectively, from the perspective of many
years later, by Francie Brady, who appears to be roughly 12 years old during
the vast majority of the novel’s action. The only child of a terminally alcoholic
father and a suicidally depressed mother, both of whom die in the course of
the novel, Francie is abandoned to an unchecked fantasy life that segues into
outright hallucination, paranoia, and, eventually, a gruesome act of murder.
The Butcher Boy is far more than a portrait of an unstable boy within an
impoverished and dysfunctional family, however; it is also a searing portrait
of a society that fails to address the well-being of its children when the parents
in question are neglectful, abusive, or mentally ill. Indeed, Francie may be
seen as an objective correlative for that society.7


McCabe was born in Clones, Co. Monaghan (in the Republic but near the
Northern Irish border) in 1955. He was raised in this town, where his cultural
diet, like Francie’s, consisted of British comic books and Hollywood films.
Although it would be inaccurate to view Francie as a narrowly autobiographical
character, he does share certain attributes with his creator. Like Francie,
McCabe lived in the vicinity of an abattoir,8 had an accomplished trumpeter
for a father, and characterized the family life of his youth as “outwardly quite
normal” but “inwardly – fireworks, catastrophic domestic stuff and all that.”9
McCabe’s childhood is an informing context for Francie’s, then, much as
James Joyce’s youth can be said to inform Stephen Dedalus’s in A Portrait of
the Artist as a Young Man.

McCabe attended, successively, the local national school, the boarding school
at St Macartan’s College in Monaghan, and St Patrick’s teacher Training
College in Dublin. He then accepted a series of teaching positions (during
which time he also played keyboards in local country-and-western pick-up
bands). In 1985 McCabe moved to London, where, until 1993, he taught
school during the day and wrote fiction at night. The success of The Butcher
Boy allowed McCabe to move back to Ireland and devote himself to writing
full time. McCabe is also the author of five other novels, most notably The
Dead School (1995) and Breakfast on Pluto (1998; shortlisted for the Booker
Prize), as well as a short story cycle, Mondo Desperado (1999). McCabe presently
lives and works in the Irish west coast town of Sligo.


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

McCabe’s fiction frequently invites comparisons with James Joyce’s. Specifically,
The Butcher Boy’s linguistic effervescence and penetrating critique of
Irish society echo Joyce’s in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young
Man. Although McCabe claims never to have been “consciously aware of
belonging to any [literary] tradition”10 and eschews Joyce’s “Parnassian disposition,”
11 it is obvious that he is writing in the wake of this giant of modernist
Irish prose fiction. The numerous allusions to Joyce’s works in The Butcher
Boy only confirm this notion.12

McCabe does admit to being “attracted to Joyce”13 and remembers “picking
up a copy of Dubliners” and thinking, “[t]his could have been written yesterday”

– a judgment that McCabe extends to no other canonical work of Irish fiction.
Somehow, “the sheer brilliance, the art of Joyce made it seem so contemporary,
it was absolutely mindblowing.” McCabe also aspires in his work to achieve
“the intellectual Joyce, the sheer vision of it, and combine that with the
humanity and language.”14 To that end, McCabe in The Butcher Boy, like
Joyce before him, eschews quotation marks to denote spoken dialogue and
aims to keep punctuation to a bare minimum. Indeed, McCabe’s goal in this
novel might be regarded as quintessentially Joycean: to “reinvent the language”
so that readers can “feel the white heat of it” and the “sheer intensity of the
[underlying] feeling.”15
McCabe’s language, like Joyce’s, combines vibrancy and precision. Francie’s
punctuation-less “cavalry charge of words coming out of my mouth I didn’t
know where they were all coming from” (196), for example, recalls Molly
Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, which, for all its verbal pyrotechnics, never
relinquishes verbal discipline. It is difficult not to think of Joyce’s prose when
reading Francie’s, as the following example suggests:

This is a grand house I says to myself. Black kettle on the hob and a settle bed in
the corner and looking out from under it Mr Chinese Eyes the cat glaring what
are you doing here who the hell asked you in . . . ! Here you are now she [the
lady of the house] says man dear I said that’s the best cut bread ever and sank
my teeth into it, gurgle more tea into the cup. (183)

Like Joyce’s, McCabe’s prose does not merely describe a scene; it performs it.

As important as Joyce’s linguistic influence on McCabe is his thematic one;
Francie’s situation resembles that of many of Joyce’s protagonists in Dubliners,
who are disappointed, betrayed, or abused in one or more ways by their
family, church, or nation, and who make paralyzing promises to neglectful
parents in order to assuage their paradoxiacal feelings of guilt. In McCabe’s
satires, as in Joyce’s, individual foibles and flaws are invariably used to probe
more broadly sociocultural ones.


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)


One of the most engaging aspects of McCabe’s The Butcher Boy is first-person
protagonist Francie’s humorous, perceptive, and penetrating – yet also
frequently crazed, disturbing, and radically unreliable – narrative voice, which
is filtered through Francie’s movie and comic book-saturated mind. Francie’s
narration combines the naïve and innocent charm of Mark Twain’s Huck
Finn with the jaded, experienced voice of a hardened criminal. It is retrospective,
told from the standpoint of decades later; and the double perspective
this affords – Francie is implicitly both commenting on his youthful experience
and living within the white hot moment of it – lends the narrative its
peculiar resonance and power.

Despite Francie’s questionable mental balance, his keen eye for observation
and detail and his potent sense of humor squarely hit their targets. The statue
of Daniel O’Connell in Dublin, for example, is described as “A big grey statue
mouthing about something in the middle of the street and birds shitting all
over his head” (40), while “a big picture of Our Lord hanging on the wall” of
a television store is imagined to say “Buy a television or else you bastard! No it
didn’t it said Our Saviour looks after us all” (107). At another point we read,
“Off I went down the fresh, crunchy lane” (106), which both describes and,
aurally-speaking, performs the moment. Francie often views things in obviously
cartoon terms, which leads him to adopt pithy names and descriptions. For
example, he takes to calling a priest with a “big bubble head” with whom he
deals – a “man made of bubbles in charge of a school for bad boys” – “Father
Bubble” (71); and a police sergeant assigned to Francie reminds him of Sausage
the Clown and so gains the alliterative epithet “Sergeant Sausage” (70). Not
all of Francie’s humorous descriptions are intentional, however; some appear
to be the result of the normal confusions of childhood. In one such example
– which echoes his own desire to aid his ailing, trumpet-playing father –
Francie notices an RCA Victor advertisement in a music shop depicting a dog
“staring into a trumpet, trying to find his master’s voice. I’m in here get me
out Fido says the master. How says Fido. How do I know says the master just
do it will you my best little pet dog?” (194).

John Scaggs observes “the spectre of narrative unreliability” haunting
McCabe’s novel from start to finish;16 and indeed Francie proves to be an
“unreliable” narrator of colossal proportions. In Wayne Booth’s influential
definition of the term, an “unreliable narrator” is one who fails to speak for or
act in accordance with the norms of the work and who therefore is ironized
by the work.17 More than is true of most (even “unreliable”) narrators, the
meaning of Francie’s narrative is not what he understands it to be. We can


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

gauge that many of his “most poignant personal memories and stories” are
“fabrications”18 by virtue of the response of others to Francie’s actions, even
if Francie fails to comprehend this. Put differently, although the novel is
comprised of Francie’s first-person narration, this is not to say that his story’s
meaning and implications are within his grasp. What Francie says about the
song “The Butcher Boy” may be taken as an emblem of his limited grasp of
his own narrative at large: “It was a good song but I didn’t know what was
going on in it” (20).

In a study of first-person narrators David Goldknopf writes that I-narrators
tend either to “haul us immediately into the narrative situation” through a
“direct appeal for our attention,” or to “intervene between us and the narrative
situation, forcing us always to evaluate the latter through” them, rendering the
“operation” of their minds “the true subject matter of the story.”19 In Francie’s
case – unlike that of Stevens in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day or of
Dowell in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, for example – the narrative
unreliability stems less from the protagonist’s repression20 than from the
protagonist’s abuse and neglect at the hands of his parents. It is this abuse
and neglect that, with the help of stout, whiskey, or drugs, occasion his flights
of fancy and fantasy. Francie may believe that it is “better to be straight
with people” (126) than not, but “straight” is a far cry from what Francie is
with his readers – and with himself – in his wildly humorous but deeply
disturbing narrative.

One example of Francie’s creative misreading of events is contained in his
description of his drunk father, who apparently has spilt whiskey on himself.
When the whiskey spills “down his trouser leg,” Francie reports that his father
watches it

dribble until it reached the floor parting into twin rivers on the lino. It went
right across as far as the bottom of the door. He kept looking at it as if there was
some hidden meaning in the pattern it was making. Then he started crying, his
whole body shuddering with each sob. (38)

What Francie here describes is in all likelihood his father urinating on himself
rather than spilling whiskey on himself; this far more painful interpretation of
the scene before him is not one that Francie will allow himself to grasp.

A portion of the narrative’s unreliability stems from what Donna Potts calls
Francie’s “post hoc, ergo propter hoc logic,”21 his logically-challenged explanations
of events. For example, the breakdown of Francie’s family harmony is
traced to the breakdown of the family television (“It was all going well until
the telly went” [10]); at another point, Francie comes to believe that one


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

friend’s gift of a goldfish to another, which in fact follows from their friendship,
is the cause of this friendship. Francie obsesses over this gift of a fish, which
keeps swimming into view – “The more I tried to get the goldfish out of my
head the more it kept coming back” (100) – as if it has talismanic power and
can single-handedly make or break a friendship. Another object that Francie
imagines has talismanic power is the gift – a wooden plaque with the words,
“A Mother’s love’s a blessing no matter where you roam” (44) – he buys for
his mother during his short-lived escape to Dublin after the family’s bitter
Christmas argument. Upon arriving home he learns that his mother has committed
suicide and that he is too late to give her the gift. Before this fully sinks
in, however, Francie comforts himself by feeling “the present inside” his pocket
and by thinking, “It’s OK. Everything’s OK now” (44).

Francie’s narrative unreliability is also explained by his “out of sight, out
of mind” logic: his sense that the mere passing of time, which allows for the
forgetting of upsetting occurrences, can cure all ills. For example, on one
occasion Francie knows “that in a couple of days everything would be all right
again” (121), and, on another, explains, “I left it for a few days so that it would
all be forgotten” (122). A similar form of denial is contained in his fantasy
that he can “fix” his falling out with his friend Joe by fixing it in his head, and
so he “blank[s] it out so that it hadn’t happened” (113). A simple mental
alteration, he seems to believe, will put things “back the way” they “used to
be” (115) between the two of them, just as it will between Francie and his
parents: “Everything was starting again and this time it was all going to work
out right” (19). Like Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s novel, Francie imagines that he can
alter the past and rewrite his personal history simply by mental fiat.

More alarming even than Francie’s logical lapses are his daydreams that
segue into full-blown paranoid hallucinations and psychotic breaks. To add
insult to injury, Francie at points is unaware where his waking life ends and
his fantasy life begins, posing a particular challenge to the reader’s desire to
reconstruct what is really happening. While it is true that not everything Francie
says should be discounted, it is also true that, more than in most first-person
narratives, we are “denied an anchoring or validating other voice, a reality
against which to compare Francie’s narrative.”22 We know, for example, that
his dialogue with snowflakes is imagined (“the first dusty flakes of snow were
starting to fall. We’re early this year they said” [18] ); what we do not know is
whether this imagining represents boyish whimsicality or mental pathology.

McCabe has characterized the culture of his youth as both impoverished
and “brutalised”; “there’s no question” that in the small town of his upbringing
“there was a deep hurt at all levels of society.”23 This is certainly true of
Francie’s upbringing as well. In contrast to the middle-class ideal of home life
that was promoted by Irish President Eamon de Valera in his 1943 radio


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

address – an Ireland “bright with cosy homesteads . . . whose firesides would
be forums for the wisdom of serene old age”24 – home in The Butcher Boy is
a “thoroughly pathologized site.”25 Francie’s home, which lacks any sense of
order or security, is a site of unending conflict between his father and mother,
his father and uncle, and his father and himself. The myth of middle-class
Irish domestic life, “de Valera’s vision of near Edenic wholeness and simplicity”
26 – the ideal that Francie yearns for – clash profoundly with the reality of
domestic life for the Bradys: abject poverty, female depression, male alcoholism,
and domestic violence. Francie frequently overhears the fights between his
parents and tries, unsuccessfully, to tune them out. One of his many strategies
of defense against such conflict is to “listen to the cars going by on the Newton
Road.” Yet when Francie stops “listening to the cars I’d hear him: God’s curse
the fucking day I ever set eyes on you!” (7)

The fights between his parents, Benny and Annie Brady, are both frequent
and brutal. Benny constantly reminds Annie of his own father’s abandonment
of his family when he was 7 years old and accuses her of not understanding
him and of losing interest “in his music long ago.” He then accuses his wife of
being “mad” like everyone in her family and of “lying about the house from
the day they married never did a hand’s turn why wouldn’t he go to the pubs
she had never made a dinner for him in his life?” (6). Her likely truthful reply
to him, “Don’t blame me because you can’t face the truth about yourself,
any chances you had you drank them away!” (7), only further fuels the fire of
his belligerence.

Though he never admits it, Francie reveals that his mother, who frequently
appears drugged and manic, has been deeply disappointed and traumatized
by his father, and may even have become suicidally depressed because of his
misery and misfortune. Revealingly, she asks Francie to promise that, “if you
ever have a sweetheart you’ll tell her the truth and never let her down won’t
you?” and then adds, “you would never let me down would you?” (5). Francie
paints a portrait of his mother as clinically depressed, as the kind of person
who stares “into the firegrate,” even though “there never was a fire [and] ma
never bothered to light one.” Francie’s defensive response to this early scene
in the novel – “I said what fire do we want its just as good sitting here staring
into the ashes” (6) – becomes a harbinger of his ever-growing denial at large.27
When his mother attempts to hang herself using “fuse wire belonging to da,”
Francie refuses to understand what he is witnessing. It is shortly after this
that Francie runs away to Dublin, to escape family acrimony; this time her
suicide attempt is successful and her body is dredged up from the bottom
of a nearby lake.28

If Francie’s mother is a suicidally depressed victim of Irish patriarchy, his
father is a self-destructive alcoholic and washed-up musician who is haunted


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

by his childhood in a Belfast orphanage, to which his own father abandoned
him and his brother Alo. He is verbally abusive, and constantly blames his
wife, son, brother, and others (Francie frequently hears his father curse “the
town and everybody in it” [6]) for his own failures. He frequently returns
home from the Tower Bar (a pub in which he once played the trumpet to
acclaim) so drunk that he has “to be left home” by another (6). Most painfully
for Francie, his father blames him for his mother’s death (at one point he
even asks Francie how he can call himself “a son after what” he “did” [91] ),
and then departs for the Tower Bar in a reenactment of his own father’s
abandonment of him: “I’m off up to the Tower I might be back and I might
not” (46). Benny Brady’s abdication of his paternal responsibility is illustrated
in scene after scene, even if Francie refuses to see it. In one such scene, he
describes his house as “littered with bottles” and his father as “asleep on the
sofa with the trumpet beside him” (121). Francie is frequently reminded that
his “father was a great man one time,” one “of the best musicians [there] ever
was in this town” (13), as if such nostalgia can justify his father’s present
lethargy and drinking. McCabe, like Joyce before him, portrays such nostalgia,
lethargy, and drinking as interrelated Irish social pathologies of epidemic

Francie alternately resists and accepts the blame his father attempts to
place on him for the death of his mother. At one point Francie remarks that
his mother is “in the lake, and it was me put her there” (69); at another he
expresses his feelings of guilt for turning his “back on” his “own mother”
(202). At other times Francie fantasizes that he has had nothing to do with
her death. In the following imagined dialogue with his dead mother, for
example, Francie sees his “ma smiling and saying to me over and over again
don’t worry Francie no matter what [Mrs Nugent] says about you I’ll never
believe it” (97–8).

Francie’s Uncle Alo, his father’s brother, is used by the other Bradys to
dignify the family name. Alo apparently has made more of himself than
Francie’s father (we are frequently told that Alo has “ten men under him” at
work), though, as Donna Potts puts it, he has most likely “sacrificed his
personal and national identity – as well as his first love, a working class Irish
woman significantly named Mary – for the sake of wealth, attained largely by
his marriage to an English woman he does not love, and who does not love
him.”30 Alo, who is visiting the Bradys for Christmas from his home in Camden
Town, a neighborhood in London heavily populated by Irish émigrés, argues
bitterly with his brother. Perhaps McCabe intends the two brothers, like Joyce’s
two alienated brothers in his Dubliners story “Clay,” to be an emblem of an
Ireland divided and at war with itself.31 Francie’s father attempts to take his
more successful brother down a peg, accusing him of “shite-talk” (35), of


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

“Closing a gate in a backstreet factory” and of “tipping his cap to his betters in
his wee blue porter’s suit” (36). Francie’s mother’s rejoinder to his father –
“Don’t blame it on your brother that you were put in a home!” (36); “no
shame should make you turn on your own brother like a dog!” (37) – elicits
the usual red herring from his father: “at least” he was never taken “off to a
madhouse to disgrace the whole family” (37).

The important other member of Francie’s “family” is his friend and surrogate
brother, Joe Purcell (the two even become “blood brothers” [53] ). For some
time Joe is the one positive human link in Francie’s life; playing with Joe
allows Francie at least a temporary respite from his dysfunctional home life.
Yet Joe, like other members of Francie’s family, finally rejects him; he cannot
abide Francie’s frequent acts of violence – breaking into and defecating in the
Nugent home, attacking Philip Nugent in the chicken house, and accepting
sexual abuse at the hands of Father Sullivan, for example – that increasingly
define Francie’s life. Joe is Francie’s last human connection, and now “Joe was
going to leave me and I’d be left with nobody no ma nothing” (52). So
important is his link with Joe that, when Joe threatens to end his friendship
with him, Francie feels as if he is “on a cliff edge” (53).

The hope of renewing the severed tie with Joe motivates Francie, when he is
incarcerated in the industrial school, to study for what he calls the “Francie
Brady Not a Bad Bastard Anymore Diploma” (75), his ticket to freedom. He
becomes so desperate to win back Joe’s friendship that he even contemplates
buying it back: “Anything you want Joe I’d say to myself on the way to his
house you can have it now because I’m going to buy it for you” (143). As in
his fantasies that his parents love each other and love him, Francie pretends,
despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that he and Joe remain on
the best of terms. Although the two have argued, although Francie has heard
Joe say of him to another, “I’m not hanging around with him. I used to hang
around with him!” (119), Francie nevertheless reasons that the two remain
“blood brothers” and “always will. That’s the way it was meant to be” (121).
Long after Joe has rejected Francie for good, Francie thinks of Joe as his
“friend for God’s sake,” his “best friend!” (173) Francie even bicycles to Joe’s
distant boarding school to reclaim him, just as he walked to Dublin in the
attempt to escape family acrimony. Notably, both of these excursions end in
bitter disappointment and failure for Francie.

Francie takes one other long-distance walk that ends in failure and disappointment:
a walk to Bundoran, the seaside town on Donegal Bay that was
the site of his parents’ honeymoon and that therefore comes to represent his
ideal of marital love and harmony. This walk, undertaken after the death of
both parents, represents Francie’s final, desperate attempt to regain the family
unity and love that have been shattered by the time of the novel’s setting.


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

McCabe remembers that when he was growing up in Clones, Bundoran had a
“magical fairytale” feel to it. “It was the first place that people from an inland
town like Clones would have seen the sea so it does have that kind of evanescent
quality about it.”32 Bundoran is where McCabe’s parents (as Francie’s parents)
were married, and is therefore linked in McCabe’s, and in Francie’s, mind
“with the place where it all began.”33 Francie imagines a scene over and over
again in which his parents, on their honeymoon in Bundoran, come to be
known as “the two happiest people in the whole world” (142), “The lovebirds!
Benny and Annie Brady” (90), and in which his father looks “longingly” into
his mother’s eyes (91). The reality of his parents’ time together in Bundoran,
Francie eventually learns from the proprietress of the Bundoran boardinghouse
at which the couple stayed, was far from idyllic. This woman angrily remembers
“a man who behaved” dishonorably “in front of his wife. No better than a pig,
the way he disgraced himself here . . . God help the poor woman, she mustn’t
have seen him sober a day in their whole honeymoon!” (193–4).

James M. Smith maintains that “Francie’s slide into madness emerges, surely,
from his need to create a charade of familial respectability by suppressing the
truths of his parental history.”34 The surest indication of this “slide into madness”
is Francie’s denial that his father has died – and is rapidly decomposing

– in the living room of their home and that Francie is officially an orphan.
In an emblem of the way in which this “repressed” narrative works, Francie
appears to know that his father is dead, but cannot admit to this knowledge.
Put differently, the story that Francie tells – like Stevens’s in Ishiguro’s The
Remains of the Day – is not the story that he thinks he is telling. As his dead
father decays Francie uses “perfume and air freshener and talcum powder” to
mask the smell (150) and flypaper to deal with the flies, rather than face the
fact of his father’s death and decomposition. Francie reports giving his father’s
a bit of a shake and when the hankie fell out of his pocket I saw that it was all
dried blood. Oh da, I said, I didn’t know and I felt his forehead it was cold as
ice. I said: Don’t worry da. I’ll look after you. I’ll see that you’re all right. I might
have let you down before but not this time! Oh ho – not this time! Us Bradys –
we’ll show them . . . we stick together! I saw him smiling when I said that . . . Da
looked at me and when I seen those eyes so sad and hurt I wanted to say: I love
you da. They said to me: You won’t leave me son. I said: I won’t da. I’ll never
leave you. This time it’s going to be all right – isn’t it son? I said it was. (126–7)

Polishing his father’s trumpet and then “laying it to rest like an infant after a
long day,” Francie assures his father that “Your worrying days are over” (127)
and assures himself that “I wasn’t going to let ma and da or anyone down ever


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

again” (129–30). The guilt Francie here reveals for not taking better care of
his parents is, of course, ironic: it is he who is the victim of neglect by his
parents, not the other way around.

Francie also relies on whiskey and drugs to help him deny his father’s death
and corruption, and to escape his nightmarish abandonment and isolation.
Francie’s drug-induced hallucination of family harmony dissolves just as the
police and Doctor Roche arrive at the house to discover Francie with his
father’s corpse, replete with “Maggots – they’re right through him” (153).
Like Emily in William Faulkner’s blackly comic “A rose for Emily” (in which
the communal narrator comments of Emily’s refusal to relinquish the dead
body of her father, “We knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling
to that which had robbed her, as people will”35), Francie here refuses to let
go of his abusive father’s corpse until forced to do so by the community, in a
show of communal concern for Francie, as for Emily, that is best defined as
“too little, too late.”

Not only does Francie exhibit “the psychic and moral disintegration of
a child forced to suffer each stage of the collapsing parental relationship”;36
he also must face the systematic and tragic abandonment of each of his
loved ones. Francie catalogues those loved ones – “Da ...Ma...Alo ... Joe”

– who are “gone on me now” (174) and thereby catalogues the implosion of
attendant myths of family worth and security.
The Butcher Boy depicts the process by which Francie, owing to familial as
well as sociocultural pressures at large, takes on the pathological characteristics
of his parents, even if he does not see this process at work himself. As
James M. Smith puts it, Francie’s “madness duplicates that of his parents
in telling detail,” and “the shared experiences of institutional confinement”
connect “all three family members.”37 Repetitions of various kinds emerge:
Francie becomes violent and abusive like his father, killing Mrs Nugent just
as his father has “killed” his mother; Francie is incarcerated, like his father, in
a “house of a hundred windows” for “bad boys,” and projects his anger for
parental abuse onto others; and Francie eventually attempts suicide, as his
mother has, and is even institutionalized in the same mental hospital as she.

The connection between Francie and his father in this regard is particularly
notable: like his father, Francie “turns increasingly to alcohol to cope with
anger, punishing others for his own despair.”38 He takes to heavy drinking, to
frequenting the Tower Bar and even to lying “in the doorway of the Tower
singing into the neck of the beer bottle” (146), and to hanging around with
other drunks. He becomes more like his destructive and self-destructive father
with each passing day. At the end of the novel an incarcerated Francie even
plays a trumpet and proudly remarks: “So now I have a trumpet and if you
could see me I look just like da” (230).


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

Despite the novel’s focus on the Brady family itself, The Butcher Boy also
enacts a critique of Irish society at large and of its “institutions of containment”
in particular. As James M. Smith argues, “In a landscape offering no
shortage of institutional alternatives, Francie’s community chooses to confine
rather than provide treatment or support.” Through Francie’s progression
from industrial school, to mental asylum, to prison for the criminally insane,
McCabe “interrogates society’s sequestering of those it deems socially aberrant.”
39 Moreover, time and again “respectable society turns its back” on Francie,
and “in so doing repeatedly fails to acknowledge the consequences attending
childhood institutionalization.”40 As Tom Herron concludes, it is not merely
the Brady family but the “notion of community” itself that is the target of
The Butcher Boy.41

Francie’s first experience of incarceration, in an industrial school, occurs
after he has broken into, stolen from, and defecated in the Nugent home.
Upon entering this “school for bad boys,” Francie begins “a terrible repetition
of his father’s career as a terminally damaged borstal boy. Here, supposedly in
the safe arms of the Catholic Church, the iniquities of the fathers are visited
upon the son with dreadful force.”42 Specifically, Francie is sexually abused by
Father Sullivan (whom he calls Father Tiddly), a “pederastic priest recently
returned from the missions,”43 who uses Francie’s feigned “religious visions
and his anecdotes of his homelife, which are actually fantasies of being at
home with the Nugents,” for purposes of self-gratification.44 While the “juxtaposition
of religious and sexual ecstasy” may be humorous,45 the implications
of this sexual abuse are serious and considerable: the industrial school, while
ostensibly seeking to instill “a sense of moral conformity, religious faith, and
individual responsibility” in Francie, instead encourages his “delusional
tendencies”46 and puts him in contact with yet another abusive “father.” When
school officials catch Father Sullivan professing love to Francie, Sullivan is
transferred rather than punished, and Francie is rewarded for not speaking
out: “after the Tiddly business” I “knew they were going to let me go the first
chance they got I was like a fungus growing on the walls they wanted them
washed clean again” (102). It is only the fear that Francie will blow the whistle
on Father Sullivan’s sexual advances that prompts school officials to offer
Francie an exit visa.

While incarcerated at the industrial school Francie receives a visit from
another abusive father, his own. Benny Brady arrives, revealingly, with bottle
of whiskey in hand, and blames his son once again for what he “did” to his
mother (91). Another neglectful father figure, Father Dom, the priest in
Francie’s village, furthers the novel’s critique of Church blindness toward
Francie’s suffering. After his return home from the industrial school Francie
runs into this priest, who says to the obviously troubled Francie, before going


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

on his way, “you’ve got so tall! I’m glad things have worked out for you”
(111). Still later Father Dom runs into Francie carrying home stout, and is too
easily convinced that the stout is for Francie’s “da” (it is really for himself, his
father now being deceased) and that he therefore need not be concerned
(129). Martin McLoone broadens this point to include Catholic society at
large: Francie’s psychosis is for him in part “the product of the narrow Catholic
society” into which he is born, a culture “riven by poverty, complacency,
hypocrisy and neglect.”47

Francie’s second experience of incarceration is in a mental hospital – a local
asylum that was “previously the site of his mother’s incarceration for mental
illness”48 – after the discovery of his father’s decaying corpse in the family
parlor. Francie’s response to this incarceration is to reduce “the process of
medication, rehabilitation, and recovery to a game.”49 This time it is not the
Church but the medical community that is held up to scrutiny. Doctor Roche,
who looks not at you but “right through you” (119), and the medical community
at large are shown as failing to see Francie’s problems for what they
are and as proposing superficial bureaucratic solutions. The medicos in the
asylum put Francie “in a big chair with this helmet on [his] head and wires
coming out all over the place” in order to perform experiments. At another
time Francie describes an army of “starchy bastards of students with clipboards
gawking at you I hope he doesn’t leap up out of the chair and chop us up!”
(157), a description that both presages Francie’s butchery of Mrs Nugent
and reveals the extent to which the doctors, like Francie’s neighbors, exploit
his suffering and freakishness for the purposes of gossip and entertainment
value. The medicos give Francie tablets, have him weave baskets, and show
him Rorschach blots (“they’d take me down to the room and hand me bits of
paper all blotted with ink. What do you think about that says the doc. You
won’t be writing any more messages on that paper I says . . . Its destroyed I
says, look at it” [164–5]), as if such therapies can identify, much less solve, his
myriad problems. Upon being released from the hospital Francie runs into
the homeless “drunk lad” who frequents the Tower, but who now will have
nothing to do with him (205) (both this drunk lad and the stray dog Grouse
Armstrong function as versions of Francie, as means of commenting on his
social standing). Such rejection – by his family and by society at large – only
encourages Francie’s violent feelings for Mrs Nugent.

It is for this murder that Francie is incarcerated a final time, in a prison for
the criminally insane, “another house of a hundred windows” (229). Solitary
confinement is an ironic treatment for one driven to violent acts by rejection
and isolation (“How can your solitary [confinement ever] finish?” Francie
asks; “That’s the best laugh yet” [230] ). It is from this prison hospital that
Francie narrates, retrospectively, the novel we read.


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

Central to Francie’s grasp of his place in society is his relationship with the
Nugents, a middle-class Irish family recently returned from London, who are
associated with the “trappings and aspirations of middle-class England” and
who “represent everything unavailable to Francie.”50 They therefore come to
represent a state of being he both covets and rejects. While the Nugents,
“whose family name signifies both their colonial superiority and their modernizing
impact,”51 would in themselves have determined little of Francie’s
unfolding fate, they nevertheless come to loom large in his consciousness.
Francie’s obsessive paranoia over the Nugents is suggested as early as the
novel’s first sentence, which ends with Francie’s reference to “what I done on
Mrs Nugent” (1). Indeed, in Francie’s mind all roads lead to the Nugent
family conspiracy: it is not any shortcoming on the part of the Bradys but
persecution at the hands of the Nugents that leads to the disintegration of
Francie’s world. “If only the Nugents hadn’t come to the town, if only they
had left us alone” (178), Francie thinks, echoing his father’s blaming of him
(and his mother) for his family’s woes. Making matters worse in Francie’s
mind is the fact that the Nugents formerly were friends of the Bradys but
then, after their English sojourn, betrayed them.

McCabe’s novel establishes the Bradys and the Nugents as mirror images of
each other. As Tom Herron puts it, “The Nugents possess everything Francie
does not and embody everything he is not”; his life-style is the “antithesis” of
theirs.52 Both families consist of a father, mother, and son, but the two families,
beyond this point of similarity, could not be more dissimilar. This mirror
imaging is emphasized when Mrs Nugent informs Francie of his own mother’s
death (and that he has missed the funeral) (45). It is also emphasized when
Francie breaks into the Nugent’s home, dons Philip’s English private school
uniform, and admires himself in the mirror of Philip’s bedroom, pretending
to be his nemesis (63). The Nugent’s pleasant middle-class home life, replete
with “refinement, reserve, restraint, taste, and order” – “the stereotypical English
traits on which the old Celt versus Saxon dichotomy depended, qualities
that for centuries had presumably made the English eminently suited to govern
the Irish”53 – all contrast starkly with the Bradys’ impoverished, uncouth, and
acrimonious domestic life.

In contrast to the Nugent’s kitchen, for example, which is “warm and
glowing” and contains a table “set for breakfast in the morning,” a “butter
dish with a special knife,” a “jug with matching cups,” and “not a thing out of
place” (47), the Brady kitchen is fly-covered and pilchard-strewn, an unkempt
and dirty place where meals are prepared for Francie irregularly if at all.
In contrast to Mr Nugent’s “high-up” London job, steady sobriety, and
well-groomed appearance – like an “ad on the television” (57) – Francie’s
father is the epitome of indolence, drunkenness, and sloth. The neglect and


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

abuse doled out to Francie by his parents contrast sharply with the meticulous
upbringing and private school education provided to Philip by his. Even Philip’s
comic books – which are “neatly filed away in shirt boxes not a crease or a
dog-ear in sight” and which look as if “they had come straight out of the shop”

(3) – seem to express the bourgeois order, pride, and respectability upheld
by the family at large. All of this contributes to the opposition in Francie’s
(and in the reader’s) mind between the Nugent abode of domestic order and
harmony and the Brady one of domestic chaos and dysfunction.
In contrast to a statement that Francie imagines Philip to make, “I love
my mother more than anything in the world and I’d never do anything in the
world to hurt her. I love my parents and I love my happy home,” Francie
imagines that people think of him, “I hope he’s proud of himself now, the pig,
after what he did on his poor mother” (47). That the Bradys come to be
“pigs” in the town’s (and in his own) mind Francie blames directly on the
Nugents. The label of “pigs” that attaches to the Bradys is also related in
Francie’s thinking to the disparity between the Nugent and Brady homes and
to the fact that he both idealizes and demonizes the Nugents: that he wishes to
be like them yet regards their evident superiority as a rebuke to Brady honor,
and so comes to resent them deeply.

Francie blames Mrs Nugent for inaugurating the use of the expression
“pigs” to describe his family. As Francie sees it, Mrs Nugent is the one who

started on about the pigs. She said she knew the kind of us long before she went
to England and she might have known not to let her son anywhere near the likes
of me what else would you expect from a house where the father’s never in,
lying about the pubs from morning to night, he’s no better than a pig. (4)

Most of the disparaging comments about the Bradys that Francie imagines
Mrs Nugent to be making are revealed to be projections of Francie’s own
guilty fears about his family and the role he plays in its disintegration.

Francie’s solution to his imagined sense of persecution at the hands of Mrs
Nugent and Philip is to bait, harass, and violently assault them. His first
hostile act is to institute a mock “pig toll tax” that he attempts to extract from
Mrs Nugent and Philip as they pass him on the sidewalk. He ceases his harassment
only when he perceives “a tear” in Mrs Nugent’s eye (13). His next
move is to invite Philip to play with him in his hideaway, a chicken house,
where he assaults him violently. Philip is rescued by the fortuitous arrival of
Joe. Later, Francie attempts to barge into the Nugent home, struggles with
Mrs Nugent and Philip in the doorway, and agrees to leave only when Philip
looks at Francie with “them sad eyes”54 – a mirror of his own sad eyes.


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

Francie next visits the Nugent home when the family is away for the day.
He breaks into the house, admires the polished floors and clean kitchen,
helps himself to food, tries on Philip’s English private school uniform, scrawls
“PHILIP IS A PIG” in lipstick on the wallpaper (63–7), and, in a fantasy
episode in which he imagines he is running a school for pigs aimed at helping
Mrs Nugent and Philip become “good” pigs, he defecates as a pig would do
on the carpet of Philip’s bedroom (“pigs are poo animals,” Francie explains;
“I’m afraid and they simply will cover the place in it no matter what you do”
[66]). Caught in this perverse act of vandalism, Francie is sent to an industrial
school that he nicknames the “school for pigs” (73). During Francie’s time in
this school Joe and Philip become friends, a development that shakes Francie
to the core and that exaggerates his feeling of persecution at the hands of
the Nugents. After he is released from the school, Mrs. Nugent’s brother,
appropriately, threatens to “gut” Francie “like a pig” (118).

The novel’s pig motif is further developed when Francie, in the mental
asylum, hallucinates that he is a pig performing before Mrs Connolly and
other women from the neighborhood. His parents, “Ma and Da Pig,” are also
present in this hallucination. The assembled women anticipate “the mother
and father of a row” between Francie’s parents while Francie Pig stands there
“watching the flesh of the apple” that the women have given him “browning”
in his hand (162). Mrs Connolly’s appeal for a “row” between his parents

(162) emphasizes the extent to which Francie self-ashamedly views Brady
family freakishness to be a source of gossip and entertainment for the town. A
passage in another contemporary novel, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, nicely
addresses the variety of schadenfreude experienced by the townspeople at
Francie’s expense:
[D]on’t ever underestimate the pleasure [people] receive from viewing pain that
is not their own, from delivering bad news, watching bombs fall on television,
from listening to stifled sobs from the other end of a telephone line. Pain by
itself is just Pain. But Pain + Distance can = entertainment, voyeurism, human
interest . . . a raised eyebrow, disguised contempt.55

Francie both “loves and hates” Mrs Nugent;56 he wants to be welcomed into
the Nugent home as an honored guest yet abhors this home for the contrast it
presents with his own. When he breaks into the Nugent house it is clear how
strongly Francie fantasizes becoming Philip.

I went round the house like Philip. I walked like him and everything. Mrs
Nugent called up the stairs to me are you up there Philip? I said I was and she


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

told me to come down for my tea. Down I came and she had made me a big
feed of rashers [Francie imagines them to be eating bacon] and eggs and tea and
the whole lot . . . I felt good about all this. (63–4)

Francie even expresses an awareness of his own wish to be a Nugent by
imagining Philip to be accusing him of wanting “to be one of us. He wants
his name to be Francis Nugent. That’s what he’s wanted all along!” (64).
In another hallucination Francie fantasizes that Mr Nugent accuses him of
having asked Mrs Nugent “to be his mother” and of giving “anything not to
be a pig” (97). All of this indirectly leads to Francie’s murder of Mrs Nugent.
As Elizabeth Butler Cullingford argues, “Mrs Nugent’s kind of mothering”
stands “as a reproach to the fragile capacities of Mrs. Brady,” and Francie kills
her “partly as a way of affirming his family loyalty.”57 Francie’s murder of Mrs
Nugent, moreover, fleshes out Francie’s complex identity as both “pig” and
“Butcher Boy.”

Francie’s defensive and hurt pride, as expressed by his mother’s earlier
assertion that “We don’t want to be like the Nugents” (19), unfolds in an
extended fantasy reversal in which the Bradys are indifferent to the Nugents
and the Nugents desperately wish to be like the Bradys. When Uncle Alo
arrives for the Christmas-time family reunion, for example, Francie thinks,
“Nugent has nobody like him”: “I still couldn’t stop looking at” Alo, “the gold
tiepin and his polished nails, the English voice. Nugent’s was only half-
English. The more you thought it the harder it was to believe that Nugent had
ever been anything worth talking about” (28–9). Time and again Francie
fantasizes a scene in which he and Alo are

on the Diamond getting ready to set off once more down the street and Mrs
Nugent [tries] to attract our attention. Please Francie, I’ll give you anything
she’d say. Sorry, I’d say, too late. Then I’d cut her off and say: what was that you
were saying Uncle Alo? (22)

Such fantasies of superiority over the anglicized Nugents of course only reveal
the extent to which the Irish Bradys have internalized the townspeople’s sense
of their inferiority.

An important text that further fleshes out the trope of the Irish as pigs and
that serves as a commentary on McCabe’s novel in other ways is the Irishman
Jonathan Swift’s satiric “A modest proposal” (1729), which proposes a solution
“For preventing the Children of poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden
to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Publick.”58
Swift’s satire of proposed infanticide and cannibalism – of killing two birds


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

with one stone by butchering Ireland’s poor children as a means of ridding
Ireland of its overpopulation and of feeding the hungry masses – is obviously
relevant to McCabe’s novel. Not only does Swift refer to the mother of such
unwanted children as “Breeders,” and to the children themselves as “Swine,”
but he accuses these children of resorting to “Stealing”59 (just as an impoverished
Francie often resorts to stealing). Swift’s references to Irish people who
are “every Day dying, and rotting, by Cold and Famine, and Filth, and Vermin”60
directly recalls the decline and demise of Francie’s poverty-ridden father. The
following passage in “A modest proposal” addresses many of the themes and
motifs found in The Butcher Boy and reveals the extent to which McCabe is
writing within a rhetorical tradition that equates impoverished, dirty Irish
people with subhuman animals, particularly pigs:

As to our city of Dublin; Shambles [slaughterhouses] may be appointed for this
Purpose, in the most convenient Parts of it; and Butchers we may be assured
will not be wanting; although I rather recommend buying the Children alive,
and dressing them hot from the Knife, as we do roasting Pigs.61

Although she does not single out Swift’s satire, Donna Potts writes convincingly
of “McCabe’s evocation of stereotypical Irishness,” which “is nowhere
more evident than in his extensive reference to pigs, which have long been
associated with Ireland.”62 Indeed, Potts writes, “one of the oldest epithets for
Ireland is Muck Inis, or ‘Pig Island’.”63 “By associating Francie Brady, and
indeed the whole Brady family, with pigs, McCabe alludes to the long English
tradition of drawing a distinction between England and Ireland in the form of
John Bull and Paddy the Pig.”64 Elizabeth Butler Cullingford broadens Potts’s
focus by observing that in

Embracing the negative ethnic stereotype that Mrs. Nugent has used to classify
his family, Francie becomes the pig she says he is by trashing her perfectly kept
house. Pigs are always on the receiving end of violence, whether literal, as in
Leddy’s slaughterhouse; metaphorical, as in Mrs. Nugent’s class-based tirades;
geographical, as in the invasion of the Bay of Pigs; or colonial, as in England’s
denigration and bestialization of the people it had dispossessed.65

Although he is repeatedly figured in negative, porcine terms, Francie eventually
comes to wear his piggishness as “an identity, a badge of pride.”66

The novel’s title is of course a reference to Francie as a slaughterer both
of pigs and of Mrs Nugent. Francie gets a job with Leddy, a piggish-looking
man with “a big pink face and a scrunched-up snout” (122), who runs a


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

slaughterhouse and butcher shop. In Leddy’s slaughterhouse Francie reports
smelling “piss and shit and dirty guts you never seen the like of it” and
describes the place as “crawling with bluebottles” (130) – flies and smells that
connect this bloody work with the Brady household and Francie’s decomposing
father. To make matters more complex still, Francie, as an employee of
the slaughterhouse, takes on the identity of both pig and murderer of pigs.

The novel’s fiery and violent climax occurs after Francie’s unsuccessful trip
to Joe’s (and Philip’s) boarding school in a failed bid to reclaim his lost friend.
Unsurprisingly, Francie focuses blame for this failure on Mrs Nugent, and
pursues her with violent intentions. Upon arriving at her home, Francie accuses
her of doing “two bad things”: making him “turn my back on my ma” and
taking “Joe away from me” (209); he then assaults and kills her with Leddy’s
“captive bolt pistol” and “butcher’s steel” and “knife” (207), after which he
sticks his “hand in her stomach” and writes “PIGS all over the walls” of her
home with her blood (209).

Francie’s attempt to hide the corpse of Mrs Nugent, his ideal mother yet his
anti-mother, using a cart supplied by Leddy, is juxtaposed with the town’s
ecstatic anticipation of a visit by its symbolic mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.67
In Martin McLoone’s words, “The novel juxtaposes the townspeople’s preparations
for the end of the world, foretold by the appearance of the Virgin
Mary [and coinciding with the Cuban missile crisis, appropriately called
the “Bay of Pigs” crisis, with its threat of nuclear cataclysm], with Francie’s
execution of Mrs. Nugent.”68 The apocalypticism inherent in both Francie’s
thinking and the town’s mood is palpable; after committing the murder, Francie
says, “this must be the end of the world. I hope the Blessed Virgin comes
along to save me!” (215) His family and Joe now dead to him, Francie’s world
does indeed seem to be in its death throes.

Once Francie’s murder of Mrs Nugent is suspected, the novel juxtaposes
the search for two mothers – the Virgin Mary and Mrs Nugent – who are no
longer of this world.69 Hysteria over the end of time, coupled with a “visit”
from the “Mother of God” (207) (signs around town proclaim: “AVE MARIA
WELCOME TO OUR TOWN” [207–8]), are depicted against the backdrop
of Francie’s suicide attempt, the literal end of his world. In a perception that
can only be described as psychotically ironic, Francie now sees his as the
“holiest” and “brightest, happiest town in the whole world” (208).

Francie is caught by the police, escapes, makes his way home, and, in a final
suicidal-apocalyptic moment, sets alight his entire house, an emblem of Brady
family worth and unity, attempting to make his own funeral pyre out of his
and his parents’ belongings. This all occurs against the backdrop of the playing
of his mother’s recording of “The Butcher Boy” on the family phonograph,
with Francie weeping “because we were all together now” (223–4). The song’s


Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

lyrics now apply to Francie himself, who dies “for love,” or rather, for the
lack of it. Ironically, Francie, after being rescued from the fire, is accused
of committing a brutal murder for the “meanest and most contemptible of
motives – for the purpose of robbery and plunder!” (228) Readers know,
however, that Francie is motivated not by robbery at all but by vengeance, a
far more powerful currency for him than material wealth could ever be. “The
Butcher Boy,” his mother’s favorite song, is about “a woman hanging from a
rope all because the butcher boy told her lies” (49), a theme that anticipates
her own suicide. It points to Francie’s guilt over her death and to his despair
over the fact that she has “died for love” (in the words of the song). Although
Francie does not grasp the meaning of the lyrics, he does seem to grasp the
general tenor of the song.

Francie’s imprisonment in a third “house of a hundred windows” (229)
returns us to the novel’s opening, retrospective frame. Our final image of
him, “Twenty or thirty or forty years” after the main action of the novel
(230)(Francie has no conception of time), reveals him to have gone a long
way to go nowhere at all: he is hacking away “at the ice on the big puddle
behind the kitchens” (230) with a fellow inmate and substitute Joe figure.
While Francie is unlikely ever to leave this prison hospital, he does manage
an escape of sorts: a nostalgic return in his imagination to an idealized age
of familial harmony and acceptance, to “the best days” Francie “ever knew,
before da and Nugent and all this started” (43), when he and Joe met “hacking
at the ice” and became best friends (53).


Chapter 11

Graham Swift’s
Last Orders (1996)

On Margate Sands./ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing./ The broken
fingernails of dirty hands./ My people humble people who expect/ Nothing.

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land1
It’s like we aren’t the same people who left Bermondsey this morning, four
blokes on a special delivery.

Ray, in Swift, Last Orders2

[T]he whole point of fiction . . . is to get away from yourself into experiences
of other people, into different worlds, into different lives. . . . It’s all about
imagining what it’s like to be somebody else. And that is, after all, one of
the most important tasks of life. . . . One of the things the novel can do, is to
stimulate that process.

Graham Swift, in an interview3


Awarded the Booker Prize in 1996 for Last Orders, his sixth novel, Graham
Swift is now regarded, in the judgment of Irish author John Banville, as “one
of England’s finest living novelists.”4 Last Orders chronicles the journey of
four residents of Bermondsey, a working-class district of southeast London,
who travel to Margate on the southeast coast on 2 April 1990 in order to fulfill
the “last orders” of their friend Jack Dodds, master butcher, who has recently
died and been cremated: to deposit his ashes in the sea. Like other “circadian”
or one-day novels – most famously James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Virginia


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)

Woolf ’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947)

– the limited present of the novel serves as an opportunity for the characters
to recount and explore events from their past lives. These memories and
musings in turn illuminate and embellish the present of the narrative, which
becomes considerably more resonant and complex in the process. A subtle,
psychologically probing novel reminiscent in particular of Faulkner’s As I Lay
Dying and Woolf ’s Mrs Dalloway, Last Orders muses on death and dying, on
complex familial relationships and memory, and on the potent and uncanny
impact of the dead on the living. As Salman Rushdie puts it, Last Orders is
“about the ritual of death, this last rite of passage.”5
Born in south London in 1949, Graham Swift was the son of a civil
servant who served as a naval pilot during the Second World War (perhaps
unsurprisingly, many of Swift’s novels take the war as their chronological
point of departure and chief point of reference). Graham Swift studied
English literature at Queen’s College, Cambridge University, graduating in
1970, following which, in 1973, he completed a Master’s degree at York
University. At York Swift devoted increasing amounts of time to his creative
writing (he claims at this time to have been “pretending to be a student” while
in fact he was “teaching himself to write” fiction6), an avocation that he
continued while teaching school in London (where he now lives) and Greece
in the years that followed. The critical and popular success of his third novel,
Waterland (1983), allowed Swift to abandon teaching and turn full-time to
creative writing.

Although Swift has published well-regarded stories that appeared in his
collection Learning to Swim and Other Stories (1982) and elsewhere, it is
principally his novels – The Sweet Shop Owner (1980), Shuttlecock (1981),
Waterland (1983), Out of this World (1988), Ever After (1992), Last Orders
(1996), and The Light of Day (2003) – for which he is best known and most
critically acclaimed.

Swift’s breakthrough novel, as noted above, was his third, Waterland (1983),
which attracted as much critical attention as the rest of his early novels combined,
and which one critic deemed “as significant to the 1980s as The French
Lieutenant’s Woman was for the 1970s.”7 Simultaneously “a murder confession,
a history of England’s fen country, an indictment of the modern world for its
ignorance of history, an essay on the life of the eel, a meditation on the shapes
of time – in short, a grim intertwining of incest, suicide, and murder played
against two hundred years of family history and an apocalyptic sense that
time may be coming to an end,”8 Waterland, which was shortlisted for the
Booker Prize, did for the Fens in eastern England what Great Expectations
did for the marshes of northeast Kent and Wuthering Heights did for the


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)

moors of West Yorkshire: it imaginatively recreated it, imbuing it with a
distinctive dramatic character and almost mythic spirit of place.

For all of their obvious differences, Swift’s novels tend to be of a piece. For
one thing, all of them contain a series of mysteries about the characters that
are only slowly revealed, characters for whom the traumatic events of World
War II were a formative experience. As Peter Widdowson observes, “It is as
though Swift ‘dates’ his modern world from the catastrophic events of the
mass warfare of the Second World War – one which remains in their shadow
and in which the destinies of ordinary lives, even in the 1980s and 1990s, are
still determined by them.”9 For another thing, all of Swift’s novels reveal the
extent to which national history and personal history are only knowable,
ultimately and most fully, in subjective terms, through memory and the
imaginative recreation of the past. The fictions also tend to foreground water
(consider, for example, the titles Learning to Swim and Waterland) – both the
literal substance (which can both sustain life and end it) and its symbolic
aspects (as a metaphor for protean subjectivity, memory, and history, and
as an objective correlative for the nostalgic idealization of past life or for the
end of life). In Last Orders, for example, the sea is both the terminus for the
journey and the site of childhood family vacations. As one of the novel’s
characters puts it of coastal Margate, it “smells like something you remember,
like the seaside you remember . . . It smells like memory itself ” (287).

All of Swift’s novels, moreover, may be said to explore the extraordinary
within the quotidian, the miracle and enigma of the everyday. As Swift himself
has pointed out, “I always . . . write about so-called ordinary people and
ordinary things, if only because I believe there is no such thing as an ordinary
person . . . everyone is unique . . . and so the challenge of writing about ordinary
and common things is to show that.”10 Last Orders, even more than Swift’s
earlier novels, depicts “common” characters in “common” situations, though
their collaborative story amounts to a narrative that easily transcends the

In addition to receiving the Booker Prize and the James Tait Black
Memorial Prize for Last Orders, Swift won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize
for Shuttlecock and Waterland, the Guardian Fiction Prize, Italy’s Premio
Ginzane Cavour, and the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize for Waterland, and
France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger for Ever After. A Fellow of the Royal
Society of Literature, Swift was awarded honorary degrees, by the Universities
of East Anglia and York, in 1984. Three of Swift’s novels have been adapted
for the screen: Shuttlecock (1991), Waterland (which starred Jeremy Irons,
1992), and Last Orders (filmed by the Australian Fred Schepsi and starring
Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins, 2002).


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)


Although Last Orders represents a continuation of Swift’s earlier novelistic
agendas, it also “represents the most formally complicated experiment so far,
with its multiple tellers all talking to themselves but also in some magical way
to each other.”11 As Swift himself comments, Last Orders is “a novel in which
six or seven characters collaboratively tell the story.”12 Indeed, like many
modernist and postmodernist novels, Last Orders may be said to be as much
about its own telling – about its intricate, interweaving, interlocking narrative
yarns, with their poignant time-shifts and spatial and narrative digressions –
as it is about anything else. As John Banville observes, “Swift carefully and
seemingly effortlessly piles up the layers of narrative by means of a judicious
accumulation of small revelations.”13

The entire novel is narrated in the first person by seven different people in
75 unnumbered sections. The four men who accompany Jack’s ashes – Vic,
Vince, Lenny, and Ray – narrate the vast majority of the novel. Ray “Lucky”
Johnson, who had met Jack in the British army in Africa in World War II, is
an insurance clerk and inveterate gambler on horse-racing; Vic Tucker, whose
funeral home is situated across the street from Jack’s butcher shop, is an
undertaker “and canny observer of human beings in their living and dead
states”;14 Vince Dodds (né Pritchett), who owns a used car dealership and
who supplies the Mercedes Benz for the day’s outing, is Jack’s adopted son;
and Lenny Tate is a greengrocer and former prize boxer, whose daughter was
seduced and left pregnant by Vince years earlier and who to this day nurses
a grudge against him. In the present of the novel Vince is in his mid-forties;
the other three major characters (who are contemporaries of Jack) are in
their late sixties. While these four narrators dominate the novel, three other
characters – the deceased Jack himself (like Addie Bundren in Faulkner’s
As I Lay Dying, he gets a few words); Amy, Jack’s wife; and Mandy, Vince’s
wife – also narrate a few sections of the novel. Conspicuously (yet appropriately)
absent is the voice of Amy’s and Jack’s retarded (and apparently
mute) daughter June. (Instead of accompanying the others on their mission
that day, Amy pays one final visit to her institutionalized daughter, whom
she has been visiting twice weekly for the better part of five decades, but who
has never once shown any sign of recognizing her mother.) Collectively, the
novel’s 75 first-person narrative episodes combine descriptions of past and
unfolding events with interior monologues that probe and complicate the
meaning of these events.

The narrative sections have titles that either identify the narrator or specify
a place; those with place-names are all by Ray. The place-names sequentially


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)

trace the route of the London-to-Margate journey. The four set off from the
“Coach and Horses” pub in Bermondsey (its name already suggests a journey)
and drive to the town of Rochester (where they take lunch and drinks in a
pub), to the outskirts of the town of Chatham (where they visit a British
naval war memorial), to Wick’s Farm in Kent (the sight of Amy’s and Jack’s
meeting and June’s conception), to Canterbury (to pay a visit to the famous
cathedral), and finally to Margate pier (to dispose of Jack’s ashes in accordance
with his wishes).

In addition to being more complex than his earlier work from a narrative
standpoint, Last Orders also represents a break from Swift’s earlier fiction in
that the narrators here are working class rather than college-educated or in
any way intellectual (compare them, say, with Tom Crick in Waterland or
Harry Beech in Ever After). As Swift himself notes, “Articulate [and] sophisticated
language,” as typically found in his earlier work, “has the problem
of getting tangled up in itself. It’s a system of protection, in a sense. If you
take that away you do strip things bare. There’s a sort of nakedness in [Last
Orders] which I don’t think I’ve achieved before.”15

To a greater degree than his earlier novels, Last Orders is a literary-
historical encomium; it is richly suffused with echoes of and allusions to prior
literary texts, with what Pamela Cooper calls a “palimpsest layering of ancient
and modern literary voices.”16 These texts include Chaucer’s The Canterbury
Tales (one critic views Swift’s pilgrimage in the footsteps of Chaucer’s storytellers
as invoking “the robust culture of The Canterbury Tales”17), T. S. Eliot’s
The Waste Land (1922) (both Swift’s title and the “location of the final scene
subtly evoke T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which mourns what is portrayed as
last orders for European civilization . . . and expresses profound anxiety about
the disruption of traditional class and gender boundaries”18), and Kazuo
Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1988), the Booker Prize-winning novel
by Swift’s contemporary and friend. Both The Remains of the Day and Last
Orders depict a journey of remembrance, loss, and, ultimately, recovery that
ends at a “pleasure pier” at the English seaside (Weymouth and Margate,
respectively). As Pamela Cooper observes, both Ishiguro’s and Swift’s novels
depict “characters whose lives have been changed by the trauma of World
War II, and who doubt their value as members of a postwar British society in
which the power of empire has dwindled and the country’s historical mission
is profoundly unclear.”19

Particularly strong echoes of two other modern novels resound in
Last Orders: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) and Virginia Woolf ’s
Mrs Dalloway (1925). As to the connection with Faulkner’s novel, Swift
himself attests to “a little homage at work”: “I admire Faulkner very much,
and there are obvious similarities” between the two novels. Yet while “I have


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)

my jar of ashes, Faulkner has his rotting corpse, and the setting is clearly very
different.”20 That said, for Swift the “funereal” emphasis, the story of “laying
the dead to rest” and of “how the dead apply pressure on the living,” is not
so much a Faulknerian as a perennial, “primitive,” “archetypal” concern. The
fact that both novels feature a dead character whose remains are being transported
and who narrates a small section of the text (Addie Bundren/Jack
Dodds) has led one reviewer, John Frow, to accuse Swift of plagiarism.21

As for the echoes in Last Orders of Mrs Dalloway, these have been little
commented on but are, if anything, still stronger than are the echoes of
Faulkner. Both Woolf ’s and Swift’s are circadian novels that view events
through the eyes of numerous characters, whose flashbacks of events long ago
explain and embellish their present lives. Both are keenly observant psychological
novels that sport a web of interweaving, interior monologues that
collectively reveal dramatic meaning; both resemble jigsaw puzzles that
must be assembled by the reader in order for their “pictures” to become
clear. Both explore the ways in which the past elucidates the present. Both
depict a paradoxically run-of-the-mill yet extraordinary day: average in one
sense, special in another (Swift’s novel opens with Ray’s comment, “It ain’t
like your regular sort of day” [1] ). Both are fascinated with the passage of
time and use clocks to mark the unfolding hours of the day (references
to clocks first occur on the second page of Woolf ’s novel and on the first page
of Swift’s).

Equally important are the echoes to be found in Swift’s novel of the
BBC’s popular British working-class television drama, EastEnders. Like many
modernist and postmodernist novels (Joyce’s Ulysses and Thomas Pynchon’s
Gravity’s Rainbow are two examples) Last Orders conflates and blurs together
elite and popular culture, “high” and demotic art. This is even hinted at in the
two epigraphs to Swift’s novel, the first from a Sir Thomas Browne poem
and the second from a popular music-hall song. As David Malcolm remarks,
Last Orders embraces both

exalted literary and philosophical and demotic and workaday realms. It is both
a complex meditation on grand, universal matters [and] is set in a lower-class
world of nonstandard dialect, mundane work . . . and trips to the seaside. The
title of the novel itself embodies this paradox. “Last Orders” are the final drinks
one can obtain in a British pub before it closes [yet also] suggest last things,
death, mortality, and the ineluctable passage of time.22

Indeed, in Swift’s novel the very distinction between perennial/exalted and
quotidian/mundane is undone.


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)


Last Orders is comprised of a series of interlinked and inter-animating
narratives through which the novel’s mysteries and ironies and its keen psychological
and philosophical insights are revealed and reverberate. Ray observes
that “what a man does and how he lives in his head are two different things”
(38), and that life is like “the sound of the Coach” – the group’s regular pub-
haunt – on a Friday night: “Rattling on, going nowhere” (191). And Lenny
reckons that “every generation makes a fool of itself for the next one” (44);
Last Orders, like an E. M. Forster novel, is full of such pithy observations. That
said, the “meaning” of the novel, for Swift at least, is more than anything else
“the story” itself.

The story is the heart of the matter. However you talk about it, however you
analyze it, it is this ultimately magical, marvelous, mysterious, wonderful thing.
It’s got to be there. That’s what makes the reader read. Whatever else you’re
attempting, whatever else you’re doing, it’s the story that remains.23

Paradoxically, at the center of the story is the absent (deceased and cremated)
yet omnipresent Jack Dodds, master butcher, who has just died of stomach
cancer and who has left a letter, “To whom it may concern” (13), stating his
last orders. As Pamela Cooper puts this paradox, Jack Dodds is “Dead on
arrival in terms of the novel’s plot,” yet “he remains vividly alive at its core.”24
While Jack is of course a particular – and highly particularized – character, the
novel also takes pains to universalize, to render common, his mortal condition.
As one critic maintains, “Jack’s name makes him an Everyman figure, ‘Jack’
being a representative name or form used to address an unknown person.”25
Vic, Jack’s undertaker friend, makes this same point when ruminating on his
friend’s mortality. “Jack’s not special, he’s not special at all,” Vic thinks.

He’s just one of the many now. In life there are differences, you make
distinctions . . . But the dead are the dead, I’ve watched them, they’re equal . . . It’s
what makes all men equal for ever and always. (143)

Jack’s “absent presence” is also hinted at by his wife, Amy, who toward
the end of the novel’s long day muses on her deceased husband: “He’s not
anywhere. Or by now he’ll be washed out to sea or mingling with Margate
Sands” (278). Although Jack is now gone forever and literally insubstantial,
she feels that he will never leave her: “I’ll always see Jack’s face, like a little


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)

photo in my head. Like a person never dies in the mind’s eye” (267). And the
novel’s final words, thought by Ray, make the same universalizing gesture,
likening the “ash” and “wind” to “Jack[,] what we’re [all] made of ” (295).

Last Orders is a visceral novel, and not only because it is an affliction of the
stomach that does Jack in. As Pamela Cooper observes, “The novel is predicated
upon the body of Jack Dodds – its propensities during life and its transformations
in death. It is Jack’s body that unites the group of travelers in a common
purpose.”26 However, more than being a mere focal point of the novel, Jack’s
body, in both its dying/bleeding and its cremated ashes state, becomes a means
for Swift to muse on the nature of human mortality and identity.

On the one hand, characters time and again depict each other in a grossly
material way, as so much perishable meat: now living (and bleeding), later
dead (and cooked). For example, Vince tellingly refers to Jack as “his own
bleeding man all right” (25), and Lenny refers to people in general as “bleeders”
(44). The hospitalized Jack likens himself, in an image appropriate to a butcher,
to a lamb “to the slaughter” (152). Vince, visiting Jack on his deathbed, thinks,
“He ain’t Jack Dodds, no more than I’m Vince Dodds. Because nobody ain’t
nobody. Because nobody ain’t more than just a body, than just their own
body” (21). Ray, once Jack has been cremated, refers to him as “nothing”
(210), and even wonders, referring to the urn, “Whether it’s all Jack in there
or Jack mixed up with bits of others, the ones who were done before and the
ones who were done after” (4). Amy imagines Jack dying behind the counter
of his butcher shop, “cleaver in his hand, and that’s how he’d want it, another
carcass to deal with” (229). Later, feeling Jack’s cold forehead, she thinks:
“They’ll have fetched him out the fridge and they’ll pop him back, like he
used to do with his pork and beef ” (275). As the above passages suggest, the
novel develops the trope of cannibalism as a means of exploring the ways in
which people devour each other, use each other up, figuratively speaking.

Occasionally this metaphor takes on a sexual connotation – Lenny, in
an erotic reverie, muses that “You can’t help flesh being flesh” (210) – but
usually it is alimentary in nature. Edible meat and human corpses are conjoined
at numerous places in the novel. For example, it strikes Ray as fitting
that Jack’s butcher shop and Vic’s funeral home in Bermondsey are directly
across the street from each other, “seeing as there was dead animals in the one
and stiffs in the other” (5). Lenny too contemplates this coincidence with
linguistic playfulness, merging their businesses in his mind as “Dodds and
Tucker, steaks and stiffs” (131). And at numerous points Jack, his cremated
remains placed in a jar for transporting, is likened to food. The jar containing
Jack’s ashes is thought to look like “a large instant-coffee jar” (3) and to be
“about the same size as a pint glass” (10). For a large portion of the journey
the jar is transported in a bag labeled “Rochester Food Fayre” (116), and Ray


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)

imagines Vic “holding the box” containing Jack’s ashes as if “it might be his
lunch” (21). In Margate Ray holds the open jar of ashes for the others to
dispense, “like I’m holding out a tin of sweets or doling out rations” (293).
The novel’s meat metaphor even extends to the viscerally-depicted megalopolis
itself. Amy remembers Jack’s father, also a butcher, calling London’s Smithfield
district, with its meat market, the bleeding “heart of London,” with the “red
lines of the bus routes” being its “arteries, bleedin arteries, and veins” (230).

That the novel possesses a graphically materialist, visceral vision of things
does not mean that it depicts humans as reducible to their bodies – bodies
that exist and then cease to exist. Rather, Last Orders shows the dead as
affecting the living as much as the living do themselves. Indeed, Jack’s passing
and the journey taken by Vince, Lenny, and Ray provide them with the
opportunity to mend their ways with their daughters (from whom they are
estranged) and with each other (this does not apply to Vic, whose personal
affairs are in order and who instead has sons). In escorting Jack’s ashes to the
sea, in becoming Jack’s “guard-of-honour,” Ray imagines the four compatriots
to be transformed: “We all straighten up, as if we’ve got to be different people,
as if we’re royalty and the people on the pavement ought to stop and wave”
(22). Early in the trip Ray imagines that all four of them appreciate what “Jack
has done for us [in organizing this journey], so as to make us feel special, so
as to give us a treat. Like we’re off on a jaunt, a spree, and the world looks
good, it looks like it’s there just for us” (18). Soon afterwards, during their
lunchtime break in a Rochester pub, “getting slowly pickled and at peace with
the world,” Ray thinks,

Jack wouldn’t have minded, it’s even what he would’ve wanted for us, to get
sweetly slewed on his account. You carry on lads, don’t you worry about me. If he
was here now he’d be recommending it, he’d be doing the same as us. Forget
them ashes, fellers. (110–11)

Later, at Canterbury Cathedral, each of the four muses on the fact that it is
Jack who has led them there – and not for him but for them. Lenny thinks, “It
wasn’t for him. Who’s he going to tell, who’s he going to brag about it to over
a slow beer at the end of the day? My mates did me proud, they carried me
round Canterbury Cathedral. It was for us, to put us back on our best behaviour,
to clean up our acts” (210). Ray imagines the four of them having lived
all their lives and never having “seen Canterbury Cathedral, [yet now] it’s
something Jack’s put right” (193). As Swift himself comments of the journey,
while its immediate purpose is “to do with death quite clearly, honouring the
dead,”27 it is ultimately more about providing a salutary experience for the


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)

living. In this connection, it is surely not coincidental that Ray likens the
scattering of Jack’s ashes in Margate to the “scattering of seed” (293), that
Jack’s death is figured in ultimately life-affirming terms.

Jack and the four major characters in Swift’s novel are united not only
by the crisscrossing paths their lives have taken but by the problematic
husband–wife and father–daughter relationships (Vic excluded) in which they
find themselves. Chief among the marital conflicts explored is that between
Jack and Amy Dodd over their retarded daughter June, by now 50 years old,
who proved to be an “accident” (97) in more ways than one. Jack rejects his
daughter, never once visiting her in the decades in which she is institutionalized.
Indeed, Amy remembers Jack saying to her decades ago, “Best thing we
can do, Ame, is forget all about her” (253). Even on his deathbed, during a
final conversation with his wife, Jack altogether neglects to mention June
(267), to which Amy responds by not mentioning her love affair of many years
earlier with Ray (268). By contrast, Amy has dutifully visited her daughter twice
weekly over the decades – despite the fact that June never gives any indication
that she recognizes her mother – a trip that Jack deems a “fool’s errand” (15).
In response to Jack’s rejection of his daughter, Amy also determines to favor
June over Jack, since Jack refuses to “choose what was his” (229).

Swift identifies Amy as “the strongest character” in the novel, the one with
“the greatest power of decision in the book.”28 Perhaps the most important
decision she makes in the present of the novel is to beg off joining the party
that accompanies Jack’s ashes, even though “you don’t ever get a second
chance to scatter your husband’s ashes” (228). Instead, she visits June in order
to tell her both that her father – the one “who never came to see you, who you
never knew because he never wanted to know you” (278) – is dead and that
she will now stop making these visits; “I’ve got to fend for myself now” (277),
Amy reasons. Rehearsing exactly what she will tell her daughter as she rides the
number 44 bus to the institution in which June lives, Amy explains, “You can
blame me that you were born in the first place but you can’t blame me now.
. . . Fifty years is beyond the call, for bringing up baby” (277). Ray (through
Amy’s eyes) fleshes out the conflict between Jack and Amy over June:

That was Jack’s failing plain and simple . . . that he didn’t want to know his
own daughter. And [Amy’s] failing . . . was just the opposite, that she’d kept on
coming, two times a week all these years, and it made no difference, but she
couldn’t stop now, a mother was a mother. And if he’d only come himself just
now and then, just once in a while, it might have balanced things out, she might
have spared some of her visits for some of his, and they wouldn’t have become
the people they’d become, pulling opposite ways on the same rope. (171)


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)

Amy imagines what their married life might have been like without June, had
she been aborted, in an echo of the abortion that Lenny’s daughter Sally has
in response to her unwanted pregnancy: “So Jack and me would’ve been free
to lead different lives, thanks to you having laid down yours” (275); “[I]t
would’ve been better all along, wouldn’t it, if we’d done what other couples
do when a hot night in a hop-field [the site of June’s conception] catches
up with them?” (238) Amy also imagines apologizing to June for taking in
a series of surrogate children, “second-stringers, VinceySallyMandy” (277),
because of June’s inadequacies as a daughter.

Ironically, the deceased Jack’s single narrative section is given over entirely
to his dead father’s monologue, in a voice that Adrian Poole calls a “doubled
ghost.”29 Jack, in quoting his father, only gets two words (“He said”) to himself.
His father’s message is simple: the “whole art of butchery’s in avoiding wastage”
(285). This monologue is ironic in that Jack’s success at avoiding wastage in
the butcher business has not prevented him from wasting another perishable
thing – his own life.

Another major conflict within the Dodds family through which Swift teases
out questions of identity is that between Jack and Vince, father and adopted
son. Born Vince Pritchett, he joins the Dodds family as a newborn, in 1944,
after a “doodlebug” (103), a German flying bomb, lands on the Pritchett
home in London, killing Vince’s parents but sparing him. Amy, despite – or
because of – having a child of her own who is retarded, adopts Vince while
Jack is off fighting in the war. She does this in part as a strategy to bring Jack,
who is alienated from his wife on account of June’s condition, back into the
fold. Vince reflects on how his introduction into the Dodds family must have
originally struck Jack: “All he did was come home from winning the war and
there I was – his welcome-home present – lying in that cot that was meant
for June” (25).

Because of his origins and upbringing, Vince remains haunted by questions
of identity, at one point thinking, “So if that bomb had killed me too, I’d
never’ve known I’d been born, I’d never’ve known I’d died. So I might’ve
been anyone” (189). Obsessing over his complex origins – “I aint who you
think I am, I aint Vince Dodds” (158) – Vince wavers between identifying as
a Dodds and as an outsider. At one point he imagines not really being Jack’s
“next-of-kin” (25) at all; at another he thinks of Amy, “She aint my mum”
(188). These feelings of being an imposter date from his childhood, before
he even knew where he came from, when Sally, Lenny’s daughter, would
accompany Vince and the Dodds to the seaside on weekends. While Sally
would ride in the front of Jack’s meat van, on Amy’s lap, Vince would ride
in the back of the van (62) because, in his imagining, “they preferred Sally to
me” (63).


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)

The most pronounced tension between Vince and his father, however,
springs from their conflict over the question of whether he will join his
father in the family butcher business. On this account Amy sums up the
relationship between the two as tense, as typically “at daggers drawn, cleavers
drawn” (240). Even as a boy Vince feels pressure to join the family business;
he remembers thinking, “I ain’t going to be a butcher never, it ain’t what
I’m going to be” (63). Just as Jack “never wanted to be a butcher in the first
place, never. It was only because [his] old man wouldn’t have it otherwise.
Dodds and Son, family butcher since 1903” (27), so Vince wishes not to
join his father in this work. Vince successfully dodges the family business
by joining up for military service for five years, traveling to the Yemeni port
city of Aden, “just to keep out of Jack’s reach” (44) (his departure is also
convenient because it allows him to flee Sally’s pregnancy). As Lenny puts
it of Vince, “I reckon a tour in the Middle East was a hard price to pay for
not being a butcher’s apprentice . . . Lad might even have had his arse shot
off ” (44). Vince explains, “Why d’you think I took off in the first place? Why
d’you think I joined up? Because I wasn’t going to be no Vince Dodds.
I wasn’t going to be no butcher’s boy” (159). For Vince – indeed, for all of
the major characters in the novel – one’s identity and trade are intimately
connected. Vince interprets Jack’s gaze at him while on his deathbed “As
if the least I owed him . . . was to have teamed up with him years ago and
acted like it was a real case of flesh and blood. Except it wasn’t flesh and
blood, it was meat. Meat or motors. That was the choice” (24). Vince chooses
“motors,” becoming a used-car dealer, but laments that “you have to pick
[a trade] and then you have to pretend for the rest of your life that that’s
what you are” (96).

Vince’s wife Mandy further complicates his relationship with Jack and Amy.
Years earlier, having run away from her native Lancashire and hitchhiked to
London, Mandy meets Jack by chance in a cafeteria at Smithfield meat market
(161). Jack offers her a job and a place to live, and she becomes yet another
daughter substitute for Jack and Amy. Vince even tells Mandy, “you’re
supposed to be the sister I ain’t got” (103). Vince also believes her to be
bait, laid by Jack, to keep Vince at home and convince him to join the family
firm. Mandy remembers summing up the situation in the Dodds household
as “all the opposite of what it seemed: a son whose home it wasn’t but it
was, a daughter whose home it was but it wasn’t because she had to be kept
in a Home, a mum and dad who weren’t really a mum and dad, except to
me” (157). That Mandy’s original father abandoned her (and her mother)
links Mandy’s story to many others in Last Orders: Vince is “abandoned” by
his parents; June by Jack; Jack by Amy; and Ray by his wife Carol and his
daughter Susie.


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)

Abandonment seems also to be relevant to Mandy’s and Vince’s daughter,
Kath, who in the novel’s present is of marrying age and who is described by
her mother as “a daughter on the hustle” (161). Just as Jack used Mandy to
lure Vince, so Vince uses Kath to entice male buyers of his used cars (168).
Specifically, Vince is depicted as pimping for his daughter; at one point he has
Kath take a wealthy Arab would-be customer, Hussein, out for a spin in one
of his cars, telling him, “You’re in good hands with Kath” (167). Vince
remembers Hussein looking at him “as though to say, Throw in the girl and
I’ll buy, and I look at him as though to say, Throw in an extra half-grand and
she’s yours” (167). Vince even imagines others thinking, “There goes Vince
Dodds who sold his daughter to an Ayrab” (166). Now Hussein appears to
be poised to dump Kath. As one critic puts the situation, not only does Vince
“greatly resent” his dependence on Mr Hussein, “but he is especially distressed
by the fact that his daughter Kath, whom he had dangled as bait before
Mr. Hussein when the latter first appeared, has gone to live with Mr. Hussein
and might soon be abandoned by him.”30

As tense as things are between Vince and Kath, they are still tenser between
Vince and Lenny. This tension dates from the 1960s, when Vince got Lenny’s
daughter Sally pregnant (the two had been childhood friends) and abandoned
her to an abortion when he joined the military, just in time to be among
“the last troops to clear out of Aden” (69). Vince having left Sally “a little
leaving present,” Lenny imagines Vince’s motto to be, “Out of sight, out of
mind” (49). Lenny at that time advised Sally to “get rid of it” (45) and found
a doctor to “do the job” (abortion was legalized in Britain only later). And
Ray, with his penchant for picking just the right horse at the racetrack, was
asked by Lenny to pick a winner; this enabled Lenny to fund his daughter’s
expensive (because illegal) operation (204). Just five years later, Lenny notes

we could’ve solved that little problem, no fuss, all above board and legal. Different
time, different rules. Like one moment we’re fighting over a whole heap of
desert [as Jack and Ray do in North Africa], next we’re pulling out of Aden
snappy [as Vince does two decades later]. (204)

Similar to the way Vince treats Kath is the way Sally is viewed by her father,
as something of a prostitute. On “the rebound from Big Boy,” is how Lenny
describes his daughter’s situation; in the 1960s, Sally married Tommy Tyson,
a “nutter” (132), who was subsequently convicted of “Four counts of larceny
and one of assault” and who now serves time in Pentonville prison (69). Sally
later started “taking on all-comers” (204), leading Amy to note that after


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)

Sally’s experience with her “Jailbird of a husband” she had “visitors of her
own, paying guests. It’s a living, you can see what drives a woman to it” (276).
Lenny, in an echo of the Jack–June relationship, then washes his hands altogether
of his daughter. Lenny comes to feel that Sally “should’ve stuck with
[Tyson], it’ll be worse when he gets out [of prison], she should’ve kept going
to see him. Like Amy sees June”; that “It’s a question of paying your dues.”

It’s like Ray should patch things up with Susie, like Carol should never’ve run
out on Ray. There shouldn’t ever be no running off, deserting . . . And Jack
shouldn’t ever’ve given up on his own. (132)

At Wick’s Farm in Kent Vince and Lenny actually come to blows (148).

The diminutive and lonely Ray “Lucky” Johnson, who narrates approximately
half of the novel, remains superficially outside of the above entanglements
and conflicts yet on a deeper level is thoroughly enmeshed in them.
Lenny articulates Ray’s craftiness and stealth this way: “you have to watch out
for Raysy. Just when you think he aint got no advantage he pops up and
surprises you, he pops out and does something canny. It’s like he hides
behind being small” (138).

Years ago abandoned by his wife Carol, who leaves him for another man,
and half a year earlier by his daughter Susie, who moves to Australia with
her boyfriend, Ray thinks, “First my daughter buggers off to Sydney and
stops writing, now my wife goes and bunks it. And they call me Lucky” (100).
Lucky with horses – he wins thirty-thousand pounds on the horse “Miracle
Worker,” for example – Ray is unlucky in love. The one bright spot in his
lackluster love life was his brief affair with Amy two decades earlier (only Vic
learns of the affair), in the mid-1960s, when Amy was in her mid-forties;
it ended just before Vince’s return from military service. The affair began with
Ray’s offer to join Amy during her visits to June at the “home,” an obligation
that Jack did not accept. While Amy seems to prize Ray’s kindness above his
sex-appeal – “Oh Ray, you’re a lovely man, you’re a lucky man, you’re a little
ray of sunshine, you’re a little ray of hope” (284), she tells him – Ray has
harbored romantic feelings for Amy dating from the time, in North Africa
during World War II, that Jack showed him his wife’s photograph, apparently
snapped in Margate (89).

On his deathbed Jack asks Ray to secure funds by betting on the horses so
that Jack can pay back his significant debt and set up Amy for the rest of her
life. Ray takes Jack’s request as a “sign” and “permit” and “blessing” for Ray
to become re-involved with Amy, “to carry on where we left off” (283). Ray
surmises that Jack knew about their affair of long ago all along and now is


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)

thinking, “These are my shoes, Raysy, go on, step in ’em, wear ’em. You
always should’ve worn them, if there was anything other than the rule of
blind chance in this world” (283). “Miracle Worker” having come in and Jack
having died before he could learn of Ray’s successful gamble, Ray is faced with
the choice of pocketing the winnings from “Miracle Worker” (as only the
deceased Jack certainly knew of the bet), or of giving the winnings outright to
Amy, or of using the winnings, “thirty thousand smackers in my wallet” (283),
to take himself and Amy on a holiday to Australia to see Susie. Ray feels guilty
even contemplating the former course (he imagines Vic, Vince, and Lenny
being able to see “that Raysy’s got a lot of something that aint his” [225]), yet
this does not stop him from entertaining it as a possibility. Ray also feels
profound guilt for not writing his daughter for decades because of the shame
he felt when his wife left him for another man. The present of Last Orders is
limited to one long day; we never learn what Ray chooses to do with the
money he won in order to buy Jack out of his crippling debt and subsidize
Amy’s life, or what happens between Ray and Amy or between Ray and
Susie. That said, the trajectory of the novel’s action is toward connection,
reconciliation, integration, making amends.

Last Orders is a novel that yearns for closure, summing up, finality, reclaiming
origins, while at the same time it rejects the possibility of achieving such
things. Margate plays an important role in this yearning: it is a nostalgic
site of weekend vacations in the past; the place where Jack hoped to retire
with Amy (but not with June) after giving up his (by then failing) butcher
business; and a terminus point for Vic’s, Vince’s, Lenny’s, and Ray’s journey
(and the place where Jack’s ashes will be committed to the sea). Margate is
also a means for the novel to probe the tension between nostalgic ideals and
quotidian realities, between life as the characters wish it to be and life as it is
in fact lived.

Toward the end of Jack’s life Margate was both the site of the distant,
idealized past and of the prospective future. A destination for family weekend
excursions, the pleasure pier at Margate was also the place that Jack and Amy
visited years earlier, after June’s birth. The gap then, between what the two
were supposed to feel at the funfair of “Dreamland” and what they in fact felt,
yawned wide. While the pleasure pier atmosphere was meant to encourage
joviality and hopefulness, Jack and Amy were anything but happy. Jack won
Amy a teddy bear in the duck-shooting gallery, but ended up throwing the
stuffed animal, a figuration of June, over the side of the pier, just as Jack’s
ashes were to be thrown years later by his cronies. In this remembered episode
Amy thinks of Margate, “This [funfair] isn’t true, it’s only a picture, a seaside
postcard” (254); and we learn that she even contemplated leaving Jack
altogether (254–5). Jack’s dream, years later, of escaping London with Amy


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)

(but not with June) to retire in Margate, is used to explore the a gap between
the attempt to rewrite history and the impossibility of doing so. Amy recalls
Jack saying, “ ‘Margate. How about Margate?’ As if we could put the clock
back and start off again where it all stopped. Second honeymoon. As if Margate
was another word for magic” (229).

In the present of the novel, as his friends prepare to dispense Jack’s ashes,
Margate once again functions to explore the yawning gap between the nostalgic
ideal and the all-too-real. The seedy appearance of the pleasure pier on this
day of severe weather, Ray thinks, makes Margate an unlikely candidate for a
“journey’s end” and a “final resting-place, where you’d want to come to finish
your days and find peace and contentment for ever and ever” (269). For Ray,
Margate, after all the anticipation, “aint much to write home about” (281),
with its decayed pier resembling “a dump” (289), and with its shuttered arcades
save for “one or two . . . all flickering and winking” (269). “It’s a poor dream,”
Ray thinks of the “Dreamland” funfair, “Except all dreams are poor” (281).
Like the four travelers themselves, the pleasure pier looks haggard, faded, and
aged; like them, it does not live up to its ideal. As in Ishiguro’s The Remains
of the Day, the final scene of Last Orders, also on a pleasure pier, exudes
disappointment while probing life’s boundaries: “One way there’s Margate
and Dreamland, the other there’s the open sea,” Ray reflects; “We are at the
end” (292). Margate, according to Ray,

doesn’t look like the end of the road, it doesn’t look like what you’d aim for and
work for. It looks like it’s trying to keep going all year round something that
only happened once one whoopsy weekend. So this is what you get, this is
where you come. I reckon it’s all about wanting to be a kid again, bucket and
spade and a gob full of ice cream. Or it’s all about being on the edge, which you
are, other sense, and you know it. Not where the road’s going, just where it
don’t go no further . . . End of the road, end of the pier. Splash. (272–73)

The friends become “soaked” (291) in the blinding rainstorm that finally
comes. Tellingly, the four cannot prevent Jack’s ashes from sticking to them

(293) as they attempt to grab handfuls of it from the urn and scatter it into
the sea. Like it or not, living or dead, Jack literally and figuratively rubs off on
them all.
While Swift’s novel exhibits many recognizably postmodern features –
narrative self-reflexivity, the use of pastiche, the inter-animation of past and
present times, a blurring of elite and demotic, “high” and “low” art forms,
and the fragmentation of unified subjectivity31 – it nevertheless “hesitates
between a postmodern subversion of identity and a commitment to identity


Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)

politics.”32 Indeed, many readers have noted that Swift’s postmodern orientation
is coupled with a more backward-looking view. David Leon Higdon, for
example, writes of Swift’s ability to “create a type of closure which successfully
combines the postmodern sense of the human being perpetually en passant
with the aesthetic demands for some type of boundary”;33 while Pamela Cooper
wonders whether it is perhaps more appropriate to see Swift as “a neomodernist
rather than a postmodernist.”34 In this respect Last Orders is
paradoxical, yearning for yet also severely ironizing the possibility of stable
identity, interpretive closure, fixed meanings, and objective history. What Lenny
thinks of Vince’s grasp of the meaning of Canterbury Cathedral as reducible
to what he reads in his guidebook, for example – “He’s studying that guidebook
like it’s got all the answers” (203) – is germane to the novel’s warning
about how not to read it. Swift’s work does not contain “all the answers” to
the questions and problems that it poses, any more than Ray possesses an
objective view of the scene containing Jack’s “guard of honour” and the local
sheep at Wick’s Farm:

The sheep are still staring at us. I reckon we must look as daft to them as they
do to us, and I reckon anyone looking up from down below at the four of us on
the top of this hill must think we’re stranger-looking than the sheep. (150)

Like most if not all of the novels explored in this volume, Last Orders
emphasizes the great extent to which perspective determines knowledge and
“truth,” and to which narrative meaning is multivalent and endlessly open to
reinterpretation. It is perhaps these emphases, above all, that give the novel of
1950–2000 its special character and force.




Arthur Marwick, British Society since 1945, 3rd edn. (Harmondsworth: Penguin
Books, 1996), p. 7.

John Brannigan, Orwell to the Present: Literature in England, 1945–2000 (Basingstoke:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 9.

1 Introduction: Contexts and Concepts

A. S. Byatt, “People in paper houses: attitudes to ‘realism’ and ‘experiment’ in
English post-war fiction,” in Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings (New York:
Turtle Bay Books, 1992), p. 147.

Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern World: Ten Great Writers (Harmondsworth:
Penguin Books, 1990), p. 3.

Pound quoted in Herbert Schneidau, Waking Giants: The Presence of the Past in
Modernism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 137. I am
indebted to Schneidau’s articulation of the problem of “mortmain” in modernist

4 Quoted in Bradbury, Modern World, p. 10.
5 George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara [1905] (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,
1960), pp. 140–1.
6 George Orwell, “Inside the whale,” in A Collection of Essays by George Orwell

(San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1954), pp. 228–9.
7 Orwell, “Inside the whale,” p. 245.
8 T. S. Eliot, “The metaphysical poets,” in Selected Prose (New York: Harcourt

Brace Jovanovich and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1975), p. 65.
9 Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach,” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature,
7th edn., vol. 2, ed. M. H. Abrams (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), p. 1492.


Notes, pages 3–7

W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” in Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan,
1956), p. 184.

Karl Marx, “Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,”
in The Marx–Engels Reader, 2nd edn., ed. Robert C. Tucker (New
York: W. W. Norton, 1978), p. 54.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), p. 181.

Sigmund Freud, Future of an Illusion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961), pp. 53,

14 Orwell, “Inside the whale,” p. 228.
15 For more on this see Sigmund Freud, Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (New
York: W. W. Norton, 1961), pp. 18–27.

Kenneth Graham, “Conrad and modernism,” in Cambridge Companion to Joseph
Conrad, ed. J. H. Stape (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 211.

Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern British Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,
1994), p. 268.

Gerald Graff, “The myth of the postmodernist breakthrough,” in The Novel
Today: Contemporary Writers on Modern Fiction, ed. Malcolm Bradbury
(Manchester: Manchester University Press and Rowman & Littlefield, 1977),

p. 219.
John Barth, “The literature of replenishment,” in Essentials of the Theory of
Fiction, ed. Michael Hoffman and Patrick Murphy (Durham and London: Duke
University Press, 1988), p. 430.

John Wain, quoted in Rubin Rabinovitz, The Reaction Against Experiment in the
English Novel, 1950–1960 (New York and London: Columbia University Press,
1967), p. 8.

C. P. Snow, quoted in Randall Stevenson, A Reader’s Guide to the Twentieth-
Century Novel in Britain (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), p. 96.

C. P. Snow, quoted in Frank Kermode, “The house of fiction: interviews with
seven novelists,” in Bradbury, The Novel Today, p. 129.

Kingsley Amis, quoted in Michael Barber, “The art of fiction LIX, Kingsley
Amis” (interview), Paris Review 64 (1975), p. 46.

Quoted in Rabinovitz, Reaction Against Experiment, pp. 40–1.

David Lodge, The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and
Criticism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971), p. 19.

David Lodge, Modernism, Antimodernism and Postmodernism (published lecture)
(Birmingham: University of Birmingham, 1977), p. 10.

B. S. Johnson, “Introduction to Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your

Memoirs?,” in Bradbury, The Novel Today, p. 152.
28 Ibid.
29 Ibid., p. 155.
30 Ibid., p. 167.
31 John Fowles, “Notes on an unfinished novel,” in Bradbury, The Novel Today,

p. 147.
32 Malcolm Bradbury, Modern British Novel, p. 408.

Notes, pages 7–12

Hans Bertens, The Idea of the Postmodern: A History (London and New York:
Routledge, 1995), p. 3.

Ibid., pp. 10–11.

Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. xiv.

Han Bertens, “Jean-François Lyotard,” in Postmodernism: The Key Figures, ed.
Hans Bertens and Joseph Natoli (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), p. 247.

Douglas Kellner, “Jean Baudrillard,” in Bertens and Natoli, Postmodernism,

p. 52.
38 Ibid., p. 53.
39 Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
Press, 1994), p. 1.

Steven Best and Douglass Kellner, The Postmodern Turn (New York and
London: Guilford Press, 1997), pp. 132, 130.

Ibid., p. 130.


Ibid., p. 131.

Ibid., p. 132.

Andrei Codrescu, quoted in R. B. Kershner, The Twentieth-Century Novel: An
Introduction (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997), p. 76.

Virginia Woolf, “Modern fiction,” in The English Modernist Reader, 1910–1930,
ed. Peter Faulkner (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1986), pp. 108–9.

Douwe W. Fokkema, Literary History, Modernism, and Postmodernism (Amsterdam
and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1984), p. 40.

48 John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the
Literary Intelligensia, 1880–1939 (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1992), p. vii.
49 D. H. Lawrence, “Why the novel matters,” in Faulkner, English Modernist Reader,

p. 145.
50 George Orwell, “England your England,” in Collection of Essays, p. 252.
51 Bradbury, Modern British Novel, p. 264.
52 Iris Murdoch, “Against dryness,” in Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy
and Literature (New York: Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 1998), p. 287.
53 George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the

Inhuman (New York: Atheneum, 1967), p. ix.

Ibid., pp. viii–ix.

H. Rider Haggard, She, King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quatermain: Three Novels
(New York: Dover, 1951), p. 420.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer (New York: New
American Library, 1950), p. 83.

Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University

Press, 1989), p. 98.
58 Ibid., p. 101.
59 Ibid., p. 102.
60 Ibid.


Notes, pages 12–18

61 Ibid.
62 Ibid., p. 103.
63 Ibid., p. 104.
64 Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994),

p. 45.
65 Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (New York: Vintage Books, 1989),
p. 146.
First awarded in 1969, the Booker Prize has come to be recognized, for better
or worse, as Britain’s most prestigious and influential literary prize. The increasingly
generous award and publicity are career-changing for the winner, although
the judging – by a different panel each year – is inevitably that of the moment
rather than of history. For its first 35 years the prize went to the author whose
novel published in the previous year was judged the best of those submitted from
Britain, the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland. Since then its terms of
entry have widened, and it is now called the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. For
more on this prize and on other British literary awards, see James F. English,
“The literary prize phenomenon in context,” in A Companion to the British and
Irish Novel 1945–2000, ed. Brian W. Shaffer (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005).

66 Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Avon Books, 1965), p. 163.
67 William Golding, “Fable,” in The Hot Gates and Other Occasional Pieces (New
York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966), pp. 86–7.
68 Caryl Phillips, A New World Order: Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 2002),

p. 242.
69 Linda Richards, “January interview with Kazuo Ishiguro,”
70 Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981–1991
(London: Granta Books, 1991), p. 20.

Emma Tennant, quoted in Stevenson, Reader’s Guide, p. 131.

Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock, “Introduction,” in Interviews with
Writers of the Post-Colonial World (Jackson and London: University Press of
Mississippi, 1992), p. 3.

Stevenson, Reader’s Guide, p. 126.

Jussawalla and Dasenbrock, “Introduction,” p. 4.

Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, pp. 64, 70.

Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 131–2.

Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory
and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London and New York: Routledge,
1989), p. 195.

Jussawalla and Dasenbrock, “Introduction,” p. 6.

Ibid., p. 13.

Ibid., p. 14.

Simon Gikandi, Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism

(New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. xi.


Notes, pages 18–32

82 O’Brien has even authored a short biography of James Joyce.
83 Another internationally celebrated Canadian prose writer, Alice Munro, is known

mainly for her short fiction.
84 Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, p. 64.
85 Jussawalla and Dasenbrock, “Introduction,” p. 4.
86 Chinua Achebe, “African literature as restoration of celebration,” in Chinua

Achebe: A Celebration, ed. Kirsten Holst Peterson and Anna Rutherford (Oxford:
Heinemann, 1990), pp. 7–8.

Chinua Achebe, “Role of the writer in a new nation,” in African Writers on
African Writing, ed. G. D. Killam (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press,
1973), p. 12.

88 Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, p. 17.
89 Phillips, New World Order, p. 192.
90 Ibid., p. 130.
91 Jean Rhys, Letters 1931–1966 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 24.
92 Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, p. 19.
93 Phillips, New World Order, p. 294.
94 Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, p. 19.
95 Ibid., pp. 124–5.
96 Dominic Head, Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction, 1950–2000

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 164.
97 Phillips, New World Order, pp. 1, 2, 3, 4.
98 Ibid., p. 283.
99 Ibid., p. 286.

Head, Cambridge Introduction, p. 180.

Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, p. 136.

Ibid., p. 134.

Ibid., p. 130.

Phillips, New World Order, p. 296.

Allan Vorda and Kim Herzinger, “An interview with Kazuo Ishiguro,” Mississippi
Review 20 (1991), pp. 139–40. For an insightful full-length study of the “black
British” novel, see Bruce King, The Internationalization of English Literature,
Oxford English Literary History, vol. 13: 1948–2000 (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2004).

John Fowles, “Notes on an unfinished novel,” p. 138.

M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (Austin: University of
Texas Press, 1981), p. 331.

For more on the history and origins of the novel in English, see Ian Watt’s The
Rise of the Novel and Michael McKeon’s The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–

Forster, quoted in David K. Danow, The Thought of Mikhail Bakhtin: From Word
to Culture (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1991), p. 43.

T. S. Eliot, “Ulysses, order, and myth,” in Selected Prose, p. 177.

Danow, Thought of Mikhail Bakhtin, pp. 50, 43.


Notes, pages 32–38

112 Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, p. 47.
113 Ibid., pp. 17, 39, 11.
114 Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction

(London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 39.

Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, p. 14.

Orwell, “Inside the whale,” p. 241.

Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, p. 100.

Ibid., p. 15.

John Barth, “Literature of replenishment,” p. 432.

M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (Austin: University of Texas
Press, 1986), p. 7.

Ibid., p. 162.

2 Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954)

1 Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim [1954] (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1992), p. 204.
Further references are noted parenthetically in the text.
2 Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern British Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,
1993), p. 324.
3 David Lodge, “Introduction” to Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (Harmondsworth:
Penguin Books, 1992), p. v.
4 Merritt Moseley, Understanding Kingsley Amis (Columbia: University of South

Carolina Press, 1993), pp. 18–19.
5 Bradbury, Modern British Novel, p. 320.
6 Malcolm Bradbury, No, Not Bloomsbury (New York: Columbia University Press,

1988), pp. 207, 204.
7 William Van O’Connor, The New University Wits and the End of Modernism
(Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963), p. 78.
8 Dale Salwak, “An interview with Kingsley Amis,” Contemporary Literature 16
(1975), p. 18.

9 Moseley, Understanding Kingsley Amis, p. 1.

Lodge, “Introduction,” p. vii.

Ibid., pp. vii–viii. See also Christian Gutleben, “English academic satire from
the Middle Ages to postmodernism: distinguishing the comic from the satiric,” in
Theorizing Satire: Essays in Literary Criticism, ed. Brian A. Connery and Kirk
Combe (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1995).

Amis quoted in Elaine Showalter, “Ladlit.,” in On Modern British Fiction, ed.
Zachary Leader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 62.

Janice Rossen, “Philip Larkin and Lucky Jim,” Journal of Modern Literature 22
(1998), p. 147.

Kingsley Amis, Memoirs (New York: Summit Books, 1991), p. 56.

Amis writes: “In 1950 or so I sent [Larkin] my sprawling first draft and got back
what amounted to a synopsis of the first third of the structure and other things


Notes, pages 38

besides. He decimated the characters that, in carried-away style, I had poured
into the tale without care for the plot . . . He helped me to make a proper start”
(Memoirs, p. 57).

Lodge, “Introduction,” p. ix.

Peter Kalliney, “Cities of affluence: masculinity, class, and the Angry Young Men,”
Modern Fiction Studies 47 (2001), p. 93.

Harry Blamires, Twentieth-Century English Literature (New York: Schocken Books,
1982), p. 222. Sir William Beveridge’s 1942 Social Insurance and Allied Services
became a best-selling blueprint for postwar British social policy. As Dominic
Head observes, “Beveridge’s plan was for a comprehensive welfare programme,
premised on the expectation of full employment, and involving a universal
national insurance scheme, and a national health service. It was a social vision
that caught the public mood” (Dominic Head, Cambridge Introduction to Modern
British Fiction, 1950–2000 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002],
pp. 13–14).

Salwak, “Interview,” pp. 2–3.

Michael Barber, “The art of fiction LIX, Kingsley Amis” (interview), Paris Review
64 (1975), p. 46.

Kingsley Amis, “Myths about “The Angry Young Men,” Encounter 31/5 (1968),

p. 95. Amis went so far as to assert, in a letter to Larkin, “Well, what a load of
bullshit all that was in the Spr about the new movt. Etc.” (quoted in Christopher
Hitchens, “The man of feeling,” Atlantic Monthly [May 2002], p. 106).
Bradbury, Modern British Novel, p. 318. For example, Iris Murdoch, who had
just published her first novel Under the Net (1954), also was included in this
“movement” by many contemporary critics.

“The Angry Young Men” authors also overlapped socially and intellectually
with a group of poets loosely termed “The Movement,” which included Amis
himself, John Wain, Thom Gunn, Donald Davie, D. J. Enright, Robert Conquest,
and of course their mentor Philip Larkin. As David Lodge explains, these poets
consciously set out “to displace the declamatory, surrealistic, densely metaphorical
poetry of Dylan Thomas and his associates with verse that was well-formed,
comprehensible, dry, witty, colloquial and down-to-earth” (Lodge, “Introduction,”
pp. viii–ix). These poets first appeared together in 1956 in two important
volumes: Robert Conquest’s New Lines and G. S. Fraser’s Poetry Now. Members
of “The Movement” rejected Romanticism as well as its stepchild, modernism.

J. D. Scott, writing in the Spectator in 1954, summarized the poets in this group as
being “bored by the despair of the Forties, not much interested in suffering, and
extremely impatient of poetic sensibility, especially poetic sensibility about ‘the
writer and society’ ” (quoted in Hitchens, “Man of feeling,” p. 106). The poetry of
Philip Larkin in particular exemplified the new voice – “plain-speaking, exact,
observant, pessimistic, anti-romantic” (Bradbury, No, Not Bloomsbury, p. 207) –
of this rebellious group. Dominic Head believes that it may be more appropriate
“to read Lucky Jim as embodying the sensibility of the Movement primarily,”
rather than that of the Angries (Cambridge Introduction, p. 50).

Notes, pages 38–41

23 Salwak, “Interview,” p. 2.
24 John Osborne, Look Back in Anger (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1957),

p. 84.
25 Lodge, “Introduction,” p. xi.
26 Leslie Paul, “The Angry Young Men revisited,” Kenyon Review 27 (1965), p. 345.
27 Kingsley Amis, “Why Lucky Jim turned right,” in What Became of Jane Austen?
And Other Questions (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), p. 201.

Bradbury, No, Not Bloomsbury, p. 204. The Fabians were a moderate Socialist
order with which Bernard Shaw earlier had been associated.

Bradbury, No, Not Bloomsbury, p. 205. Amis himself notes that in 1956 he “let
it be known” that he “had always voted Labour” and probably “always would,”
yet in 1964 “voted Labour for the last time” (Amis, “Why Lucky Jim turned
right,” p. 200).

Rubin Rabinovitz, The Reaction Against Experiment in the English Novel, 1950–
1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967), p. 61.

O’Connor, New University Wits, p. 98.

Quoted in Moseley, Understanding Kingsley Amis, p. 3.

Ibid., p. 3.

Quoted in Edmund Wilson, The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of
1950–1965 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966), p. 276.

Bradbury, No, Not Bloomsbury, p. 207.

Barber, “Art of fiction,” p. 46. Amis is known to have deemed Joyce “a waste of
time” (quoted in Richard Fallis, “Lucky Jim and academic wishful thinking,” Studies
in the Novel 9 [1977], p. 66). Similarly, the novelist C. P. Snow in 1958 remarked
that many authors viewed “Joyce’s way” as “at best a cul-de-sac” (quoted in
Randall Stevenson, A Reader’s Guide to The Twentieth-Century Novel in Britain
[Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993], p. 96).

Bradbury, No, Not Bloomsbury, p. 207.

Gilbert Phelps, “The post-war English novel,” in The New Pelican Guide to English
Literature, vol. 8: The Present, ed. Boris Ford (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,
1983), p. 431.

Barber, “Art of fiction,” p. 47.

Quoted in Rabinovitz, Reaction Against Experiment, p. 39.

Quoted in ibid., pp. 40–1.

Bradbury, Modern British Novel, p. 321.

Amis’s friend Robert Conquest published an essay, “Christian symbolism in ‘Lucky
Jim’,” written as a joke but widely read in earnest, which parodied academic
literary criticism for being arcane, obscure, and pretentious.

Lodge, “Introduction,” p. vi.

Bradbury, No, Not Bloomsbury, p. 206.

Quoted in Bradbury, Modern British Novel, p. 322.

In his prefatory essay to Joseph Andrews Fielding makes an observation that is

of obvious relevance to Lucky Jim: “the only source of the true Ridiculous is
affectation, which has two aspects: vanity and hypocrisy” (quoted in David Lodge,


Notes, pages 41–44

Language of Fiction: Essays in Criticism and Verbal Analysis of the English Novel

[London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966], p. 250).

Walter Allen, Tradition and Dream: The English and American Novel from the
Twenties to Our Time (London: Phoenix Books, 1964), pp. 281–2.

Quoted in Moseley, Understanding Kingsley Amis, p. 12.

Barber, “Art of fiction,” p. 49.

Kingsley Amis, “Laughter’s to be taken seriously,” The New York Times Book
Review, July 7, 1957, p. 1.

Salwak, “Interview,” p. 7.

O’Connor, New University Wits, p. 85.

Moseley, Understanding Kingsley Amis, p. 22.

David Lodge notes that “Several critics have perceived a fairy-tale buried in
the deep structure of Lucky Jim, in which Jim is the Frog Prince, Christine the
Princess, Gore-Urquhart the Fairy Godmother, and Margaret the Witch” (“Introduction,”
p. xiii).

Bradbury, Modern British Novel, p. 321.

“He’d been drawn into the Margaret business,” Jim reasons, “by a combination
of virtues he hadn’t known he possessed: politeness, friendly interest, ordinary
concern, a good-natured willingness to be imposed upon, a desire for unequivocal
friendship” (10). Jim’s “passably decent treatment” of her is attributed to his
“temporary victory of fear over irritation and/or pity over boredom” (111).

Amis has called Margaret “a sort of sexual bore” (Barber, “Art of fiction,” p. 50)
and “a neurotic person who brings pressure to bear by being neurotic” (Salwak,
“Interview,” p. 7).

The distinction in E. M. Forster’s 1908 novel A Room with a View between
(English) gentility, decorum, and civility and (Italian) passion, feeling, and emotion
is relevant here.

For example, compare the Jim–Margaret and the Jim–Christine romance scenes

(p. 58 and p. 151).
61 This anxiety and repression dominate Jim’s experience; he is made uncomfortable
by lust – his own or another’s – and by the sight of an attractive female.

Salwak, “Interview,” p. 8.

James Gindin, Postwar British Fiction: New Accents and Attitudes (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1962), p. 49.

Jim wins over Gore-Urquhart because of his lecture and because of his reference
to himself as a “boredom-detector . . . a finely-tuned instrument,” who would be
of great use to any millionaire who hires him. “Like a canary down a mine,”
Dixon could be sent into “dinners and cocktail parties and night-clubs” in advance
of his employer, would could then read his “boredom-coefficient” and determine
“whether it was worth going in himself or not” (215).

Fallis, “Lucky Jim”, p. 68.


Lodge adds, “The longest and most important piece of continuous action in the

novel, extending over six chapters and some fifty pages, centres on a ball, a device


Notes, pages 44–50

for bringing characters together that goes back as far as the eighteenth-century

novel” (“Introduction,” p. viii).

Lodge, “Introduction,” p. xiii.

Ibid., pp. xv–xvi. Again like Forster in A Room with a View, Amis in Lucky Jim
teases us with false engagements (Bertrand and Christine, Dixon and Margaret)
that never materialize, and brings hero and heroine together despite the numerous
foils (Margaret and the Welch family) that labor tirelessly to keep them apart.

Quoted in Ted E. Boyle and Terence Brown, “The serious side of Kingsley Amis’s
Lucky Jim,” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 9 (1966), p. 100.

C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 3rd edn. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill,
1972), p. 473.

Barber, “Art of fiction,” p. 45.

73 Amis, “Laughter’s to be taken seriously,” p. 1.
Amis distinguishes between the satirist and the “social” novelist and aligns
himself with the former camp while eschewing any association with the latter. “I
have ideas about society, naturally,” Amis writes, “but human behaviour is what I
see myself writing about” (quoted in O’Connor, New University Wits, p. 76).

For more on this see Gutleben, “English academic satire,” p. 134.

Lodge, “Introduction,” p. viii.

Stevenson, Reader’s Guide, p. 121.

Phelps, “Post-war English novel,” p. 430.

As Bradbury points out, “A redbrick university was an ideal location for
Jim Dixon’s story, since here the manners of other places – the traditions and
snobberies of privileged Oxbridge colleges, the mannered eccentricities of uppermiddle-
class donnish style, the constant appeal beyond the here-and-now to an
imaginary Merrie England – prevailed in a world which gave them no support”
(No, Not Bloomsbury, p. 209).

Lodge, “Introduction,” p. viii.

Ibid., p. xi.

At the musicale Jim “tried to listen to Welch’s song, to marvel at its matchless
predictability, its austere, unswerving devotion to tedium” (64). The combined
voices at song strike Jim as so much “soporific droning” (36).

Bradbury, No, Not Bloomsbury, p. 208.

Fallis, “Lucky Jim”, p. 65.

In this connection, Jim disparages the modern world (“The hydrogen bomb, the
South African Government, Chiang Kai-shek, Senator McCarthy” [87]) as much
as he does the medieval one, avoiding both left-wing progressivism and right-
wing antiquarianism.

Salwak, “Interview,” p. 8.

Lodge, “Introduction,” p. xi.

Hitchens, “Man of feeling,” p. 105. Beesley, a colleague of Jim’s in the English
Department, maligns recent educational reforms in general and the “Education
Authority grants” in particular, which in his view lower the aggregate academic
level of students, increase their numbers, and have implications for education


Notes, pages 50–55

hiring, particularly in the “provincial universities” (170). For him (and one
imagines for Amis), overall educational quality diminishes in Britain as overall
student numbers increase.

Lodge, “Introduction,” p. vi.

Lodge, Language of Fiction, p. 251.

Ibid., p. 252.

For example, Jim “looked at his face now in the mirror: it looked back at him,
humourless and self-pitying” (164); Jim’s reflection in the mirror “looked healthy
and, he hoped, honest and kindly. He’d have to be content with that” (65).

Lodge, Language of Fiction, pp. 254–5.

Ibid., p. 255.


3 William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)

1 William Golding, “Fable,” in The Hot Gates and Other Occasional Pieces (New
York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), pp. 86–7.
2 William Golding quoted in Jack I. Biles (ed.) Talk: Conversations with William
Golding (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970), p. 3.

E. M. Forster, “Introduction,” in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”: Casebook
Edition; Text, Notes & Criticism, ed. James R. Baker and Arthur P. Ziegler (New
York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1964), p. 207.

Bernard F. Dick quoted in Kathleen Woodward, “On aggression: William
Golding’s Lord of the Flies,” in No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian
Fiction, ed. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander
(Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), p. 205.

Golding’s novel is reminiscent of certain works of Joseph Conrad and of Euripides.
As for the Conrad connection, although Golding in 1962 claims not to have read
Heart of Darkness (see James Keating, “Interview with William Golding,” in
William Golding: Casebook Edition, p. 194), E. L. Epstein notes an allusion to
Conrad’s novella in Lord of the Flies and says that “Golding seems very close
to Conrad, both in basic principles and in artistic method” (E. L. Epstein, “Notes
on Lord of the Flies,” in William Golding: Casebook Edition, p. 281). And Frederick

R. Karl maintains that, “Ideologically, Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness are
analogous,” and that “throughout his entire canon” Golding “is treading on
Conrad’s territory” (Frederick R. Karl, “Assessing Lord of the Flies,” in Readings
on “Lord of the Flies”, ed. Clarice Swisher [San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997],
p. 157). For Golding’s connection with Euripides’ Bacchae, see James R. Baker,
“The decline of Lord of the Flies,” South Atlantic Quarterly 69 (1970), p. 455, and
Bernard F. Dick, William Golding, rev. edn. (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987),
pp. 9–13.
Malcolm Bradbury, No, Not Bloomsbury (New York: Columbia University Press,
1988), p. 341.


Notes, pages 55–58

7 The Time magazine essay, “Lord of the campus,” is reprinted in William Golding:
Casebook Edition, pp. 283–5.
8 See William Golding, A Moving Target (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux,
1982), p. 171.

See, for example, the essays collected in William Golding: Casebook Edition; in
William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”: Bloom’s Notes, ed. Harold Bloom (Broomall,
PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 1996); and in Swisher, Readings on “Lord of the

James R. Baker, William Golding: A Critical Study (New York: St Martin’s Press,
1965), pp. 15–16.

Baker, William Golding, p. 16.

Forster, “Introduction,” pp. 209–10. And Arthur P. Ziegler, in his forward to
William Golding: Casebook Edition, observes that Golding’s view is not “traditionally
Christian” (p. x).

Baker, William Golding, p. 15.

Among other differences, according to “angry” novelist John Wain, Golding “is
not a novelist” at all but “an allegorist” (quoted in Randall Stevenson, The British
Novel since the Thirties: An Introduction [Athens: University of Georgia Press,
1986], p. 171). Kingsley Amis says something similar in a review of Golding’s
third novel, Pincher Martin: “I hope Mr. Golding will forgive me if I ask him to
turn his gifts of originality, of intransigence, and above all of passion, to the
world where we have to live” (quoted in L. L. Dickson, The Modern Allegories of
William Golding [Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1990], p. 11).

Randall Stevenson, A Reader’s Guide to The Twentieth-Century Novel in Britain
(Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), p. 99. Novelist John Fowles
stresses Golding’s distance not only from the “Angries” but from all literary
groups when he calls him “his own writer, his own school of one” (quoted in the
Introduction to Swisher, Readings on “Lord of the Flies”, p. 11).

Baker, William Golding, p. xiii.

Golding comments that the war had the overall effect of having his “nose rubbed
in the human condition” (quoted in Biles, Talk, p. 33).

Forster, “Introduction,” p. 208.

Bradbury, No, Not Bloomsbury, p. 341.

Walter Allen, Tradition and Dream: The English and American Novel from the

Twenties to Our Time (London: Phoenix House, 1964), p. 289.
21 Ian McEwan, “Golding portrays young boys accurately,” in Swisher, Readings on

“Lord of the Flies”, p. 106.

Golding quoted in Biles, Talk, p. 41.

Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern British Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,
1993), p. 328.


Baker, “Decline,” p. 454.

For more on this see Dickson, Modern Allegories.

Baker, “Decline,” p. 446.


Notes, pages 58–62

See, for example, Baker, “Decline,” p. 448; and Dick, William Golding, pp. 19–

20. Dick argues that “Golding’s island is a dystopia in which the classes do not
cooperate for the common good” (p. 20).

Woodward, “On aggression,” pp. 203, 202.

McEwan, “Golding portrays young boys,” p. 105.

Quoted in Biles, Talk, pp. 7–8.

Minnie Singh, “The government of boys: Golding’s Lord of the Flies and
Ballantyne’s Coral Island,” Children’s Literature 25 (1997), p. 206.


“The meaning of it all” (transcript of a radio broadcast of William Golding
speaking with Frank Kermode), in William Golding: Casebook Edition, p. 201.

Golding, “Fable,” p. 89.

Baker, William Golding, p. 14.

An “atom bomb” is referenced on p. 14. William Golding, Lord of the Flies (New
York: Perigee, 1954). Further references are noted parenthetically in the text.

For more on the Golding–Ballantyne connection see Singh, “Government of
boys,” and see Carl Niemeyer, “The Coral Island revisited,” in William Golding:
Casebook Edition.

Bradbury, Modern British Novel, p. 327.

Baker, “Decline,” p. 453.

Ibid., p. 452.

Baker, William Golding, p. 4.

Woodward, “On aggression,” p. 200.

Singh, “Government of boys,” p. 207.

Golding quoted in “The meaning of it all,” p. 201. For Niemeyer, Golding
“regards Ballantyne’s book as a badly falsified map of reality” (Niemeyer, “Coral
Island revisited,” p. 219).

Singh, “Government of boys,” p. 210.

Golding’s boys, according to the author, “are innocent of their own natures”;

because they do not possess self-knowledge when they reach the island, “they
can look forward to a bright future, because they don’t understand the things
that threaten it” (quoted in James Keating, “Interview with William Golding,”

p. 190). One critic goes even farther: Golding’s “entire fable” suggests “a grim
parallel with the prophecies of the Biblical Apocalypse” (Baker, William Golding,
p. 16).
48 Woodward, “On aggression,” p. 200.
49 At one point, for example, we read that Ralph “excitedly” boasts hitting the pig:
“ ‘The spear stuck in. I wounded him!’ He sunned himself in their new respect
and felt that hunting was good after all” (113).

For example, we read that Ralph becomes “conscious of the weight of [his]
clothes” (10).

Samuel Hynes, in “Several interpretations of Lord of the Flies,” in Swisher,
Readings on “Lord of the Flies”, p. 59, sees echoes of Cain and Abel in the Jack–
Ralph relationship.


Notes, pages 62–67

When Jack lets the fire go out, possibly costing the boys a much earlier rescue,
Ralph remarks, “I’d like to put on war-paint and be a savage [too]. But we must
keep the fire burning” (142).

Forster, “Introduction,” p. 208.

Baker, William Golding, p. 11.

Golding quoted in Biles, Talk, pp. 13, 12.

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: W. W. Norton,
1961), p. 61.

Dick, William Golding, p. 21.

Ibid., p. 17.

Ibid., p. 21. In “Fable” Golding makes reference to “the objectivizing of our own
inadequacies so as to make a scapegoat,” p. 94.

Golding quoted in Biles, Talk, p. 14.

At one point, for example, he turns away from the boys and goes “where the just
perceptible path led him” until the “high jungle closed in” (56). At another he
“retired and sat as far away from the others as possible” (129).

Baker, William Golding, p. 11.

Golding quoted in Keating, “Interview with William Golding,” p. 190.

Ralph says, “I’m frightened. Of us” (157); and Piggy remarks that there is
nothing to fear “Unless we get frightened of people” (84).

Even Jack gets the sense, when hunting, that he is “being hunted, as if something’s
behind you all the time in the jungle” (48).

Golding, “Fable,” pp. 97–8.

Golding quoted in Keating, “Interview with William Golding,” p. 192. For Simon
“The beast was harmless and horrible; and the news must reach the others as
soon as possible” (134).

Dick, William Golding, p. 26.

Baker, William Golding, p. 13.

Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit and Three Other Plays (New York: Vintage International,
1989), p. 45.

For more on Simon, see Donald R. Spangler, “Simon,” in William Golding:
Casebook Edition.

Dick, William Golding, p. 24.

Also, and tellingly, a pecking order by physical size is established among the
boys, from Ralph at the top, who is “big enough to be a link with the adult world
of authority,” to the powerless 6-year-old “littluns” (59) at the bottom.

And Ralph’s fantasy of a “tamed [English] town where savagery could not set
foot” (164) must strike the reader as ironic: there is no such “town” in the
world, Golding’s novel seems to suggest, that is immune from such barbaric
social pressures.

Golding, “Fable,” p. 89. Erich Fromm, in Escape From Freedom [1941] (New
York: Avon Books, 1965), says something similar: “the crisis of democracy is not
a peculiarly Italian or German problem, but one confronting every modern
state” (p. 19).


Notes, pages 67–72

76 Dick, William Golding, p. 21.
77 As Dick writes, “excrement is ubiquitous on the island. Eating fruit causes
diarrhea, and the island is dotted with feces” (William Golding, p. 27).
78 Baker, in “Decline,” p. 459, notes that Fromm, no less than Golding, laments

“the collapse of individualism in alienation and mass insanity.”
79 Fromm, Escape from Freedom, pp. 266, 18, 17, 265–6.
80 Ibid., p. 20.
81 Ibid., p. 24.
82 Ibid., p. 163.
83 Ibid., p. 36.
84 Ibid., pp. 34–5.
85 Ibid., p. 38.
86 Ibid., pp. 177–8.
87 Ibid., p. 209.
88 Ibid., pp. 174, 180.
89 Golding, “Fable,” pp. 94–5.
90 Ibid., p. 202.
91 Singh, “Government of boys,” p. 209.
92 Fromm, Escape from Freedom, p. 173.
93 Ibid., p. 166.
94 Ibid.
95 Ibid., p. 191.
96 Ibid., p. 193.
97 Dick, William Golding, p. 12.
98 Hynes, “Several interpretations,” p. 64.
99 Baker, “Decline,” p. 450.

100 Golding quoted in Baker, William Golding, p. xix.

4 Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958)

1 Chinua Achebe, “The novelist as teacher,” in Hopes and Impediments: Selected
Essays (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 45.
2 Jules Chametzky, Our Decentralized Literature: Cultural Mediations in Selected
Jewish and Southern Writers (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986),

p. 3.
Abdul R. JanMohamed puts the balance struck by the novel’s representation
of African tribal history this way: Although Achebe’s fiction “eschews a perfect
utopia, a lost golden age, it does nevertheless manifest a powerful . . . nostalgia
for the past” (Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa
[Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1983], p. 181).

JanMohamed, Manichean Aesthetics, p. 11. See C. L. Innes, Chinua Achebe
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), ch. 2, for a reading of Things
Fall Apart as a retelling of Cary’s Mr Johnson.


Notes, pages 73–75

See Achebe’s powerful, influential, yet controversial “An image of Africa: racism in
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” in Hopes and Impediments, for his critique of Conrad’s
representation of Africa. Also see Hunt Hawkins, “Things Fall Apart and the literature
of empire,” in Approaches to Teaching Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, ed. Bernth
Lindfors (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1991), and P. J.

M. Robertson, “Things Fall Apart and Heart of Darkness: a creative dialogue” (International
Fiction Review 7, 1980) for two assessments of Achebe’s debt to Conrad.
Gilbert Phelps, “Two Nigerian novelists: Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka,” in
The New Pelican Guide to English Literature, vol. 8: The Present, ed. Boris Ford
(Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), p. 331.

7 Ashton Nichols, “The politics of point of view: teaching Things Fall Apart,” in
Lindfors, Teaching Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, p. 55.
8 Robert M. Wren, “Things Fall Apart in its time and place,” in Lindfors, Teaching
Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, p. 38.

Ibid., p. 39.


Chinua Achebe, Home and Exile (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 3–
4, 6.

Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock (eds.), Interviews with Writers of the
Post-Colonial World (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1992), p. 12. David
Carroll in Chinua Achebe, 2nd edn. (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1980), p. 22,
notes that “Casualties in the fighting were heavy, and the number of deaths by
starvation among the Igbo population were by all reports high.”

Chinua Achebe, “Named for Victoria, Queen of England,” in Hopes and
Impediments, p. 33.

Achebe, “Named for Victoria,” p. 38.

Innes, Chinua Achebe, p. 2.

Achebe, “Named for Victoria,” p. 34.

Abdul JanMohamed, “Sophisticated primitivism: the syncretism of oral and
literate modes in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart,” Ariel 15/4 (1984), p. 19.

JanMohamed, “Sophisticated primitivism,” p. 38.

Ibid., pp. 20–1.

Innes, Chinua Achebe, p. 35.

In this connection, the Nigerian critic Chinweizu has attacked Nigerian Nobel
Prize winner Wole Soyinka for writing in English and for his “Eurocentrism.”
Chinweizu argues that Soyinka’s plays, while ostensibly African, remain “in thrall
to European forms” (Jussawalla and Dasenbrock, Interviews, p. 9). By contrast,
Chinweizu defends Achebe’s art for its “simplicity, directness, and relation to oral
[African] traditions” (quoted in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin,
The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures [London:
Routledge, 1989], p. 128).

Chinua Achebe, “African literature as restoration of celebration,” in Chinua
Achebe: A Celebration, ed. Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford (Oxford:
Heinemann, 1990), pp. 7–8.


Notes, pages 75–77

23 Phelps, “Two Nigerian novelists,” pp. 328–9.
24 Achebe, “Named for Victoria,” p. 38.
25 Zoreh T. Sullivan, “The postcolonial African novel and the dialogic imagination,”

in Lindfors, Teaching Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” p. 101.

Ibid., p. 102.

Chinua Achebe, “Role of the writer in a new nation,” in African Writers on African
Writing, ed. G. D. Killam (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973),

p. 12.
Phelps, “Two Nigerian novelists,” p. 335. Achebe writes that no one should “be
fooled by the fact that [he and fellow Nigerians] write in English, for we intend to
do unheard things with it” (Chinua Achebe, “Colonialist criticism,” in Hopes and
Impediments, p. 74). For JanMohamed, Achebe in Things Fall Apart successfully
“pushes the English language to its limits”; he “is able to expand the English
language through the transfusion of Igbo material.” “Achebe,” this critic concludes,
“takes the English language and the novelistic form and creates a unique African
form with them” (“Sophisticated primitivism,” pp. 37, 38).

Jussawalla and Dasenbrock go even further: Achebe is for them both African
and European: his formative, cultural contexts are Igbo, Nigerian, and British
(Interviews, pp. 12–13). Yet this hybrid identity is to be expected and even
celebrated in postcolonial culture, which has been described as “inevitably a
hybridized phenomenon involving a dialectical relationship between the ‘grafted’
European cultural systems and an indigenous ontology, with its impulse to create
or recreate an independent local identity. Such construction or reconstruction
only occurs as a dynamic interaction between European hegemonic systems and
‘peripheral’ subversions of them” (Ashcroft et al., The Empire Writes Back, p. 195).

Achebe, “Named for Victoria,” p. 38.

For more on the British Bildungsroman tradition, see Jerome Hamilton Buckley,
Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1974).

Although Achebe denies “responding to that particular format,” he also remarks:
“If we are to believe what we are hearing these days, the Greeks did not drop from
the sky. They evolved in a certain place which was very close to Africa . . . I think
a lot of what Aristotle says makes sense” (Achebe, in Charles H. Rowell, “An
interview with Chinua Achebe,” Callaloo 13 [1990], p. 78).

Raman Selden, Peter Widdowson, and Peter Brooker, A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary
Literary Theory, 4th edn. (London: Prentice Hall, 1997), p. 226.

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart [1959] (New York: Doubleday, 1994), p. 3.
Further references are noted parenthetically in the text.

“[T]he Igbo postulate an unprecedented uniqueness for the individual by making
him or her the sole creation and purpose of a unique god-agent, chi,” Achebe
explains; “No two persons, not even blood brothers, are created and accompanied
by the same chi” (Chinua Achebe, “The writer and his community,” in Hopes and
Impediments, pp. 57–8). For more on the Igbo conception of chi, see Chinua
Achebe, “Chi in Igbo cosmology,” in Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays (New


Notes, pages 78–82

York: Doubleday, 1975), p. 160, in which the author asserts: “Without an
understanding of the nature of chi one could not begin to make sense of the Igbo

JanMohamed, Manichean Aesthetics, p. 181.

Western readers today will be struck by Okonkwo’s flagrant misogyny, which
is everywhere apparent in the novel: Okonkwo “trembled with the desire to
conquer and subdue. It was like the desire for women” (42); “No matter how
prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and
especially his women) he was not a real man” (53); Okonkwo likes “masculine
stories of violence and bloodshed” (53) and dislikes women’s “silly” stories (75).
Okonkwo’s “sexism” clearly reflects that of his culture at large. For example,
we read that Igbo women stand on the “fringe” of an all-male village ceremony
like “outsiders”: “These women never saw the inside of the hut. No woman ever
did. They scrubbed and painted the outside walls under the supervision of men”
(87–8). This hierarchy prevails in British colonial culture as well, however (“Mr.
Kiaga had asked the women to bring red earth and white chalk and water to scrub
the church for Christmas” [159]): both Igbo and British cultures, according to
Achebe’s novel, take for granted the lower social status of females. For a critique
of the novel’s representation of women, see Rhonda Cobham, “Making men and
history: Achebe and the politics of revisionism,” in Lindfors, Teaching Achebe’s
“Things Fall Apart”. Also see Innes, Chinua Achebe, ch. 2, for a discussion of
Okonkwo’s masculinist values.

Jeffrey Meyers, “Culture and history in Things Fall Apart,” Critique: Studies in
Modern Fiction 11 (1969), p. 29.

Innes, Chinua Achebe, p. 29.

JanMohamed, Manichean Aesthetics, p. 181.

Arlene A. Elder, “The paradoxical characterization of Okonkwo,” in Lindfors,
Teaching Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, pp. 62–3.

Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1973), p. 286.

Chinua Achebe, “The African writer and the Biafran cause,” in Morning Yet on
Creation Day, p. 138.

Achebe’s third novel, Arrow of God, is set in the 1920s, in between the time
periods of Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, which is set in the 1950s.

Achebe, Home and Exile, p. 12.

Later, the narrator remarks: “But apart from the church, the white men had also
brought a government. They had built a court where the District Commissioner
judged cases in ignorance” (174).

Wren, “Things Fall Apart,” p. 42.

Ibid., p. 41.

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1968), pp. 210–

50 E. M. Forster, A Passage to India (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1924),
p. 343.

Notes, pages 82–85

51 Achebe, “Colonialist criticism,” p. 71.
52 Wren, “Things Fall Apart,” p. 41.
53 Achebe, “Named for Victoria,” p. 32.
54 Nichols, “Politics of point of view,” p. 55.
55 Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike, “Decolonizing

African literature,” in Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Docu

ments, ed. Dennis Walder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 286.

Achebe, “Named for Victoria,” p. 31.

JanMohamed, Manichean Aesthetics, p. 181.

Chametzky, Our Decentralized Literature, p. 3.

Achebe, “The role of the writer in a new nation,” p. 8. The Igbo’s frequent use
of richly metaphorical proverbs is a case in point. These proverbs employ animals
and animal life in order to shed light on human affairs – human psychology,
human social interaction, and the like – and on natural and divine processes. In
addition to celebrating the Igbo’s teleological and moral approach to reality, the
novel uses these proverbs implicitly to challenge the modern western scientific
episteme, which construes cosmic processes neither in teleological nor in moral
terms. For example, while for modern westerners there is no cosmic “meaning”
to weather patterns, in Umuofia the weather is “read” as an expression of cosmic
purpose, with unpredictable weather signifying that “the world had gone mad”
(23), or that Ani, the “earth-goddess,” the “source of all fertility” and the “ultimate
judge of morality and conduct” (36), is in some way displeased.

Meyers, “Culture and history,” p. 26.

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: Norton, 1961),

p. 61.
Achebe has remarked that Obierika is “more subtle and more in tune with the
danger, the impending betrayal by the culture” than is Okonkwo (Biodun Jeyifo,
“For Chinua Achebe: the resilience and the predicament of Obierika,” in Petersen
and Rutherford, Chinua Achebe: A Celebration, p. 57).

Nichols, “Politics of point of view,” p. 55.

One of Okonkwo’s tribesman explains to the British District Commissioner: “It is
an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offense against the Earth,
and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. His body is evil,
and only strangers may touch it” (208). Obierika adds that Okonkwo “was one of
the greatest men in Umuofia. You [British] drove him to kill himself; and now he
will be buried like a dog” (209).

Wren notes that “The ‘pacification,’ as it is ironically identified at the end of
the novel, occurred between 1900 and 1920, a time span that roughly indicates
the period from the start of the action of Things Fall Apart to the beginning of
Achebe’s third novel, Arrow of God” (p. 39). The District Commissioner’s book-
title alludes to works, such as Frederick Lugard’s Report on the Amalgamation of
Northern and Southern Nigeria, 1912–1919, that actually existed. Amazingly,
Lugard’s report includes the following sentence: “The southern Provinces were
[mostly] populated by tribes in the lowest stage of primitive savagery, without


Notes, pages 85–91

any central organisation” (Dan Izevbaye, “The Igbo as exceptional colonial
subjects: fictionalizing an abnormal historical situation,” in Lindfors, Teaching
Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, p. 46).

This final paragraph also stands as a pessimistic allusion to the end of E. M.
Forster’s A Passage to India, in which British and Indian cultures cannot be
successfully bridged; and to the genocidal postscript to Kurtz’s peroration,
“Exterminate all the brutes!” (p. 51), in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, ed.
Robert Kimbrough (New York: Norton Critical Edition, 3rd edn., 1988).

James Smead, “European pedigrees/African contagions: nationality, narrative, and
communality in Tutuola, Achebe, and Reed,” in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi

K. Bhabha (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 242.
68 Phelps, “Two Nigerian novelists,” p. 330.
69 Chinua Achebe, “The truth of fiction,” in Hopes and Impediments, p. 149.
5 Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

Muriel Spark and Derek Stanford, Emily Brontë: Her Life and Work (quoted in
Norman Page, Muriel Spark [New York: St Martin’s Press, 1990], p. 4).

2 Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie [1961] (New York: Perennial
Classics, 1999), p. 103. Further references are noted parenthetically in the text.
3 Anne L. Bower, “The narrative structure of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean

Brodie,” Midwest Quarterly 31 (1990), p. 496.
4 Frank Kermode quoted in Page, Muriel Spark, p. 119.
5 Page, Muriel Spark, p. 41.
6 Ibid., p. 39.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., pp. 4–5.
9 David Lodge, “The uses and abuses of omniscience: method and meaning in

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” The Novelist at the Crossroads and
Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971),
pp. 125–6.

Allan Massie, “Calvinism and Catholicism in Muriel Spark,” in Muriel Spark: An
Odd Capacity for Vision, ed. Alan Bold (London and New York: Vision and Barnes
and Noble, 1984), p. 97.

Massie, “Calvinism and Catholicism,” pp. 95–6.

Spark, Curriculum Vitae (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992),
pp. 102, 206.

Alan Bold, “Introduction,” in Muriel Spark: An Odd Capacity for Vision, p. 9.

Lodge, “Uses and abuses of omniscience,” pp. 124–5.

Mary W. Schneider, “The double life in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean
Brodie,” Midwest Quarterly 18 (1977), p. 418.

Bower, “Narrative structure,” p. 488.

Lodge, “Uses and abuses of omniscience,” p. 126.


Notes, pages 92–97

See Lodge “Uses and abuses of omniscience,” p. 132, for a fascinating treatment
of Brodie’s resemblance to Jane Eyre.

Ibid., p. 133.

Bryan Cheyette, Muriel Spark (Tavistock: Northcote House, in association with
the British Council, 2000), p. 56

Lodge, “Uses and abuses of omniscience,” p. 127.

Massie, “Calvinism and Catholicism,” p. 102.

Page, Muriel Spark, p. 43.

Lodge, “Uses and abuses of omniscience,” p. 127.

Ibid., p. 126.

Spark quoted in Trevor Royle, “Spark and Scotland,” in Bold, Muriel Spark: An
Odd Capacity for Vision, p. 151.

Royle, “Spark and Scotland,” pp. 159–60.

Bold, “Introduction,” in Muriel Spark: An Odd Capacity for Vision, p. 14. As
one critic puts it, “Jean Brodie herself functions as a personification of certain
attitudes common to the citizens of Edinburgh, attitudes that are basically religious
or theological in nature” (Philip E. Ray, “Jean Brodie and Edinburgh: personality
and place in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” Studies in Scottish
Literature 13 [1978], p. 24). For more on Edinburgh’s peculiar spirit of place see
Robert Louis Stevenson’s evocative Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes [1879] (London:
Pallas Athene, 2001).

Spark, Curriculum Vitae, p. 56.

Stevenson quoted in Ray, “Jean Brodie and Edinburgh,” p. 27.

Ray, “Jean Brodie and Edinburgh,” p. 29.

Royle, “Spark and Scotland,” p. 162.

Ray observes “certain similarities between the plots of the Spark novel and
the Stevenson–Henley melodrama” (Stevenson collaborated with W. E. Henley
on the 1880 play Deacon Brodie [Ray, “Jean Brodie and Edinburgh,” p. 29]); and
Page argues that, “In her bid to secure for ever a girl’s mind and soul, Miss Brodie
recalls [the] Satanic figure in James Hogg’s novel” (Page, Muriel Spark, p. 40).

Royle, “Spark and Scotland,” pp. 155–6.

Lodge, “Uses and abuses of omniscience,” p. 131.

Spark, Curriculum Vitae, p. 57.

Ibid., p. 61. Brodie is described as among the “war-bereaved spinsterhood” of
Edinburgh who undertook “voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic
practices in art or social welfare, education or religion” (43).

Ibid., pp. 58, 56.

Ibid., p. 58.

Miss Mackay is also described with subtle irony at many points in the novel. For
example, she greets her girls at the start of a new academic term: “I hope you all
had a splendid summer holiday and I look forward to seeing your splendid essays
on how you spent them” (10).

Lodge, “Uses and abuses of omniscience,” p. 132.

Massie, “Calvinism and Catholicism,” p. 102.


Notes, pages 97–102

Lodge, “Uses and abuses of omniscience,” p. 130.

Ibid., pp. 127, 135.

Ibid., p. 135.


Ibid., p. 138.

Ibid., p. 139.

Cairns Craig, The Modern Scottish Novel: Narrative and the National Imagination
(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), p. 204.

Bold, “Introduction,” in Muriel Spark: An Odd Capacity for Vision, p. 14.

As Lodge explains, “Sandy’s diagnosis of Miss Brodie’s instability as a private
and distorted form of Calvinism is followed by her own conversion to Roman
Catholicism, the theological antithesis of Calvinism” (“Uses and abuses of omniscience,”
p. 142).

Cheyette, Muriel Spark, p. 57.

Ibid., pp. 54–5, 57.

Norman Page does not equivocate on this matter: Brodie is for him “guilty of
the sin of presumption: her motive in appropriating a group of girls as ‘the
Brodie set’ is not a quasi-maternal or pedagogical concern for their welfare or
their intellectual development . . . but a craving to usurp the role of God . . . by
determining the future lives of ‘her’ girls” (Muriel Spark, p. 39). In Curriculum
Vitae Spark reports being “absorbed,” in 1953, by the “theological writings of
John Henry Newman through whose influence I finally became a Roman Catholic”

(p. 202).
55 Bower, “Narrative structure,” p. 497.
56 Francis Russell Hart quoted in Page, Muriel Spark, p. 39.
57 Bold, “Introduction,” in Muriel Spark: An Odd Capacity for Vision, p. 13.
58 Lodge, “Uses and abuses of omniscience,” p. 133.
59 As early as the novel’s second page, Mussolini is referenced.
60 Brodie’s monomania is also suggested in the fact that, when she speaks admiringly
of another, she seems usually to be thinking of herself. When Brodie describes
“the great Anna Pavlova,” for example, “a dedicated woman who, when she
appears on the stage, makes the other dancers look like elephants” (65), she seems
to be comparing herself with the other teachers at the school. The reference to
Brodie’s time at the school being “filled with legends of Pavlova and her dedicated
habits, her wild fits of temperament and her intolerance of the second-rate” (65),
strongly recalls Brodie’s own habits, fits of temperament, and intolerance of the
second-rate. Brodie also seems to have herself in mind when she speaks of Rose,
the girl in her set who is famous for her sex: she only needed “to realize the power
she had within her, it was a gift and she an exception to all the rules” (117).

And in the summer of 1938 she travels to Germany and Austria, which are “now
magnificently organized” (130, 131).

The references (57, 61) to Jane Eyre, the novel that Brodie is reading to her class,
are relevant: Rochester, like Lloyd, is already married and both Lloyd and Rochester
possess “artistic” natures that set them apart.


Notes, pages 104–106

Another version of Brodie’s projection/displacement occurs when she turns her
former fiancé (and now deceased) Hugh into a singer and a painter, “newly”
embroidering her “old love story” (75): Sandy recognizes that “Miss Brodie was
making her new love story fit the old . . . Sandy was fascinated by this method of
making patterns with facts (76). While not articulating the idea, Sandy envisions
Brodie as an artist. This is appropriate in the light of Spark’s citing of John
Steinbeck’s words on great teachers to explain her teacher Christina Kay: “a great
teacher is a great artist” (quoted in Curriculum Vitae, p. 67), as these words apply
perfectly to Jean Brodie as well, at least in her own mind.

Cheyette, Muriel Spark, p. 58.

Lodge, “Uses and abuses of omniscience,” p. 139.

Schneider, “Double life,” p. 424.

Cheyette, Muriel Spark, p. 59.

6 Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

Adrienne Rich, “When we dead awaken: writing as re-vision,” in On Lies, Secrets,
and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), p. 35.

2 Jean Rhys, “Selected letters,” in Norton Critical Edition of Jean Rhys’s “Wide
Sargasso Sea,” ed. Judith L. Raiskin (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), p. 173.
3 Raiskin, Norton Critical Edition of Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea”, p. 77. Further

references are noted parenthetically in the text.

Ellen G. Friedman, “Breaking the master narrative: Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso
Sea,” in Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction, ed. Ellen G. Friedman
and Miriam Fuchs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 117.

5 Friedman, “Breaking the master narrative,” p. 119.
6 Caroline Rody, “Burning down the house: the revisionary paradigm of Jean Rhys’s
Wide Sargasso Sea,” in Raiskin, Norton Critical Edition, p. 217.

Friedman, “Breaking the master narrative,” p. 119. Thomas F. Staley puts it
this way: “To re-read Jane Eyre after reading Wide Sargasso Sea is a startling
experience . . . The text of [the first novel] is expanded by the reader’s participation
in [the second], and the aesthetic awareness is widened. Surely when we
re-read Jane Eyre after reading Wide Sargasso Sea our participation in that experience
is transformed; our considerations of Rochester and Bertha are more deeply
engaged” (Jean Rhys: A Critical Study [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979],

p. 119).
Although Wide Sargasso Sea is not, chronologically speaking, a high modernist
novel, its author began her novelistic career in the 1930s, and Rhys herself came
to be regarded by many “as second only to [Virginia] Woolf as the most significant
woman novelist of the high modernist period” (Sanford Sternlicht, Jean
Rhys [New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997], p. 136).

Joyce Carol Oates, “Romance and anti-romance: from Brontë’s Jane Eyre to Rhys’s
Wide Sargasso Sea,” Virginia Quarterly Review 61 (1985), p. 44.


Notes, pages 106–112

V. S. Naipaul, “Without a dog’s chance,” in Critical Perspectives on Jean Rhys, ed.
Pierette Frickey (Washington: Three Continents, 1990), p. 58.

M. Keith Booker and Dubravka Juraga, The Caribbean Novel in English: An
Introduction (Portmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001), p. 165.

“Creole,” one of Rhys’s working titles for the novel, was dropped because she felt
that its other meaning, designating a person of mixed race, would confuse readers.

Joy Castro, “Jean Rhys,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 20 (2000), p. 13.

Mary Lou Emery, “Modernist crosscurrents,” in Raiskin, Norton Critical Edition,

p. 161.
15 Oates, “Romance and anti-romance,” p. 54.
16 Ibid., p. 58.
17 Walter Allen quoted in Helen Nebeker, Jean Rhys: Woman in Passage (Montreal:
Eden Press, 1981), p. 123.

Francis Wyndham, “Introduction,” in Raiskin, Norton Critical Edition, p. 6.

Staley, Jean Rhys, p. 101.

Sandra Drake, “Race and Caribbean culture as thematics of liberation in Jean
Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea,” in Raiskin, Norton Critical Edition, p. 194.

Molly Hite, “Writing in the margins: Jean Rhys,” in The Other Side of the Story:
Structures and Strategies of Contemporary Feminist Narrative (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 1989), p. 32.

Judith Kegan Gardiner, Rhys, Stead, Lessing, and the Politics of Empathy
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 133.

Carmen Wickramagamage, “An/other side to Antoinette/Bertha: reading ‘race’
into Wide Sargasso Sea,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 35 (2000), p. 28.

Friedman, “Breaking the master narrative,” p. 124. For differing accounts of this
textual relationship, see Robert Kendrick, “Edward Rochester and the margins
of masculinity in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea,” Papers on Language and
Literature 30 (1994), pp. 235–56; Nicola Nixon, “Wide Sargasso Sea and Jean
Rhys’s interrogation of the ‘nature wholly alien’ in Jane Eyre,” Essays in Literature
21 (1994), pp. 267–84; Rody, “Burning down the house,” pp. 217–25; and Michael
Thorpe, “ ‘The other Side’: Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre,” in Raiskin, Norton
Critical Edition, pp. 173–81.

Gardiner, Rhys, Stead, Lessing, p. 125. For a comparison of Jane’s development
in Jane Eyre and Antoinette’s development in Wide Sargasso Sea, see Thorpe,
“ ‘The other side’,” p. 176, and Nixon, “Wide Sargasso Sea,” p. 276.

Rhys, “Selected letters,” p. 136.

See ibid., pp. 137, 139, 144.

Ibid., pp. 139, 136.

Ibid., pp. 136–7.

Caroline Rody, for example, views Rhys’s novel as a “text about a rewriting of

a text.” For her, “The postmodern aspects of this rewriting are evident in its
subversion of the authority of authorship, its inscription of the adventure of the
reader, and its delight in the empowering possibility of shared knowledge of a
literary tradition” (“Burning down the house,” pp. 221–2).


Notes, pages 112–114

Rody’s above comments, in any case, are equally attributable, say, to Joyce’s Ulysses
and Eliot’s Waste Land, two watershed works of literary modernism’s high tide of

Sylvie Maurel, Jean Rhys (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998), p. 6. Staley too
views this novel as possessing aspects and themes that are “characteristic of
literary modernism” ( Jean Rhys, p. 101).

Maurel, Jean Rhys, p. 129.

Oates, “Romance and anti-romance,” p. 55.

Ibid., p. 52.

Virginia Woolf quoted in Peter Faulkner, The English Modernist Reader, 1910–
1930 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1986), pp. 108–9.

Rhys, “Selected letters,” p. 138.

Ibid., p. 144.

Booker and Juraga, Caribbean Novel, p. 167.

Ibid., p. 169.

O. Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization [1956], 2nd
edn. (New York: Praeger, 1964), p. 19.

Nicola Nixon points to this link between Rochester’s colonial and patriarchal
agendas when she comments, “Brontë depicts the West Indies as the place
where the young English gentleman can sow his wild oats and gain economic
independence through the exploitation of rich foreign heiresses” (p. 273).

One important debate in postcolonial theory centers on Rhys’s novel: that
between Benita Parry and Gayatri Spivak over the question of the representation
of racial otherness. Parry argues that Rhys’s Christophine, an example of a historically
repressed subject and the speaking position of the subaltern, provides a
potent counter or oppositional discourse to the dominant colonialist discourse of
Brontë’s Rochester. Spivak, by contrast, argues that the very attempt to resuscitate
the racially other’s voice “reproduces the ‘epistemic violence’ of imperialism: it
imposes on the subaltern Western assumptions of embodied subjectivity and fails
to acknowledge that the other has always already been constructed according to
the colonizer’s self-image and can therefore not simply be given back his/her
voice” (Carine M. Mardorossian, “Shutting up the subaltern: silences, stereotypes,
and double-entendre in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea,” Callaloo 22 [1999],

p. 1071). “Christophine,” Spivak argues, is “tangential” to Antoinette’s narrative
and cannot be “contained by a novel which rewrites a canonical English text
within the European novelistic tradition in the interest of the white Creole rather
than the native. No perspective critical of imperialism can turn the Other into a
self, because the project of imperialism has always already historically refracted
what might have been the absolutely Other into a domesticated Other that consolidates
the imperialist self ” (Gayatri Spivak, “Wide Sargasso Sea and a critique
of imperialism,” in Raiskin, Norton Critical Edition, p. 246). Put simply, when
we look at another, according to Spivak, all we can ever see is our self. (For more
on this debate, see Spivak’s essay in full, and Parry’s “Two native voices in Wide
Sargasso Sea,” in Raiskin, Norton Critical Edition, pp. 240–50.)

Notes, pages 115–121

For other provocative postcolonial readings of Wide Sargasso Sea, see Laura E.
Ciolkowski, “Navigating the Wide Sargasso Sea: colonial history, English fiction,
and British Empire,” Twentieth Century Literature 43 (1997), pp. 339–59; Drake,
“Race and Caribbean culture”; Lee Erwin, “History and narrative in Wide Sargasso
Sea,” in Raiskin, Norton Critical Edition, pp. 207–16; Moira Ferguson, “Sending
the younger son across the Wide Sargasso Sea: the new colonizer arrives,” in
Postcolonial Discourses: An Anthology, ed. Gregory Castle (Oxford: Blackwell
Publishing, 2001), pp. 310–27; Mardorossian, “Shutting up the subaltern”; Hilda
van Neck-Yoder, “Colonial desires, silence, and metonymy: ‘all things considered’
in Wide Sargasso Sea,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 40 (1998),
pp. 184–208; and Wickramagamage, “An/other side to Antoinette/Bertha.”

If Brontë suggests that Bertha and Jane are doubles of each other, Rhys suggests
that Antoinette’s husband and Antoinette exist in this relationship.

Hite, “Waiting in the margins,” p. 23.

Rhys, “Selected letters,” p. 137.

Hite, “Waiting in the margins,” p. 32.

The novel’s myriad allusions to Shakespeare’s Othello (see p. 55, for example)
make sense in this connection: the Rochester figure’s paranoia, like that of Shakespeare’s
Moor, is also linked with racial prejudice and sexual jealousy. Othello
murders his wife Desdemona for her alleged infidelity; this is what the Rochester
figure does, at least figuratively, to Antoinette. Daniel Cosway’s letter to the
Rochester figure (56–9), which plays upon the latter’s sexual jealousy, attempts to
convince him of his wife’s nymphomania and inconstancy. This letter plants the
seed of doubt in the husband’s mind: a seed of doubt that eventually leads to his
hostile actions, which in turn lead to Antoinette’s death. In this sense Daniel plays
the role of Iago to the Rochester figure’s Othello. Like Iago, Daniel encourages the
jealous male to see what he is looking for, not what is there: “I felt no surprise,”
he comments at receiving Daniel’s letter; “It was as if I’d expected it, been waiting
for it” (59). Moreover, when Christophine threatens the Rochester figure with the
possibility that Antoinette will leave him and marry another, he admits to “A
pang of rage and jealousy” shooting through him (95). “Vain, silly creature,” he
shortly later thinks of Antoinette; “Made for loving? Yes, but she’ll have no lover,
for I don’t want her and she’ll see no other” (99).

Editor’s Note in Raiskin, Norton Critical Edition, p. 1.

Rachel L. Carson, “The Sargasso Sea,” in Raiskin, Norton Critical Edition, p. 119.

Ezra Pound quoted in Sternlicht, Jean Rhys, p. 104.

7 J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)

1 Leonard Woolf, Barbarians Within and Without (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1939),
pp. 65–6.
2 J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians [1980] (New York: Penguin Books,
1982), p. 68. Further references are noted parenthetically in the text.


Notes, pages 122–126

3 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961),

p. 61.
4 Simone de Beauvoir, “Woman and the Other,” Literature and the Modern World,
ed. Dennis Walder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 307–8.
5 Ian Glenn, “Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, and the politics of interpretation,”
South Atlantic Quarterly 93 (1994), p. 23.
6 Cited in Dominic Head, J. M. Coetzee (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1997), p. 25.
7 J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, ed. David Attwell
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 1.
8 Head, J. M. Coetzee, p. 1.
9 Attwell, Doubling the Point, p. 3.

Derek Attridge, “Literary form and the demands of politics: otherness in

J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron,” in Aesthetics and Ideology, ed. George Levine (New
Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994), p. 244.
11 Cited in Randall Stevenson, A Reader’s Guide to the Twentieth-Century Novel in
Britain (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), p. 116.
12 Tony Morphet, “Two interviews with J. M. Coetzee, 1983 and 1987,” Triquarterly
69 (1987), p. 455.
13 These are the assessments of Attwell, Doubling the Point, p. 10, and Head, J. M.
Coetzee, p. 4, respectively.

Attwell, Doubling the Point, p. 10.

Daphne Merkin, “A new man: the force of grace in South Africa,” New Yorker,
November 15, 1999, p. 112.

Attridge, “Literary form,” pp. 243–4.

James Wood, Review of Disgrace, New Republic, December 20, 1999, p. 42.

Graham Huggan and Stephen Watson (eds.), Critical Perspectives on J. M. Coetzee
(New York: St Martin’s Press, 1996), p. 1.

Michael Valdez Moses, “The mark of empire: writing, history, and torture in
Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians,” Kenyon Review 15 (1993), p. 115.

Attridge, “Literary form,” p. 244.

Cited in Attwell, Doubling the Point, p. 298.

Head, J. M. Coetzee, p. 8.

Moses, “Mark of empire,” p. 115.

Coetzee, “The novel today,” cited in Moses, “Mark of empire,” p. 126.

Caryl Phillips, Review of Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life by J. M. Coetzee,
New Republic, February 9, 1998, p. 37.

Moses, “Mark of empire,” p. 116. See Teresa Dovey, “Waiting for the Barbarians:
allegory of allegories” (in Huggan and Watson, Critical Perspectives, pp. 138–51),
for the most comprehensive and compelling exploration of allegory in Coetzee’s
novel. Also see Benita Parry, “Speech and silence in the fictions of J. M. Coetzee,”
in Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970–1995, ed.
Derek Attridge and Rosemary Jolly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998),
pp. 149–65.


Notes, pages 126–127

Richard Begam, “An interview with J. M. Coetzee,” Contemporary Literature 33
(1992), p. 424. This insight would make sense of the echo of “Third Reich” in
“Third Bureau.”

Coetzee cited in Attwell, Doubling the Point, p. 142.

Attwell, Doubling the Point, p. 98.

Coetzee has remarked that the concentration on imprisonment, regimentation,
and torture in Waiting for the Barbarians “was a response – I emphasize, a pathological
response – to the ban on representing what went on in police cells in this
country” (Attwell, Doubling the Point, p. 300).

Barbara Eckstein, “The body, the word, and the state: J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for
the Barbarians,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 22 (1989), p. 186.

32 Eckstein, “The body,” p. 191. That the Empire labels such torture sessions
“investigations” (9) – using language to obscure, not to reveal, its true work – and
that it executes this work with such bureaucratic flair are reminiscent of events in
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In that work the European colonists employ language
to hide, not to describe, their murderous treatment of the African slaves. The
native Congolese prisoners are called “enemies,” “rebels,” “transgressors,” and
“criminals,” yet it is Europeans, not Africans, who best fit these descriptors (cited
in Brian W. Shaffer, The Blinding Torch: Modern British Fiction and the Discourse
of Civilization [Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993], pp. 69–70. For
a fuller discussion of Conrad’s understanding of language in Heart of Darkness,
see ch. 3 of that work).
And Coetzee’s novel also correlates bureaucratic rigor and barbaric activity,
suggesting that clerical neatness comports with simplistic binary thinking – and
with murder. When Mandel takes over for the magistrate, for example, the latter
notes “The careful reorganization of my office from clutter and dustiness to this
vacuous neatness” (82). This episode is reminiscent of Marlow’s encounter with
the outer station chief, who is connected to the enslavement and murder of the
Congolese yet whose books are “in apple-pie order.” He is seen by Marlow “bent
over his books” in order to make “correct entries of perfectly correct transactions”
(Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Norton Critical Edition, 3rd edn., ed.
Robert Kimbrough [New York: W. W. Norton, 1988], pp. 21–2). In Coetzee’s
novel torture occurs while the magistrate, nearby, works on “the ledgers in my
office” (81). Moses refers to the magistrate as an “inverted version of Conrad’s
Kurtz” for intending “to represent for posterity both the enlightened hope at
which his civilization aimed and its failure to fulfill those hopes” (p. 119); but this
better describes Marlow.

The novel thus gestures toward circularity – to life cycles and to the seasons –
which undercuts the imperial view of history, as understood by the magistrate:
“Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time
of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning
and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against
history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not
to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era” (133).


Notes, pages 127–130

James Phelan, “Present tense narration, mimesis, the narrative norm, and the
positioning of the reader in Waiting for the Barbarians,” in Understanding Narrative,
ed. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz (Columbus: Ohio State University
Press, 1994), p. 222. In this essay Phelan writes persuasively on the nature and
implications, for readers, of Coetzee’s choice of “homodiegetic simultaneous
present” narration, in which the magistrate tells his story in the present tense as
the events themselves unfold. This narrative strategy, for Phelan,

Places the reader in a very different relationship to the magistrate and to
the events of the narrative than would any kind of retrospective account.
The strategy takes teleology away from the magistrate’s narrative acts: since
he does not know how events will turn out, he cannot be shaping the
narrative according to his knowledge of the end. Consequently, we cannot
read with our usual tacit assumptions that the narrator, however unselfconscious,
has some direction in mind for his tale. Instead, as we read any
one moment of the narrative we must assume that the future is always –
and radically – wide open: the narrator’s guess about what will happen
next is really no better than our own. (p. 223)

James Wood, Review of Disgrace, p. 42.

For more on the “In the penal colony”/Waiting for the Barbarians connection, see
Head, J. M. Coetzee, pp. 76–7, and Moses, “Mark of empire,” p. 121.

Moses, “Mark of empire,” p. 121.

Ibid., p. 115. Coetzee (in Begam, “Interview,” p. 421) has called Kafka and Beckett
“writers of the ordinary – of the experience of being alive, of intimations of death
and the hereafter.”

Quoted in Attwell, Doubling the Point, p. 20.

Merkin, “New man,” p. 112.

C. P. Cavafy, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” in Collected Poems, ed. George Savidis,
trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1975), p. 33.

Moses, “Mark of empire,” p. 116. See the Leonard Woolf epigraph to this chapter.
Also see ch. 1 of Shaffer, The Blinding Torch.

Eckstein, “The body,” p. 185.

W. J. B. Wood, “Waiting for the Barbarians: two sides of imperial rule and
some related considerations,” in Momentum: On Recent South African Writing,
ed. M. J. Daymond, J. U. Jacobs, and Margaret Lenta (Pietermaritzburg: University
of Natal Press, 1984), p. 129.

Ibid., p. 131.

Ibid., p. 132.

O. Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization (New York
and Washington: Praeger, 1964), p. 19.

Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory
and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 103.


Notes, pages 130–133

See the second epigraph for this chapter.

Fredric Jameson, in The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 115, makes a point of relevance to
Coetzee’s novel: we deem others “evil” not necessarily because they threaten us
but because we fear their difference from us. “So from the earliest times, the
stranger from another tribe, the ‘barbarian’ who speaks an incomprehensible
language and follows ‘outlandish’ customs [and] behind whose apparently human
features a malignant and preternatural intelligence is thought to lurk [has been
one] of the archetypal figures of the Other, about whom the essential point to be
made is not . . . that he is feared because he is evil; rather, he is evil because he is
Other, alien, different, strange, unclean, and unfamiliar.”

And the more imperial, too. As the magistrate has observed, “One thought alone
preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how
to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it
sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the
sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation”

Attwell, Doubling the Point, p. 143.

Phillips, Review of Boyhood, p. 39.

Attwell, Doubling the Point, p. 243.

W. J. B. Wood, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” p. 134.

The magistrate, like Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play, is nevertheless
complicitous both in an act of murder and in an attempt to avoid the recognition
of it. He attempts to put out of mind by putting out of sight his guilt at the
atrocities being committed by representatives of the Empire by having the dead
body of a tortured man sewn up in a shroud. “I know somewhat too much [about
the torture]; and from this knowledge, once one has been infected, there seems to
be no recovering. I ought never to have taken my lantern to see what was going
on in the hut by the granary” (21). His response, again like Lady Macbeth’s, is to
attempt to wash away his knowledge of the crime (and therefore his guilt) by
ordering his men to “clean” everything up: “Soap and water! I want everything as
it was before!” (24).

Moses, “Mark of empire,” p. 122.

The magistrate does not celebrate “barbarian” ways even if he remains skeptical
about “civilized” ones. He is critical of the native peoples’ “intellectual torpor,
slovenliness, [and] tolerance of disease and death.” “If we were to disappear,” he
ironically asks, “would the barbarians spend their afternoons excavating our ruins?”
(52). “Seduced utterly by the free and plentiful food, above all by the bread, they
relax, smile at everyone, move about the barracks yard from one patch of shade to
another, doze and wake, grow excited as mealtimes approach” (19). “Above all
I do not want to see a parasite settlement grow up on the fringes of the town
populated with beggars and vagrants enslaved to strong drink,” confirming “thereby
the settlers’ litany of prejudice: that barbarians are lazy, immoral, filthy, stupid”


Notes, pages 133–136

J. M. Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 81.

W. J. B. Wood, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” p. 135.

Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems in Dostoevsky’s Poetics (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 287.

Giles Gunn, The Culture of Criticism and the Criticism of Culture (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 145–6.

M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (Austin: University of Texas
Press, 1986), p. 7.

Cited in Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 97.

For Bakhtin, in other words, meaning is “created in dialogue, on the borders
where two consciousnesses meet . . . Truth, in other words, belongs to no one;
it is realized, rather, in the realm of dialogue, where the linked utterances of
the self and other interpenetrate, yielding a truth which is fluid, ephemeral,
and evanescent. Not only does it not reside with anyone, but it is itself contextual,
depending upon its temporal and spatial configuration, on the interlacing
of the dialogic word of the self and other” (David K. Danow, The Thought of
Mikhail Bakhtin: From Word to Culture [New York: St Martin’s Press, 1991],
pp. 64–5).

The magistrate is also concerned with his own “body that is slowly cooling and
dying” (46), with his withering “erotic impulse”: “with surprise I see myself clutched
to this stolid girl, unable to remember what I ever desired in her, angry with
myself for wanting and not wanting her ...I have not entered her. From the
beginning my desire has not taken on that direction, that directedness. Lodging
my dry old man’s member in that blood-hot sheath makes me think of acid in
milk, ashes in honey, chalk in bread” (33–4).

Taken together, the Empire–barbarian and magistrate–girl relationships allow
Coetzee to explore a series of dichotomies: male/female, civilization/savage, white/
black, master/servant, good/evil, subject/object, sighted/blind, each of which is
expressive of the Empire’s sociopolitical hierarchy.

Eckstein, “The body,” p. 192. Michael Valdez Moses puts it this way: “Although
the magistrate regards his behavior as benevolent, paternal, and humane, his
solicitous attention to the Other cannot be separated from the sinister apparatus
of torture that the Empire employs (“Mark of empire,” p. 121).

Eckstein links the magistrate’s “pursuit of the girl’s secrets” and his “sexual
desire” (“The body,”, p. 188).

This imperialism-as-rape trope is deployed throughout Coetzee’s novel. For
example, the magistrate uses the term “raped” to describe what the civilized have
done to the barbarian lands (108); the barbarian girl admits to having had sex
with soldiers in town, explaining, “I did not have a choice. That was how it had to
be” (54).

Eckstein, “The body,” p. 193.

Ashcroft et al., Empire Writes Back, p. 172.


Notes, pages 136–139

W. J. B. Wood, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” p. 134.

Danow, Thought of Mikhail Bakhtin, p. 64.

Even the magistrate’s sleep – which alternates between dreamless sleep that
resembles “an oblivion, a nightly brush with annihilation” (21) and dreams that
express his fears and desires and therefore serve to comment on his unfolding
psychological saga – fails to offer him a respite from his failures of alterity. For
more on this see the dream episodes in the novel.

Head, J. M. Coetzee, p. 75. If it is true, as James Phelan argues of the novel’s end,
that “we reach a complex judgment of the magistrate that combines resistance to
his resumed complicity with an understanding of its inescapability,” then we
must be “wary of adopting any stance based on our moral superiority to others
whom we might consider complicit in the perpetuation of racism, sexism, or
other dehumanizing ideologies.” Like the magistrate, we should examine our lives
for “evidence” of our “complicity in the perpetuation of oppression and then do
something about it . . . To do anything else is, in effect, to be complicit with
complicity” (Phelan, “Present tense narration,” p. 242).

Abdul R. JanMohamed, “The economy of Manichean allegory: the function of
racial difference in colonialist literature,” in “Race,” Writing, and Difference, ed.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 92.


8 Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale [1986] (New York: Anchor Books, 1998),

p. 143. Further references are noted parenthetically in the text.
2 It is probably no coincidence that 33 is also the age at which Jesus was crucified.
3 Michael Foley quoted in David S. Hogsette, “Margaret Atwood’s rhetorical epilogue
in The Handmaid’s Tale: the reader’s role in empowering Offred’s speech act,”
Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 38 (1997), p. 273.
4 Karen Stein, “Margaret Atwood’s modest proposal: The Handmaid’s Tale,”
Canadian Literature 148 (1996), p. 59.
5 Erika Gottlieb, Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Terror and Trial
(Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), p. 15.

Atwood quoted in Lucy M. Freibert, “Control and creativity: the politics of risk in
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale,” in Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood,
ed. Judith McCombs (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988), p. 284.

Atwood quoted in J. Brooks Bouson, Brutal Choreographies: Oppositional Strategies
and Narrative Design in the Novels of Margaret Atwood (Amherst: University of
Massachusetts Press, 1993), p. 136.

Hogsette, “Margaret Atwood’s rhetorical epilogue,” p. 271. In Atwood’s words,
“A new regime would never say, ‘we’re socialist; we’re fascist.’ They would say
that they were serving God” (Atwood quoted in Linda Kauffman, “Special delivery:
twenty-first-century epistolarity in The Handmaid’s Tale,” in Writing the Female


Notes, pages 139–142

Voice: Essays on Epistolary Literature, ed. Elizabeth C. Goldsmith (Boston: Northeastern
University Press, 1989), p. 233.
9 Gottlieb, Dystopian Fiction, p. 12.
10 David Coad, “Hymens, lips and masks: the veil in Margaret Atwood’s The
Handmaid’s Tale,” Literature and Psychology 47 (2001), p. 54.
11 Amin Malak, “Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and the dystopian

tradition,” Canadian Literature 112 (1987), pp. 11–12.

Bouson, Brutal Choreographies, p. 138.

Quoted in Lois Feuer, “The calculus of love and nightmare: The Handmaid’s Tale
and the dystopian tradition,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 38 (1997),

p. 83.
Approaches to Teaching Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Other Works,
ed. Sharon R. Wilson, Thomas B. Friedman, and Shannon Hengen (New York:
Modern Language Association, 1996), p. 7.

Glenn Deer, “Rhetorical strategies in The Handmaid’s Tale: dystopia and the
paradoxes of power,” English Studies in Canada 18 (1992), p. 215.

Stein, “Margaret Atwood’s modest proposal,” p. 59.

These three epigraphs are highly relevant to the implications in Atwood’s

novel. The first, Genesis 30: 1–3, the account of Rachel offering Jacob her maid
Bilhah, obviously “justifies” Gilead’s mandating of Offred’s monthly intercourse
with her Commander, who is married to a woman who cannot conceive. The
second epigraph, from Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, calls attention to
Atwood’s satiric intent and addresses, like Atwood’s novel, the question of
population control. Yet while Swift is concerned with Irish overpopulation, “the
rulers of Gilead are obsessed with resolving their crisis of underpopulation ...In
each case, the measures taken to rectify the population are draconian” (Stein,
“Margaret Atwood’s modest proposal,” p. 64). The third epigraph, the Sufi proverb,
“In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones,” challenges
Gilead’s gratuitous “social control” and implies “that on the most basic level
of survival human beings instinctively know what to do and what to avoid; it
suggests the corollary that authorities should avoid unnecessary regulation. Sufi
simplicity counterpoints the outrageous legalism of Gilead’s political structure
and pleads for human freedom and survival” (Freibert, “Control and creativity,”

p. 285).
Arnold E. Davidson, “Future tense: making history in The Handmaid’s Tale,” in
Margaret Atwood: Vision and Form, ed. Kathryn VanSpanckeren and Jan Garden
Castro (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), p. 120.

Bouson, Brutal Choreographies, p. 136.

Note, for example, Gilead’s breeding practices and its reliance on computers, its
“Compuchek” (21), “Compudoc” (59), “Compucount” (85), “Computalk” (137),
“Compuphone” (167), and “Compubite” (26).

Jocelyn Harris, “The Handmaid’s Tale as a re-visioning of 1984,” in Transformations
of Utopia: Changing Views of the Perfect Society, ed. George Slusser et al. (New
York: AMS Press, 1999), p. 268.


Notes, pages 142–145

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four [1949] (New York: Plume Books, 1983),

p. 5.
23 Ibid., pp. 246–56.
24 Ibid., p. 32.
25 Harris, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” p. 269.
26 Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 245.
27 Ruud Teeuwen, “Dystopia’s point of no return: a team-taught utopia class,” in
Wilson et al., Approaches to Teaching Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” p. 117.


Feuer, “Calculus of love and nightmare,” p. 83.

For more on The Handmaid’s Tale as satire and dystopia, see M. Keith Booker,
The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994);
Deer, “Rhetorical strategies”; Feuer, “Calculus of love and nightmare”; Gottlieb,
Dystopian Fiction; Stephanie Barbe Hammer, “The World as it will be? Female
satire and the technology of power in The Handmaid’s Tale,” Modern Language
Studies 20 (1990); Harris, “The Handmaid’s Tale”; Earl Ingersoll, “Margaret
Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: echoes of Orwell,” Journal of the Fantastic in the
Arts 5 (1993); Krishan Kumar, Utopianism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1991); Malak, “Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ ”; and Teeuwen,
“Dystopia’s point of no return.”

Hammer, “The World,” p. 46.

One other social dystopia is referenced directly in The Handmaid’s Tale: Charles
Dickens’s Hard Times, a novel about the commodification and dehumanization
of people in mid-nineteenth-century industrial England, which, like all novels,
has become “illicit reading” material in Gilead (184). This novel of bodily exploitation
sheds light, however obliquely, on Atwood’s narrative. In its concern with
bodily torture and the female Other, The Handmaid’s Tale also alludes to Coetzee’s
Waiting for the Barbarians, published six years earlier. For example, the tortured
feet of Offred’s friend Moira, like the feet of Coetzee’s “barbarian” woman, did
not “look like feet at all. They looked like drowned feet, swollen and boneless,
except for the color. They looked like lungs” (91). Offred’s stark descriptions of
her body remind one of those of Coetzee’s magistrate: “I am dry and white, hard,
granular; it’s like running my hand over a plateful of dried rice; it’s like snow.
There’s something dead about it, something deserted” (104). Like the magistrate
studying an earlier and foreign culture, Offred considers the society of her childhood
as something of a foreign land: “These habits of former times appear to me
now lavish, decadent almost; immoral, like the orgies of barbarian regimes. M.
loves G. 1972. This carving, done with a pencil dug many times into the worn
varnish of the desk, has the pathos of all vanished civilizations” (113). Finally,
a reference in Atwood’s novel to “a road that turns out to lead nowhere” (204)
echoes Coetzee’s closing line, in which the magistrate envisions “a road that may
lead nowhere.”

33 Deer, “Rhetorical strategies,” p. 215.
34 Freibert, “Control and creativity,” pp. 283–4.


Notes, pages 145–153

Ibid., p. 282.

Kauffman, “Special delivery,” p. 232.

According to the author, the Wall in The Handmaid’s Tale “is the wall around
Harvard yard” (Atwood quoted in Sandra Tomc, “ ‘The missionary position’:
feminism and nationalism in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale,” Canadian
Literature 138–9 (1993), p. 79.

Kauffman, “Special delivery,” pp. 233–4.

Kauffman adds, “This emphasis on the collusion of women with their oppressors
is significant; one of the regime’s strokes of genius is their discovery that the
least expensive way to enforce its policies is by using women against each other”
(“Special delivery,” p. 234).

Ibid., p. 236.

Offred’s separation from her family and adoption by the Commander are explained
in the novel’s historical epilogue: “The [Gilead] regime created an instant pool of
[Handmaids] by the simple tactic of declaring all second marriages and nonmarital
liaisons adulterous, arresting the female partners, and, on the grounds that they
were morally unfit, confiscating the children they already had, who were adopted
by childless couples of the upper echelons who were eager for progeny by any
means . . . Men highly placed in the regime were thus able to pick and choose
among women who had demonstrated their reproductive fitness by having
produced one or more healthy children (304).

Hilde Staels, “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: resistance through
narrating,” English Studies 78 (1995), p. 455.

Kauffman, “Special delivery,” p. 237.


Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 105.

Celia Floren, “A reading of Margaret Atwood’s dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale,”
in Postmodern Studies 16: Gender, I-deology: Essays on Theory, Fiction, and Film,
ed. Chantal Cornut-Gentille D’Arcy and Jose Angel Garcia Landa (Amsterdam:
Rodopi, 1996), pp. 254–5.

Hogsette, “Margaret Atwood’s rhetorical epilogue,” pp. 265, 263.

Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2002).

For more on this see Earl G. Ingersoll, “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
as a self-subverting text,” in Cultural Identities in Canadian Literature, ed. Benedicte
Mauguiere (New York: Peter Lang, 1998), pp. 103–4.

Ingersoll, “Self-subverting text,” p. 104. And Kauffman remarks that “Postmodernism”
is indelibly stamped on Atwood’s text (“Special delivery,” p. 222).

Kauffman believes that Atwood’s text “articulates the problems of transmission
and reception” (“Special delivery,” p. 223).

Ibid., p. 240.

Floren, “A reading,” p. 253.

Hogsette, “Margaret Atwood’s rhetorical epilogue,” p. 265.

Davidson, “Future tense,” p. 114.


Notes, pages 153–160

Ibid., p. 120.

Debrah Raschke, “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: false borders and
subtle subversions,” Literature, Interpretation, Theory 6 (1995), p. 257. Staels makes
a similar point to Raschke: “The desire of the scholars for univocal, transparent
meaning ironically mirrors the authoritative word of Gilead” (“Resistance through
narrating,” p. 465).

Deer, “Rhetorical strategies,” pp. 226–7.

Kauffman, “Special delivery,” p. 240.

Malak, “Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’,” p. 15.

Hogsette, “Margaret Atwood’s rhetorical epilogue,” p. 263.

Feuer, “Calculus of love and nightmare,” p. 91.

Freibert, “Control and creativity,” p. 281.

Stein, “Margaret Atwood’s modest proposal,” p. 59. Offred senses the power of
written expression that is forbidden to women but available to men when she is
given a pen by the Commander during one of their illicit meetings in his office
and reports: “The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its
power, the power of the words it contains. Pen Is Envy,” she then puns (186).

Stein, “Margaret Atwood’s modest proposal,” p. 62.

9 Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989)

1 Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day [1989] (New York: Vintage, 1993),
pp. 42–3. Further references are noted parenthetically in the text.
2 Sigmund Freud, Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961),

p. 43.
3 Mark Kamine, “A servant of self-deceit,” The New Leader, November 13, 1989,
p. 22.
4 Salman Rushdie, “What the butler didn’t see,” The Observer, May 21, 1989, p. 53.
5 Graham Swift, “Kazuo Ishiguro,” Bomb, Fall 1989, p. 23.
6 For more on the context for The Remains of the Day, see Brian W. Shaffer, Understanding
Kazuo Ishiguro (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998),
and Brian W. Shaffer, “An interview with Kazuo Ishiguro,” Contemporary Literature
42 (2001).

7 Allan Vorda and Kim Herzinger, “An interview with Kazuo Ishiguro,” Mississippi
Review 20 (1991), p. 139.
8 Dylan Otto Krider, “Rooted in a small space: an interview with Kazuo Ishiguro,”
Kenyon Review 20 (1998), pp. 149–50.
9 Vorda and Herzinger, “An interview,” p. 142.
10 Gregory Mason, “An interview with Kazuo Ishiguro,” Contemporary Literature 30

(1989), p. 347.

Swift, “Kazuo Ishiguro,” p. 23.

John Kucich, Repression in Victorian Literature: Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and

Charles Dickens (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 2.


Notes, pages 161–168

Freud, Five Lectures, p. 43.

Kathleen Wall astutely observes that nothing can “tear the fabric” that Stevens
“has erected between his private and his professional selves” and that “Threatening
moments . . . are shrouded by Stevens in layers of more comfortable memory”
(Kathleen Wall, “The Remains of the Day and its challenges to theories of unreliable
narration,” Journal of Narrative Technique 24 [1994], pp. 28–9).

Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air (New York: Simon and Schuster,
1982), p. 106. I am indebted to Caroline Patey, “When Ishiguro visits the West
Country,” Acme 44 (1991), p. 151, for making the Ishiguro–Berman connection.

16 Quoted in Berman, All That is Solid, pp. 108–9.
17 Frank E. Huggett, Life Below Stairs: Domestic Servants in England from Victorian

Times (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977), p. 35.

Huggett, Life Below Stairs, p. 46.

Rushdie, “What the butler didn’t see,” p. 53.

Ihab Hassan, “An extravagant reticence,” The World and I 5/2 (February 1990),

p. 374.
21 Kucich, Repression, p. 1.
22 Freud, Five Lectures, pp. 21–2.
23 Ibid., p. 22.
24 Sigmund Freud, “Repression,” in vol. 14, The Standard Edition of the Complete
Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute
of Psychoanalysis, 1957), p. 147.

Galen Strawson calls Remains a “finely nuanced and at times humorous study of
repression” (“Tragically disciplined and dignified,” Times Literary Supplement,
May 19–25, 1989, p. 535).

Compare this statement with Freud’s claim that the “motive and purpose of
repression” is “nothing else than the avoidance of unpleasure,” in “Repression,”

p. 153.
27 Kazuo Ishiguro, “Getting poisoned,” in Introduction 7: Stories by New Writers
(London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 51.

Patey, “When Ishiguro visits the West Country,” p. 150.

In a rare honest moment, Stevens responds to the question, “Have you had much
to do with politics yourself,” by answering, “Not directly as such” (187).

David Gurewich, “Upstairs, downstairs,” The New Criterion, December 1989, p. 78.

Vorda and Herzinger, “An interview,” p. 153.

Cynthia F. Wong, “The shame of memory: Blanchot’s self-dispossession in
Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills,” CLIO 24 (1995), p. 130.

Hassan, “Extravagant reticence,” p. 370.

Kamine, “Servant of self-deceit,” p. 22.

Kathleen Wall is correct to argue that “Stevens has attempted to avoid, in his life

as well as in his narrative, the voices and needs of the feeling self ” (“Theories of
unreliable narration,” p. 26).
36 Kathleen Wall puts it well: “Stevens has truncated his life to fit a professional
mold”; the word “professional,” which arises in inappropriate contexts, “becomes


Notes, pages 168–174

either a disguise for other, more emotional motives or a defense for his strangely

unemotional behavior” (ibid., pp. 23–4).

Swift, “Kazuo Ishiguro,” p. 22.

Gurewich, “Upstairs, downstairs,” p. 78.

39 Lord Darlington may be the namesake of the character in Oscar Wilde’s Lady
Windermere’s Fan.
Interestingly, the servant-class inhabitants of Ishiguro’s novel, Smith, Kenton,
Benn, and Stevens have common-sounding names, while the aristocrats, Cardinal
and Darlington, have more elaborate and elegant ones. In any case, Darlington
should not be viewed as aligned with Hitler so much as seduced by him. What
George Orwell argues of Chamberlain applies equally well to Stevens’s employer:
“His opponents professed to see in him a dark and wily schemer, plotting to sell
England to Hitler, but it is far likelier that he was merely a stupid old man doing
his best according to his very dim lights” (A Collection of Essays [San Diego:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1954], p. 265).

Joseph Conrad, The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, vol. 2, ed. Frederick R. Karl
and Laurence Davies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 108.

Vorda and Herzinger, “An interview,” pp. 135–6.

Swift, “Kazuo Ishiguro,” p. 23.

Patey, “When Ishiguro vists the West Country,” p. 147.

Wall, “Theories of unreliable narration,” p. 24.

And in those few moments when Stevens actually addresses his own feelings, he
substitutes a vague adjective for a precise one in order to avoid revealing himself.
For example, he claims to be “tired” (105, 220, 242–3) when he really means
“sad,” “disappointed,” or “defeated.”

As an example of the first instance: “one should not be looking back to the past
so much . . . It is essential . . . to keep one’s attention focused on the present; to
guard against any complacency creeping in on account of what one may have
achieved in the past” (139). As an example of the second instance: “But I see
I have become somewhat lost in these old memories. This had never been
my intention, but then it is probably no bad thing if in doing so I have at
least avoided becoming unduly preoccupied with the events of this evening”

Perhaps for this reason Hassan calls the novel a “mental journey, a grudging
access to Stevens’ past” (“Extravagant reticence,” p. 373).

Gurewich, “Upstairs, downstairs,” p. 80.

Vorda and Herzinger, “An interview,” p. 142.

Hassan, “Extravagant reticence,” p. 374.

Meera Tamaya, “Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day: the Empire strikes back,” Modern
Language Studies 22 (1992), p. 54.

He notes a “sharp decline in professional standards” of late (7); observes that the
staff at Darlington Hall has dwindled from 28 to four persons over the years; and
points out that when he takes his excursion “Darlington Hall would probably
stand empty for the first time this century” (23).


Notes, pages 174–177

Stevens notes that Darlington Hall has been purchased by Americans after “two
centuries” in “the hands of the Darlington family” (6); observes that Americans
are “the only ones that can afford” grand old English homes (242); and takes his
excursion in Farraday’s American Ford.

Gurewich, “Upstairs, downstairs,” pp. 78–9.

Hassan, “Extravagant reticence,” pp. 372–3.

Vorda and Herzinger, “An interview,” pp. 139–40.

10 Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (1992)

Jonathan Swift, “A modest proposal” [1729], in The Writings of Jonathan Swift,
ed. Robert A. Greenberg and William B. Piper (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973),

p. 505.
2 James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man [1916] (New York: Penguin
Books, 1956), p. 203.
3 Patrick McCabe, The Butcher Boy (New York: Delta Books, 1992), p. 20. Further
references are noted parenthetically in the text.
Donna Potts, “From Tir na nOg to Tir na Muck: Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher
Boy,” New Hibernia Review/Iris Eireannach Nua: A Quarterly Record of Irish Studies
3 (1999), p. 93.

Ibid., p. 95.

“I wrote The Butcher Boy in about a month and a half and then thought absolutely
nobody would read it,” McCabe reports. “I thought, ‘Here’s a book written in
a ska kind of style, in run-on dialogue, in a small inland town – who the hell’s
going to read this?’ And it still amazes me [that] that book took off . . .”
(Christopher FitzSimon [Patrick McCabe interviewed], “St Macartan, Minnie the
Minx and Mondo Movies: elliptical peregrinations through the subconscious of a
Monaghan writer traumatized by cows and the brilliance of James Joyce,” Irish
University Review 28 [1998], p. 181).

I am indebted to Anna Teekell for this observation and for her insightful comments
on this chapter generally.

8 McCabe has commented that he “used to pass an abattoir every day” on the way
to school; “So you encounter brutality at a very early age, anybody growing up in
a small town does. I particularly did because the abattoir was beside the house”
(FitzSimon, “Peregrinations,” p. 184).
9 Ibid., p. 177.

Ibid., p. 188.

Ibid., p. 185.

To identify merely a few of The Butcher Boy’s myriad allusions to Dubliners:

Francie notes, during his excursion to Dublin, the Gresham Hotel (41) and the
statue of Daniel O’Connell (40), both of which figure prominently in Joyce’s “The
dead.” Another time Francie “sat at the window. The lane outside was deserted.
There was no sign of the children . . .” (53), in a scene that recalls Joyce’s Eveline


Notes, pages 177–181

at the beginning of her eponymous story. Elsewhere, Father Sullivan, a homosexual
pederast who sexually abuses Francie and who is said to be looked after by
his sister (101), recalls Father Flynn in Joyce’s “The sisters.” And Francie’s Indian
cry uttered when playing with his friend Joe, “Yamma yamma yamma! Yama
yamma yamma!” (201), recalls Joe Dillon’s American Wild West-inspired war
games and Indian “war dance of victory” yell, “Ya! Yaka, yaka, yaka!,” in Joyce’s
“An encounter.” See Alan Forrest Hickman, “Growing up Irish: an update on
Stephen Dedalus,” Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association 22 (1996),
pp. 9–18, for a treatment of The Butcher Boy as a latter-day A Portrait of the Artist
as a Young Man.

FitzSimon, “Peregrinations,” p. 177.

Ibid., pp. 182–3.

Ibid., p. 186.

John Scaggs, “Who is Francie Pig? Self-identity and narrative reliability in The
Butcher Boy,” Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies 30 (2000), p. 51.

Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd edn. (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1983), pp. 158–9.

Tom Herron, “ContamiNation: Patrick McCabe and Colm Tóibín’s pathographies
of the Republic,” in Contemporary Irish Fiction: Themes, Tropes, Theories, ed.
Liam Harte and Michael Parker (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2000), p. 169.

David Goldknopf, The Life of the Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1972), p. 41.

“Repression” is understood in the Freudian sense as “forgotten material” that
originates in a “wishful impulse” that is “in sharp contrast to the subject’s other
wishes” and that proves “incompatible with the ethical and aesthetic standards of
his personality.” See Sigmund Freud, Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (New York:

W. W. Norton, 1977), p. 22.
21 Potts, “From Tir na nOg,” p. 83.
22 Martin McLoone, “The abused child of history: Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy,”
Cineaste 23 (1998), p. 33.

FitzSimon, “Peregrinations,” p. 181.

De Valera, quoted in Herron, “ContamiNation,” p. 175. In 1962, during the
novel’s main action, De Valera is President of the Irish Republic.

Herron, “ContamiNation,” p. 177.

Ibid., p. 176.

Francie paints a similar portrait of Mary, a neighbor of the Bradys who is in love
with Benny’s married brother Alo. She has “the same face as ma used to have
sitting staring into the ashes it was funny that face it slowly grew over the other
one until one day you looked and the person you knew was gone” (212).

Francie’s imagined relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary can be understood
as his attempt to regain his lost mother. Another failed mother figure for Francie
is Queen Victoria, for whom a fountain in the town’s Diamond was built (in
honor of her Jubilee). Victoria apparently failed attend the fountain’s inauguration,
leading Francie to ask, “where the fuck is she?” (110). This anecdote adds a


Notes, pages 182–188

colonial dimension to the novel’s neglectful mother motif, with the Empire (and
the Church) neglecting Ireland just as Annie Brady neglects Francie.

The Tower Bar also recalls W. B. Yeats’s The Tower, with its impotence-related
imagery. In this volume of poems Yeats employs the tower as a crumbling, failed
phallic symbol for the poet as well as for Ireland, which is of relevance for Francie’s
father, who seeks solace from his musical and personal “impotence.” Thanks to
Anna Teekell for making this connection.

Potts, “From Tir na nOg,” p. 85.

As Tim Gauthier writes, in the Ireland of this time “There is no sense of the
possibility of upward mobility within the community; such prestige can only be
derived by realigning oneself with the colonizing power” (Tim Gauthier, “Identity,
self-loathing and the neocolonial condition in Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher
Boy,” Critique 44 [2003], p. 203).

FitzSimon, “Peregrinations,” p. 178.

Ibid., pp. 178–9.

James M. Smith, “Remembering Ireland’s architecture of containment: ‘telling’
stories in The Butcher Boy and States of Fear,” Eire-Ireland: A Journal of Irish
Studies 36 (2001), p. 126.

William Faulkner, “A rose for Emily,” in Collected Stories (New York: Vintage
Books, 1977), p. 124.

Smith, “Remembering Ireland’s architecture,” p. 126.


Ibid., p. 127.

Ibid., p. 125.

Ibid., p. 128.

Herron, “ContamiNation,” p. 177.

Ibid., p. 175.

Smith, “Remembering Ireland’s architecture,” p. 127.

Herron, “ContamiNation,” p. 177.

Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, “Virgins and mothers: Sinead O’Connor, Neil
Jordan, and The Butcher Boy,” Yale Journal of Criticism 15 (2002), p. 201.

Smith, “Remembering Ireland’s architecture,” p. 126.

McLoone, “Abused child,” p. 36.

Smith, “Remembering Ireland’s architecture,” p. 127.


Herron, “ContamiNation,” p. 174.

Ibid. Tim Gauthier takes the novel’s neocolonial context further by arguing that
“Francie’s ambivalent relationship with the community, his search for identity,
his lack of a sense of history combined with an idealization of the past, his
fascination with the life led by the Nugents as adopters and representatives of
dominant culture values, and finally his own self-loathing all mirror the country’s
neocolonial condition” (“Identity, self-loathing,” p. 196).


Potts, “From Tir na nOg,” p. 84.


Notes, pages 189–196

Interestingly, for all of his savagery, Francie responds strongly to the pain and
despair of others, as expressed in the sympathetic reaction he has to the “tears”
and “sad eyes” of others. He also sympathizes with non-human objects around
him, from the houses in derelict Bundoran, which “were grey and blue and wet
and in a sulk for the winter. Boo hoo nobody comes to stay in us any more”
(185), to “the sniffer dogs woof woof ” (220), to the “river hiss hiss” (221), to the
pictures on the wall: “What about us said the pictures on the walls” (221–2). The
novel even ends with “the tears streaming down” Francie’s face (231).

Zadie Smith, White Teeth (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), p. 177.

Herron, “ContamiNation,” p. 174.

Cullingford, “Virgins and mothers,” p. 206.

Swift, “Modest proposal,” p. 502.

Ibid., pp. 503–4.

Ibid., p. 506.

Ibid., p. 505.

Potts, “From Tir na nOg,” p. 86.


Ibid., p. 87.

Cullingford, “Virgins and mothers,” p. 199.

Potts, “From Tir na nOg,” p. 86.

This also echoes the town’s disappointed anticipation of a visit by Queen Victoria,
for her Diamond Jubilee, in 1897.

McLoone, “Abused child,” p. 128.

As Elizabeth Butler Cullingford puts it, instead of encountering “the Mother of
God” the townspeople encounter “the blood of a murdered mother” (p. 205).

11 Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996)

1 T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1950 (New York: Harcourt,
Brace & World, 1952), p. 46.
2 Graham Swift, Last Orders (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), pp. 193–4. Further
references are noted parenthetically in the text.

Bettina Gossmann, Roman Haak, Melanie Romberg, and Saskia Spindler, “Graham
Swift in interview on Last Orders,” Anglistik: Mitteilungen des Verbandes deutscher
Anglisten 8 (1997), p. 160.

4 John Banville, “That’s life” (Review of Last Orders), New York Review of Books,
April 4, 1996, p. 8.
5, p. 2. This website is henceforth

referred to as “Salon.”
6 Gossmann et al., “Graham Swift in interview,” pp. 157– 8.
7 David Leon Higdon, “Double closures in postmodern British fiction: the example

of Graham Swift,” Critical Survey 3 (1991), p. 90.
8 Ibid.


Notes, pages 197–211

9 Peter Widdowson, “The novels of Graham Swift,” Literature in Context, ed. Rick

Rylance (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), p. 214.

Gossmann et al., “Graham Swift in interview,” p. 155.

Adrian Poole, “Graham Swift and the mourning after,” An Introduction to Contemporary
Fiction, ed. Rod Mengham (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), p. 153.

Salon, p. 3.

Banville, “That’s life,” p. 9.

Ibid., p. 8.

Salon, p. 4.

Pamela Cooper, Graham Swift’s “Last Orders”: A Reader’s Guide (New York:
Continuum, 2002), p. 37.

Widdowson, “Novels of Graham Swift,” p. 218.

Emma Parker, “No man’s land: masculinity and Englishness in Graham Swift’s
Last Orders,” Posting the Male: Masculinities in Post-War and Contemporary British
Literature, ed. Daniel Lea and Berthold Schoene (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003), p. 99.

Cooper, Graham Swift’s “Last Orders”, p. 19. Indeed, in both novels England is
reduced to the status of a museum for tourists and for its own citizens. In Ishiguro’s
novel Darlington Hall, after World War II, is purchased by an American; in
Swift’s novel Rochester’s High Street “looks like a high street in a picture book”

(108) and the English characters are portrayed as consumers of a burgeoning
English heritage industry. As Vic puts it of Vince, who clutches his Wonders of
Canterbury Cathedral guidebook while touring Canterbury Cathedral, “He stands,
flicking through, as if he doesn’t want to look at the cathedral, just the guidebook,
giving us snippets, as if we can’t make a move till we’ve had the lecture” (196).
Salon, p. 4.

Independent on Sunday, March 9, 1997.

David Malcolm, Understanding Graham Swift (Columbia: University of South
Carolina Press, 2003), p. 158.

Catherine Bernard, “An interview with Graham Swift,” Contemporary Literature
38 (1997), pp. 230–1.

Cooper, Graham Swift’s “Last Orders”, p. 24.

Parker, “No man’s land,” p. 90.

Cooper, Graham Swift’s “Last Orders”, p. 39.

Gossmann et al., “Graham Swift in interview,” p. 156.

Ibid., pp. 155–6.

Poole, “Graham Swift and the mourning after,” p. 163.

Stef Craps, “ ‘All the same underneath’? Alterity and ethics in Graham Swift’s Last
Orders,” Critique 44 (2003), p. 413.

For more on this see Wendy Wheeler, “Graham Swift,” in Postmodernism: The
Key Figures, ed. Hans Bertens and Joseph Natoli (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing,

32 Parker, “No man’s land,” p. 103.
33 Higdon, “Double closures,” p. 90.
34 Cooper, Graham Swift’s “Last Orders”, p. 18.



Abraham and Isaac: re-enactment in
Things Fall Apart, 79

Achebe, Chinua, 23, 72–3, 226 n. 3,
227 n. 21, 228 n. 28–9, n. 32; Arrow
of God, 229 n. 44; biography, 74;
and Conrad, 227 n. 5; on the Igbo,
228–9 n. 35; Things Fall Apart, 21–2,
23, 72–6, 230 n. 62

agency, deprivation of: in The
Handmaid’s Tale, 149

allegory: Coetzee and, 125

Allen, Walter, 41, 56, 109

alterity, see Other, the

Amis, Kingsley, 35–6, 218 n. 21–2,
219 n. 36, 221 n. 73; antimodernism,
4, 5; biography, 37; on education, 40;
on Golding, 223 n. 14; Lucky Jim, 6,
35–53, 217–18 n. 15, 220 n. 55, n. 58,
221 n. 69; political affiliations, 39,
219 n. 29

Amis, Martin, 5, 7, 37

Anglicanism: and Nigeria, 81–2

“Angry Young Men,” 5, 38, 40, 49, 56,
218 n. 22, 223 n. 15

Ani (Igbo goddess), 230 n. 59

animals: in Igbo proverbs, 230 n. 59

antimodernism, 4–6; Amis (K.) et al.,

anti-Semitism, 169

apartheid, 24–5, 122–4

apprenticeship system (Great Britain),

Arabian Nights, 22

Aristotle, 76, 228 n. 32

Arnold, Matthew: “Dover Beach,” 3

Ashcroft, Bill, 16–17, 130

Attridge, Derek, 123

Attwell, David, 123, 131

Atwood, Margaret, 20; biography,
140–1; The Handmaid’s Tale, 12, 14,
20, 138–56; Negotiating with the Dead,
152; other works, 141

Austen, Jane, 87

Australia, 20

author as sovereign subject, 9

Baker, James R., 55, 56, 58, 224 n. 47,
226 n. 78

Bakhtin, Mikhail: Coetzee, Freud and,
122; on meaning, 33, 242 n. 65; and
the Other, 134; theory of the novel,
31, 32, 33–4, 76

Ballantyne, R. M.: The Coral Island,
Lord of the Flies compared to, 54,
59–60, 71, 224 n. 45

Banville, John, 18, 19, 195

barbarism, “civilized,” 11–14, 54, 55–6,
60, 127, 131–2, 239 n. 32

Barker, Pat: Regeneration trilogy, 11, 14

Barnes, Djuna, 107



Barnes, Julian: Flaubert’s Parrot, 5, 7
Barth, John, 5, 33, 123
Baudrillard, Jean, 7–8; Simulacra and

Simulation, 8

Bauman, Zygmunt: Modernity and the
Holocaust, 12

beast (within), the, 62, 65–6, 70–1

Beauvoir, Simone de, 122

Beckett, Samuel, 6, 40, 122, 123, 127,
240 n. 38; Waiting for Godot, 128

Behan, Brendan: Borstal Boy, 18

Behr, Mark, 11, 24–5

Bellow, Saul, 123

Berman, Marshall, 162

Bertens, Hans, 7

Best, Steven, 8–9

Beveridge Report (Great Britain), 38,
218 n. 18

Biafran revolt (Nigeria), 74

Bible, the, 139, 147; Genesis, 79, 139,
142, 224 n. 51, 244 n. 17; Revelation
(Apocalypse), 224 n. 47

“black British” literature, 15, 17–18,

blindness: metaphor in Lord of the Flies,

Bloomsbury, 40, 41; see also Woolf,

Bold, Alan, 90, 94

Bolger, Dermot, 18

Booker, M. Keith, 113

Booker Prize, 19, 20, 21, 25, 215 n. 65

Booth, Wayne, 178

Borges, Jorge Luis, 123

Bower, Anne L., 100

Bradbury, Malcolm, 36, 158; on
Amis (K.) and Lucky Jim, 35, 41,
49, 221 n. 78; on the “Angry Young
Men,” 38; on antimodernism, 4, 40;
on Golding and Lord of the Flies, 55,
56, 57–8, 59; on postmodernism, 7;
on Pound, 2; on World War II, 10

Braine, John, 5, 40; Room at the Top, 38

Brannigan, John, ix

British Empire, demise of, 15–17, 174;
see also “black British” literature;

Brodie, Deacon William, 94

Brontë, Charlotte, 158, 236 n. 42–3;
Jane Eyre, 23, 105–6, 108, 109–13,
117–18, 143, 233 n. 62, 234 n. 7,
237 n. 44

Brontë, Emily, 87, 89; Wuthering
Heights, 196–7

Brookner, Anita, 4

Brown, George Mackay: Beside the
Ocean of Time, 20

Browne, Sir Thomas, 200

bureaucracy: and dehumanization, 12,
239 n. 32

Burgess, Anthony: A Clockwork Orange,

Butcher Boy, The (McCabe), 7, 175–94,
250 n. 6; characterization, 181–3,
185, 188–9, 190–1; Dubliners (Joyce)
allusions, 250–1 n. 12; film version,
175; language, 177; narrative voice,
178; plot, 181–5, 186–94

Byatt, A. S., 1, 5; Possession, 7, 9

caged animals/birds: metaphors for kept
women, 116, 149

Calvinism: in The Prime of Miss Jean
Brodie, 97–9, 100, 233 n. 51

Canada, 20; see also Atwood, Margaret;
Handmaid’s Tale, The

cannibalism: trope, 202

Carey, John, 10

Carey, Peter, 20, 21

Caribbean: Brontë (C.) and, 106,
236 n. 42; history, 16, 108–9;
novelists, 26–7; see also “black
British” literature; Creoles; Rhys,
Jean; Wide Sargasso Sea

Carroll, David, 227 n. 12

Carter, Angela, 5, 7

Cary, Joyce: Mr Johnson, 22, 72

Catholic Church, 186–7



Cavafy, Constantine: “Waiting for the
Barbarians,” 127–8, 130
Chamberlain, Neville, 249 n. 39
Chatwin, Bruce: On the Black Hill, 20
Chaucer, Geoffrey: The Canterbury
Tales, 199
Chaudhuri, Amit, 26
Chekhov, Anton, 87, 158
Cheyette, Bryan, 99, 104
chi (Igbo cosmology), 228–9 n. 35
Chinweizu, 82, 227 n. 21
choice, illusion of, 148
Christ, 243 n. 2; figure of, 66, 79, 99
Christianity: and Lord of the Flies, 55;
in Things Fall Apart, 80, 81–5; see also
Calvinism; Catholic Church; Puritans
circularity (time), 239 n. 33
“civilization,” 66–7, 82, 121, 128–9,
130–1; see also barbarism, “civilized”
closure, narrative, 27, 112, 153, 209–11
clothes: as metaphor, 161–2
Codrescu, Andrei, 9
Coetzee, J. M., 20, 24, 122–6, 142;
biography, 122–3; Waiting for
the Barbarians, 11, 12, 24, 121–37,
245 n. 32
colonialism: Brontë (C.) and,
236 n. 42–3; The Butcher Boy,
251–2 n. 28, 252 n. 51; Coetzee
and, 123–4, 137; “colonial trinity,”
81; definition, 16; India, 82; Lord
of the Flies and, 67; Nigeria, 72–4,
80, 229 n. 37; religious arm of, 81;
Things Fall Apart and, 72, 76, 78,
80–6; Wide Sargasso Sea and, 112,
Columbus, Christopher, 108, 109
Commonwealth Immigrants Act (Great
Britain, 1962), 30
community, notion of, 186
Conquest, Robert, 218 n. 22, 219 n. 43
Conrad, Joseph, 1, 2, 3, 26, 123, 127–8,
170; Heart of Darkness, 11–12, 22,
24, 72, 128, 132, 222 n. 5, 227 n. 5,

231 n. 66, 239 n. 32; The Secret Agent,

Cooper, Pamela, 199, 201–2, 211

Craig, Cairns, 98

Craps, Stef, 207

Creoles, 26, 106–7, 115, 118; Rhys’s
concern for, 110

Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler, 191,
253 n. 69

Dabydeen, David, 29

Dasenbrock, Reed Way, 15–16, 17, 21,
228 n. 29

Davie, Donald, 218 n. 22

Davies, Andrew, 36

Davies, Robertson, 20

de Valera, Eamon, 180–1

dead, the: impact on the living, 196,
202–4, 210

Deane, Seamus, 19

Deer, Glenn, 144

Defoe, Daniel, 31, 59, 124

dehumanization, 11–14

democracy: Fromm on, 67, 225 n. 75;
Lord of the Flies, 59, 60–1

denial, state of, 180, 181, 184

Desai, Anita, 25

Descartes, René, 155

dialogue: meaning in, 242 n. 65

Dick, Bernard F., 66–7, 71, 226 n. 77

Dickens, Charles, 41, 158, 196–7; Hard
Times, 12, 96, 146, 156, 245 n. 32

Dickson, L. L., 58

“difficulty,” literary: Eliot on, 2–3

Dominica, 26, 106–7, 108, 119; see also
Rhys, Jean; Wide Sargasso Sea

Donoghue, Emma, 18

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, 124, 134, 158

Doyle, Roddy, 18; Barrytown trilogy, 19

Drabble, Margaret, 4

Drake, Sandra, 109

dystopia, 58, 224 n. 28, 245 n. 32;
see also Atwood, Margaret: The
Handmaid’s Tale



EastEnders (television drama), 200

Eckstein, Barbara, 127, 135–6

Eco, Umberto, 123

ecological degradation, 138, 140

Eden, image of, 66, 102, 174, 181;
see also paradise, spoiling of

Edinburgh, Scotland, 87–8, 93–4,
232 n. 28

Eliot, T. S., 2–3, 32; The Waste Land,
195, 199, 236 n. 31

Emancipation Act (Great Britain, 1833),
108, 109

Emecheta, Buchi, 23, 28, 29

Emery, Mary Lou, 108

emotional cowardice, 173–4

“emotional fascism,” 13, 166

England: and Ireland, 188, 192; Ishiguro
and, 158–9, 174, 254 n. 19; Swift (G.)
and, 254 n. 19

English language: Achebe and politics
of, 22, 74–5, 227 n. 21, 228 n. 28;
as international language, 15–16,

Enright, D. J., 218 n. 22

epic, 32

Epstein, E. L., 222 n. 5

Euripides: Bacchae, 222 n. 5; Tiresias,

excrement: trope, 226 n. 77

expansion (theory of the novel), 32

Fabian Society, 39, 219 n. 28

Fanon, Frantz, 82

Farah, Nuruddin, 24

fascism, 68, 100, 137, 174; see also
Hitler, Adolf; Holocaust; Nazism

Faulkner, William, 185; As I Lay Dying,
3, 196, 198, 199–200

feminism: The Handmaid’s Tale, 140,

Feuer, Lois, 155

Fielding, Henry, 31, 41, 219 n. 47

Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby,

Ford, Ford Madox, 107, 122, 123; The
Good Soldier, 88, 179

Forster, E. M., 31–2, 33, 201; on Lord of
the Flies, 54, 55, 56, 62; A Passage to
India, 82, 231 n. 66; A Room with a
View, 220 n. 59, 221 n. 69

Fowles, John, 5, 9, 31, 32, 223 n. 15;
The French Lieutenant’s Woman, 6–7,
9, 196

“freedom, two kinds of,” 148–9

Freibert, Lucy M., 145, 156, 244 n. 17

Freud, Sigmund, 68, 122, 157; and
God, 3; Civilization and its
Discontents, 63, 84; and repression,
160, 162–3, 248 n. 26, 251 n. 20;
and the unconscious, 4, 160

Friedman, Ellen G., 105–6

Fromm, Erich, 13, 55; Escape from
Freedom, 67–70, 225 n. 75, 226 n. 78

Frow, John, 200

Galloway, Janice, 19

Gardiner, Judith Kegan, 110

Gass, William, 123

Gauthier, Tim, 252 n. 31, n. 51

genocide, 11–12

Ghana, 20

Ghose, Zulfikar, 26, 28

Ghosh, Amitav, 26

Gikandi, Simon, 18

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, 143–4

Girl Guides, 95

God: modernism and, 3–4; The Prime of
Miss Jean Brodie, 233 n. 54

Golding, William, 14, 54, 222 n. 5,
223 n. 14, n. 17, 225 n. 59; biography,
56–8; Darkness Visible, 7, 57; Lord of
the Flies, 11, 13, 54–71, 84, 224 n. 28,

n. 47; other novels, 57–8
Goldknopf, David, 179
Gordimer, Nadine, 24, 125
Grace, Patricia, 21
Graff, Gerald, 5
Graham, Kenneth, 4



Grass, Günter: The Tin Drum, 22
Gray, Alasdair: Lanark, 7, 14, 19
Greene, Graham, 25
Griffiths, Gareth, 16–17, 130
Gunesekera, Romesh, 26, 28
Gunn, Giles, 134
Gunn, Thom, 218 n. 22
Gupta, Sunetra, 26, 28
Gurewich, David, 166, 172
Gurnah, Abdulrazak, 24, 28

Handmaid’s Tale, The (Atwood), 12,
14, 20, 138–56; film version, 141;
“Historical notes,” 152–4, 155,
246 n. 41; narrative technique, 154–6;
plot and characterization, 143–52;
and Waiting for the Barbarians,
245 n. 32

Harris, Jocelyn, 142

Harris, Wilson, 27, 28

Hassan, Ihab, 249 n. 47

Head, Dominic, 30, 218 n. 18, n. 22

Heath, Roy, 27

Heinemann Books African Writers
Series, 74

Hemingway, Ernest, 107

Henley, W. E., 232 n. 33

“heritage industry,” 157, 174, 254 n. 19

Herron, Tom, 186, 188

Higdon, David Leon, 211

historical interpretation: limitations
parodied in The Handmaid’s Tale,

history: imperial view of, 239 n. 33;
Swift (G.) and, 197, 199

Hite, Molly, 115

Hitler, Adolf, 10–11

Hogg, James, 94, 232 n. 33

Hogsette, David S., 151

Holocaust, the, 56, 67

Huggett, Frank E., 162

Hulme, Keri, 20–1

Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World, 58,
138, 142

Hynes, Samuel, 71
hyperreal, the, 8–9

Ibsen, Henrik, 2, 127–8, 132

Igbo, 73–4, 75, 76–7, 228–9 n. 35;
culture threatened by Anglican
Christianity, 81–3; misogyny,
229 n. 37; proverbs, 230 n. 59

Ihimaera, Witi, 21

imperialism, 236 n. 43, 239 n. 33; and
the adventure romance tradition, 59;
definition, 16; and Lord of the Flies,
59, 60; religious (Things Fall Apart),
81–3, 85; Waiting for the Barbarians
and, 121, 132–3, 136–7, 241 n. 51,
242 n. 67, n. 68

India, 15, 25–6, 82

individuality, 67; desire to escape from,

Innes, C. L., 75, 79

Ireland, 16, 17, 18–19, 175, 251–2 n. 28,
252 n. 31; McCabe and, 180–1, 182,
186–7, 192; symbolism in The Tower
(Yeats), 252 n. 29; see also names of
individual Irish authors, e.g. Joyce,
James; McCabe, Patrick

Ishiguro, Kazuo, viii, 29–30; biography,
158, 160; novels to date, 159–60; on
postwar Britain, 14–15; The Remains
of the Day, 11, 13, 15, 30–1, 157–74,
179, 184, 199, 254 n. 19

Jacobson, Howard, 36

Jamaica, 26, 108–9, 119

James, Clive, 20

James, Henry, 40

James, William: Principles of Psychology,

JanMohamed, Abdul R., 74–5, 78, 83,
137, 226 n. 3, 228 n. 28

Jenkins, Robin: The Cone-Gatherers, 11,

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer, 159

Johnson, B. S., 6, 26



Jordan, Neil, 175
Joyce, James, 2, 6, 9, 41, 107, 113,
175, 182, 216 n. 82; Amis (K.) on,
219 n. 36; The Dead, 172; Dubliners,
116, 182, 250–1 n. 12; Finnegans
Wake, 2; McCabe and, 177; Ulysses,
3–4, 5, 6, 18, 32, 195–6, 200,
236 n. 31
Juraga, Dubravka, 113
Jussawalla, Feroza, 15–16, 17, 21,
228 n. 29

Kafka, Franz, 123, 124, 127–8, 159,
240 n. 38
Kailyard school (Scotland), 19
Kamine, Mark, 158
Karl, Frederick R., 222 n. 5
Kauffman, Linda, 146, 149, 246 n. 50
Kay, Christina, 88, 95, 234 n. 63
Keane, Molly, 19
Kellner, Douglas, 8–9
Kelman, James, 19, 20
Keneally, Thomas, 20, 21
Kennedy, A. L., 19
Kenya, 16, 24
Kermode, Frank, 32–3, 88
Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah, 25
Kipling, Rudyard, 35
Kucich, John, 162
Kundera, Milan, 123
Kureishi, Hanif, 29

Labour Party (Great Britain): Amis (K.)
and, 39
Lamming, George, 27, 28
language: political aspects, 151, 239 n. 32;
systems (in The Handmaid’s Tale), 153
Larkin, Philip, 37, 38, 217–18 n. 15,
218 n. 21, n. 22
Last Orders (G. Swift), 195–211;
characterization, 197, 204, 206–9; film
version, 197; narrative technique, 198,
200, 201; plot, 198–9, 207–10
Laurence, Margaret, 20

Lawrence, D. H., 2, 10

Levinas, Emmanuel, 122

Lodge, David, 218 n. 22; on the “Angry
Young Men,” 38; on Lucky Jim, 36,
39, 44, 51–2, 220 n. 55, 220–1 n. 67;
on postmodernism, 6; on The Prime
of Miss Jean Brodie, 88, 90–1, 92, 93,
94, 97–8, 100, 233 n. 51

Lord of the Flies (Golding), 11, 13,
54–71, 84, 224 n. 28; characterization,
60–6, 69–70, 224 n. 47; plot
development, 62; title, 67

Lovelace, Earl, 27

Lowry, Malcolm, 20; Under the Volcano,
1, 3, 11, 20, 196

Lucky Jim (K. Amis), 6, 35–53, 217–18

n. 15, 218 n. 22, 219 n. 47, 220 n. 55;
characterization, 42–53, 218 n. 15,
220 n. 58; plot, 42–4, 52, 221 n. 69
Lugard, Frederick, 230–1 n. 65
Lyotard, Jean-François, 7, 8; The
Postmodern Condition, 7

MacLaverty, Bernard, 18–19

Malak, Amin, 154

Malcolm, David, 200

Malouf, David, 20; Remembering
Babylon, 21

Mandela, Nelson, 122

Mannoni, O., 114, 130

Markandaya, Kamala, 25–6

Married Woman’s Property Act (Great
Britain, 1870), 111

Marwick, Arthur, ix

Marx, Karl, 3

Mary, Blessed Virgin, 193, 251 n. 28,
253 n. 69

Masefield, John, 89

Massie, Alan, 93

Maugham, W. Somerset, 40

Maurel, Sylvie, 112

McCabe, Patrick, 19, 142; biography,
176, 180, 184; The Butcher Boy, 7,
175–94, 250 n. 6, 250–1 n. 12



McEwan, Ian, 5, 11, 58 Nixon, Nicola, 236 n. 42

McGahern, John, 4, 18, 19
McLoone, Martin, 187, 193
meaning, 33; in The Butcher Boy, 178–9;
dialogue and, 242 n. 65; in Igbo
cosmology, 230 n. 59; in The Remains
of the Day, 170; story and, 201, 211
memory, 149–50, 170, 196, 197,
248 n. 14, 249 n. 46
mental illness: definition, 118
Meyers, Jeffrey, 79
missionaries, 81
Mistry, Rohinton, 25
Mo, Timothy, 29–30; Sour Sweet, 30
modernism, literary, 1–4, 9, 112,
236 n. 31, n. 32; response to, 1, 4–6
Moore, Brian, 18, 20
“mortmain” (Pound), 2, 212 n. 3
Moses, Michael Valdez, 242 n. 68
“Movement, The,” 218 n. 22
Munro, Alice, 141, 216 n. 83
Murdoch, Iris, 4, 5–6, 10–11, 218 n. 22
myth and fiction, 32–3

Nabokov, Vladimir, 123
Naipaul, V. S., 26–7, 28, 106
Narayan, R. K., 25
“narrative unreliability,” 178–80,
248 n. 14, 249 n. 45
Nationality Act (Great Britain, 1981), 30
nature: travestied in The Handmaid’s
Tale, 149
Nazism, 10–11, 54, 56, 67, 165, 239 n. 27
new, the: Pound and, 2; theory of the
novel, 31–2
New Yorker, The, 87, 89
New Zealand, 20–1
Newman, John Henry, 233 n. 54
Nichols, Ashton, 82
Niemeyer, Carl, 224 n. 45
Nietzsche, Friedrich: and God, 3
Nigeria, 16, 23–4, 73–5, 80, 82,
230–1 n. 65; see also Achebe, Chinua;
Igbo; Things Fall Apart

Nobel Prize for Literature, 23, 24, 26,
55, 58, 74, 121, 227 n. 21

nostalgia, 157, 170, 174, 182, 194,

nouveau roman, 6

novel, general theory of the, 31–4, 76;
see also postmodernist novel, theory
of the

nuclear war, 59, 65

Oates, Joyce Carol, 108, 109

O’Brien, Edna, 18, 216 n. 82

O’Hagan, Andrew: Our Fathers, 19–20

Okri, Ben, 23–4, 28

Ondaatje, Michael, 20, 26

open-endedness (theory of the novel),

oral culture: Africa, 75, 76

Orwell, George, 2, 3–4, 10, 33, 36, 249

n. 39; Animal Farm, 14, 58, 139;
Nineteen Eighty-Four, 14, 58, 127–8,
129, 138–40, 142–3, 152
Osborne, John: Look Back in Anger, 35,
Other, the, 122, 123, 125, 134;
dehumanized, 11, 12, 84, 127;
domination over, 82, 113, 135–6,
242 n. 68; evil by definition, 66,
241 n. 50; point of view, 73, 112,
243 n. 75; self in relation to, 121,
134–7, 236 n. 43; victimized, 12, 61,
63–4; visualizing of, 86

Page, Norman, 88, 232 n. 33, 233 n. 54

Pakistan, 15, 26

paradise, spoiling of, 58, 59

paranoia, 110–11, 118–19, 180, 188,
237 n. 48

Parry, Benita, 236 n. 43

Patey, Caroline, 165

patriarchy, 112, 113, 115–18, 142,
143–4, 156, 181, 236 n. 42

Paul, Leslie, 39



pederasty, 186

perspective: and truth, 211

Phelan, James, 240 n. 34

Phelps, Gilbert, 40, 86

Phillips, Caryl, 14, 27, 28–9, 30, 125

pigs: motif, 184, 189–90, 191–3

Pinter, Harold, 141

Poetry Review, 89

Poetry Society (Great Britain), 89

“point of view, politics of,” 73, 82,

politics, failure of, 71

Poole, Adrian, 205

population control, 244 n. 17

postcolonialism, 236 n. 43; definition,
16–17; postcolonial English-language
novel, 17–27, 28

postmodernism: Coetzee and, 123;
The Handmaid’s Tale, 246 n. 50;
Last Orders, 210–11; theory, 7–9;
Wide Sargasso Sea, 235 n. 30

postmodernist novel, theory of the,

Potts, Donna, 179, 182, 192

Pound, Ezra, 2, 9, 120

power, 70, 126, 168; illusion of, 148

powerlessness, individual, 67–8, 69–70

Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The (Spark),
13, 19, 87–104; characterization,
91–104; plot, 90–1, 94–104 passim;
title, 104

“professionalism”: motif in The Remains
of the Day, 161, 164, 167–9, 171,

psychology (discipline), 4, 158

Puritans, 139

Pynchon, Thomas: Gravity’s Rainbow,

Rabinowitz, Rubin, 39

rape, 129–30, 139, 145, 147; trope, 64,
242 n. 70

Raschke, Debrah, 153

Ray, Philip E., 232 n. 33

realities, competing: as opposed to
“Reality,” 3, 7

religion: Igbo, 230 n. 59; Marx and, 3;
see also Calvinism; Catholic Church;
Christianity; Puritans

Remains of the Day, The (Ishiguro), 11,
13, 15, 157–74, 179, 199; England in,
30–1, 157, 172, 174, 254 n. 19; film
version, 159; plot, 161–2, 163–73, 184

representation, “crisis” of, 7

repression, 160–6, 168, 172–4, 184,
220 n. 61, 248 n. 25–6, 251 n. 20

rhetoric, 243 n. 8

Rhys, Jean, 26, 27, 105, 142; biography,
106–8; Wide Sargasso Sea, 11, 22–3,
26, 105–20, 148

Rich, Adrienne, 105

Richardson, Samuel, 31

Richler, Mordecai, 20

Rider Haggard, H.: Allan Quatermain,

Robbe-Grillet, Alain, 6, 124

Rody, Caroline, 106, 235 n. 30, 236 n. 31

Romanticism, 118

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, 162

Roy, Arundhati, 26

Rushdie, Salman, 5, 25, 26, 158, 162,
196; Midnight’s Children, 9, 22, 25;
and national identity, 28, 30; on the
novel, 15, 33; postcolonialism, 16, 21;
The Satanic Verses, 25

sadism, 70

Sargasso Sea, 119–20

Sarraute, Nathalie, 6

Sartre, Jean-Paul, 66, 122

satire: Amis (K.) on, 45, 221 n. 73;
Lucky Jim, 45, 50

Scaggs, John, 178

scapegoats, 130, 142, 147–8, 225 n. 59

schadenfreude, 190

Schepsi, Fred, 197

Schlondorff, Volker, 141

Schneidau, Herbert, 212 n. 3



Scotland, 16, 19–20; see also Spark,

Scott, J. D., 218 n. 22

self, 134–7, 236 n. 43

self-deception, 170; see also repression

Selvon, Sam, 28

servant and master: Ishiguro’s treatment
of, 162

Seth, Vikram, 26

Shaffer, Brian W.: Understanding Kazuo
Ishiguro, viii

Shakespeare, William: Macbeth, 148,
241 n. 56; Othello, 119, 237 n. 48

Shaw, George Bernard, 2, 219 n. 28

Shelley, Mary, 89

Sidhwa, Bapsi, 26

Sillitoe, Alan: Saturday Night and
Sunday Morning, 38

sin: Lord of the Flies and, 55

Singh, Minnie, 59–60, 70

slavery, 108, 109

Smead, James, 85

Smith, Ali: Hotel World, 20

Smith, James M., 184, 185

Smith, Zadie, 29, 190; White Teeth, 29

Snow, C. P., 5, 219 n. 36

social engineering: in The Handmaid’s
Tale, 138, 142

Somalia, 20, 24

South Africa, 16, 24–5, 122–6, 137;
see also Coetzee, J. M.; Waiting for
the Barbarians

Soyinka, Wole, 23, 227 n. 21

Spark, Muriel, 4, 20, 87, 233 n. 54,
234 n. 63; biography, 87, 88–9;
language, 89–90; on the novel, 89–90;
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 13, 19,

Spark, Sydney Oswald, 89

Spectator, 38, 218 n. 21; Amis (K.)
writing in, 5–6, 36, 41; Golding
writing in, 57; Scott (J. D.) writing in,
218 n. 22

Spivak, Gayatri, 236 n. 43

spying: collective victimhood in, 147

Sri Lanka, 15–16, 26

Staels, Hilde, 247 n. 57

Staley, Thomas F., 109, 234 n. 7,
236 n. 32

Stanford, Derek, 87, 89

Statute of Westminster (Great Britain,
1931), 16, 20

Stead, Christina, 20

Stein, Gertrude, 107

Stein, Karen, 141, 244 n. 17

Steinbeck, John, 234 n. 63

Steiner, George, 11

Stevenson, Randall, 56

Stevenson, Robert Louis, 19, 232 n. 33;
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 94; Treasure
Island, 59

Strawson, Galen, 248 n. 25

stream of consciousness, 4

subjectivity, 112, 210, 236 n. 43

Suez crisis (1956), 14, 15, 174

Sufism, 142, 244 n. 17

Swift, Graham, 5, 9, 142; biography,
196; on fiction, 195; film versions,
197; Last Orders, 195–211; other
works, 196–7; Waterland, 7, 11,
196–7, 199

Swift, Jonathan, 142, 175, 191–2,
244 n. 17

Tanzania, 24

Teekell, Anna, 250 n. 7, 252 n. 29

Teeuwen, Ruud, 143

Tennant, Emma, 15

Things Fall Apart (Achebe), 21–2,
72–86; characterization, 78–80;
historical context, 73–4; misogyny
portrayed, 229 n. 37; plot, 76–80;
postcolonial perspective projected,
85; title, 86

Thiong’o, Ngugi wa, 24

Thomas, Dylan, 40, 218 n. 22

Tiffin, Helen, 16–17, 130

Time magazine, 55



Tiresias, 64

Tóibín, Colm, 19

torture: in The Handmaid’s Tale,
245 n. 32; in Waiting for the
Barbarians, 126–7, 128, 131, 132–3,
135–6, 239 n. 30, n. 32, 241 n. 56

trade, colonial, 83

Transatlantic Review, 107

Trevor, William, 18, 19

Twain, Mark: Huckleberry Finn, 175,

Uganda, 16

unconscious, the, 4, 160, 164

university system, British, 40; satirized
in Lucky Jim, 42–53

unspoken, the, 158, 160

Vassanji, M. G., 24

Victoria, Queen, 82, 251–2 n. 28,
253 n. 67

Vietnam War, 123–4

Wain, John, 38; antimodernism, 5, 6,
40; on Golding, 223 n. 14; Hurry
On Down, 38; on “The Movement,”
218 n. 22

Waiting for the Barbarians (Coetzee), 11,
12, 24, 121–37; The Handmaid’s Tale
and, 245 n. 32; narrative technique,
240 n. 34; plot, 126–7

Wales, 16, 20

Wall, Kathleen, 248 n. 14, n. 35,
248–9 n. 36

Warner, Alan, 19

Waugh, Evelyn, 35, 41

Welfare State, 36, 38, 39, 218 n. 18

Welsh, Irvine, 19

West Indies, see Caribbean

White, Patrick, 20

Widdowson, Peter, 197

Wide Sargasso Sea (Rhys), 11, 22–3, 26,
105–20, 148; characterization, 115,
116, 118–20; film version, 108; plot
110–12; title, 119–20, 235 n. 12

Wilde, Oscar, 249 n. 39

Williams, Raymond, 16, 80

Wilson, Angus, 4, 5–6

“Windrush generation,” 28

Wodehouse, P. G., 41

Wong, Cynthia F., 167

Wood, W. J. B., 130

Woodward, Kathleen, 58, 60

Woolf, Leonard, 121

Woolf, Virginia, 2, 4, 6, 9, 41, 113,
234 n. 8; Mrs Dalloway, 3, 196,

Wordsworth, William, 39

World War II, 10, 39, 54–5, 55–6, 197

Wren, Robert M., 230 n. 65

Wyndham, Francis, 109

Yeats, William Butler, 2, 4; “The Second
Coming,” 3, 86; The Tower, 252 n. 29