C. P. Snow Essay - Critical Essays


Characterization is the foundation of C. P. Snow’s fiction. While theme and idea, as one might expect from a writer as political and engagé as was Snow, are important to his work, and while plot is nearly always a major source of interest, character is fundamental. It was his special approach to characterization, at once limited and complex, that allowed him to employ theme and plot, as well as style and imagery, in its service and that made certain subject matter particularly appropriate. Consequently, his works have their own distinctive and satisfying unity.

In his study of Trollope, a writer whom he valued highly and with whom he identified in a number of ways, Snow speaks interestingly of characterization. He defines character as persona, distinguishes it from inherent, individual nature, and considers personality to be a fusion of nature and character. These distinctions are certainly relevant to Snow’s own work. His starting interest is in “characters,” that is, an individual’s personal qualities that are conditioned by, and expressed in, social experience. Yet, recognizing that this character interacts with “nature,” Snow, in attempting to represent a rounded picture of personality, must demonstrate the interaction. His fiction, then, is simultaneously concerned with showing people their character in social situations, indicating their nature or personal psychology, and presenting the interplay of the two, the social character and the private nature. All people have, in differing proportions, both a private and a social side to their personalities; all are both strangers and brothers.

Given this approach, it is not difficult to understand why Snow dealt frequently with “man in committee,” or why he balanced this social material with presentation of individual passions, such as Lewis Eliot’s for Sheila. Work and careers, seen in relation to individual nature and love and sex, were the two poles to which his subject matter flowed. As the social side of personality developed, Snow was able to suggest its changing formation. One observes, for example, Walter Luke’s evolution from a brash young scientist to Lord Luke of Salcombe; his persona, but not his basic nature, changes with the years. Because an individual’s nature is inherent (like his or her physiology), it is taken as a donnée, and its effects are dealt with. It is, for example, a given fact that Roy Calvert is a kind of “manic-depressive”; the reader discovers what the results of this nature will be, both for Calvert himself and for those with whom he interacts.

It was convenient for Snow that this approach to character was quite appropriate to the type of plotting that he apparently preferred. Most of his novels pose a question: “What will Martin decide?” “Who will be elected master?” “Will Roger Quaife succeed?” The reader, in attempting to anticipate the answer, and Snow, in providing and justifying it, must consider the personalities involved. This consideration requires some understanding of the characters’ public personae, their social interactions, and their private passions. Plot, a strong element in its own right, is based on character.

Imagery also consistently reinforces Snow’s binocular view of personality. The light of brotherhood wages a never-ending Manichaean conflict with the dark of private estrangement. Windows may be lit, inviting people to “come home” to social involvement, but they often walk the dark streets, locked out in their lonely individuality.

Much of Snow’s style also reflects his view of personality. E. A. Levenston, in a careful study of Snow’s sentence structure (ES, 1974), has noticed the prevalence of qualifying “interrupters.” Many of these are a result of Snow’s comparing the particular to the general, one person’s qualities to many people’s. Expressions such as “very few men, George least of all” or “Roy was not a snob, no man was less so,” run throughout his work.

Thus, Snow was consistent in his craft. If this consistency imposed some limitations on his achievements, it also provided a valuable unity to his whole literary corpus.

Death Under Sail

For reasons that he later described as “obscure,” Snow “signalled” that he intended to abandon his scientific career by writing “a stylised, artificial detective story very much in the manner of the day.” Death Under Sail is a competent example of this form; it remains quite readable and in some ways foreshadows his more significant work. Told in the first person (curiously, for a book by a twenty-six-year-old, the narrator is sixty-three), it employs light and dark and also water imagery; it includes a political discussion regarding class society being justified through the ranks of the elite being open to talent; and it is concerned with friendship and the generation gap. More important, the plot hinges on character. While the novel’s characterization is relatively superficial, it involves both social character, as seen in the interaction of a small group (the narrator, the detective, and the suspects), and the individual psychology of concealed motives. It is thus typical of Snow’s novels, most of which have the element of a suspense story based on the two sides, public and private, of personality.

New Lives for Old

Snow’s second published novel, New Lives for Old, is the weakest of hiscanon, but it is not without its virtues. The story involves the discovery of a rejuvenating process and the subsequent questions of whether the process will be suppressed, its effects on the love lives of some of the characters, and the political implications of the discovery. These three questions are not well unified; instead of integrating the love interest and the politics, in this one instance Snow treats them as essentially separate stories, at the expense of both. The love story in the middle section becomes tedious; in the last section of the book Snow, atypically, lets a political interest stifle the story. The first part of the book, however, is fairly successful. Here, the plot is related to character, social interactions, private motivations, and moral decisions. Snow is doing what he does best. The falling-off of the work after its relatively effective beginning, however, justifies his decision not to have it reprinted; it is now a difficult book to obtain.

The Search

Snow’s third published novel, The Search, was slightly revised and reprinted twenty-four years after its first appearance. It is generally superior to the first two novels and more easily related to the Strangers and Brothers series, especially Time of Hope and Homecoming. Although Snow warns the reader, in his preface to the 1958 edition, that the book’s narrator and protagonist, Arthur Miles, is “not much like” Snow himself, clearly there is an autobiographical element in the story of a poor boy’s using his talent, determination, and scholarships to make a career in science, later to abandon it to turn to writing. The book was praised for its accurate picture of what it is like to be a scientist; in fact, very little scientific activity per se is present. Rather, professional concerns, ambitions, the relation between love and career, and the decisions made by men in committees constitute the basic material of the book. The protagonist might just as easily be a barrister as a scientist. Indeed, The Search, while a worthwhile book in its own right, can be seen as a trying out of the material that Snow was to go on to develop in his series.

The defects of The Search result primarily from attempting to try out too much at once; the book’s construction becomes somewhat confused. The virtues arise from Snow’s basing his work on personal experience; he employed, more thoroughly than in his first two published novels, his skill in showing the interconnections of the personal and public aspects of personality.

The favorable reception given to The Search certainly encouraged Snow to continue his career as a novelist; within a year of its publication, he conceived of the series on which his reputation rests. He must have made various plans for the series as a whole; the first volume, however, did not appear until 1940, six years after The Search. Writing a roman-fleuve, as opposed to a series of individual novels, presents an author with certain problems and various opportunities. While Snow avoided some of the pitfalls, such asnarrative inconsistency, he failed to take advantage of some of the potentialities of the form. The overall pattern of this series is more blurred than it need have been. This is indicated by the order in which the books were published; it is not the essentially chronological order of the Omnibus edition, published after the series was concluded. While this authorial rearrangement must be accepted, the fact that Snow did not originally insist on it suggests a certain random quality to the series’ organization as first conceived of and executed. Furthermore, proposed systems of classification of the books within the series—as, for example, novels of “observed experience” and of “direct experience,” or novels dealing with individuals, groups, or a mixture of both—while useful, fail to make clear a compelling pattern.

Indeed, the individual volumes of the series, with the possible exception of the final Last Things, stand on their own and easily can be enjoyed separately. That is not to say that nothing is gained by reading them all in the order that they appear in the Omnibus edition. As compared, however, to a work such as Anthony Powell’s roman-fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975), Strangers and Brothers fails to develop the potential cumulative effect of a series.

The series form does allow the overlapping of incident and the “resonance” between events as seen and felt by the narrator, Lewis Eliot. Snow has an interesting concept here but he does too little with it. The reader does not, as in some of the novels of Joyce Cary, see the same events through different eyes; rather, one is given different accounts by a relatively consistent Eliot. The result is that events described for the second time sometimes bore the reader; at other times the reader feels cheated by the inadequacy of the first account. Only occasionally does the technique work well, as, for example, in the two accounts, in The Light and the Dark and The Masters, of Roy Calvert’s giving...

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