The Clayhanger Trilogy Essay - Critical Essays

Arnold Bennett

Critical Evaluation

Arnold Bennett completed Clayhanger, the first novel of the trilogy concerning the life apprenticeship of Edwin Clayhanger, on June 23, 1910, two years after the publication of The Old Wives’ Tale. At the height of his creative powers and his critical reputation, Bennett ventured to write his most nearly autobiographical novel in a format popular with Edwardian readers. Compared to George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man (1888), Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (1903), E. M. Forster’s The Longest Journey (1907), and H. G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay (1908), Clayhanger is a fairly typical bildungsroman, or “education novel.” The representative hero of this genre is an inexperienced, often confused, but generally likable young man who, after learning from a series of valuable adventures, develops a better understanding about himself and about life. Typically, the hero comes to terms with his weaknesses and strengths, discovers a proper vocation for his talents, and begins to understand the meaning and limitations of romantic love.

Unlike the typical Erziehungsroman hero, whose education is completed at the end of the book, Edwin undergoes an extended apprenticeship from youth to middle age, testing the dreams and values of his young manhood against the often harsher realities of life itself. Indeed, in the novels that follow ClayhangerHilda Lessways and These Twain—Bennett alters some of the conventions familiar to the genre. With a relentlessly deterministic philosophy, he pursues the romantic follies of Edwin and teaches him, at the last, a bitter lesson about his restricted place in the world.

It was a lesson Bennett well understood, for his own early life resembled that of his protagonist. His father, Enoch Bennett, the Darius Clayhanger of the novel, was a Victorian tyrant who demanded absolute respect from his dreamy son, though he usually failed to get it. One theme of the novel that also appears in later twentieth century fiction is that of the quest of a son for his spiritual father. Edwin hates Darius and longs for the old man’s death. However, he saves his father from financial ruin when, with astonishing presence of mind, he secures a cable to hoist a collapsing printing press; when Darius dies of natural causes (a scene as harrowing as any deathbed drama in literature), the son is...

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