Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Afternoon Men is an “anatomy,” a discursive literary form characterized by its intellectual apprehension of its subject matter. No attempt is made here by Powell to create realistic characters or to present realistic human situations. Instead, what the author tries to do is to lay bare a life-style. The themes of the novel are embodied in its very style, for what it is “about” is a laconic search for identity, a jaded attitude toward sexuality, and a general sense of boredom. It is marked by a sense of pessimism and aimlessness that dominates an entire social group.

Although one senses an underlying need by the characters to escape from the vicious circle of this hermetically closed world, none of them, that is, with the exception of the almost mythical Undershaft, who has gone to America, and the opportunistic Susan, who finally runs off with the wealthy Jew Verelst, seems to have the energy to make the break. For whatever reason, these people have ignored whatever possibilities they might have had to lead fulfilling lives and have, by indifference rather than choice, allowed themselves to drift aimlessly with the social current.

The one emphatic action in the novel, Pringle’s attempted suicide, is made absurd by the fact that it is accompanied by a lackluster sexual encounter between his mistress and his best friend and because it is followed by the ridiculous return of Pringle with the fishermen who pulled him out of the water. His guests seem less concerned with his welfare than they are with how much they should tip the fishermen.

Throughout this trivia of lives lived in a meaningless and empty way, Powell refuses to judge or to comment directly. Instead, his point of view is distanced, bland, even genial, in its tolerance of the characters. Powell expresses neither moral outrage nor a sense of authorial superiority. Although the work is a satire, for Powell does not align himself with his characters, it is a lightly comic satire, not a bitter, biting one. It is perhaps because the style of the writing is so unified with the laconic and bored life-style of the characters that the work has often been underestimated as being itself boring and aimless.