Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Banville’s decision to present Copernicus as an artist and loner has an obvious romanticism about it which offers clues as to the novel’s more general preoccupations and claims. One of the implications of this approach is to make Copernicus a prototype of alienated modern man. At first glance, such an implication would seem to lend the novel an aura of anachronism. The elision of historical time which anachronism in this sense achieves is, however, central to Banville’s purpose.

That purpose is suggested by the novel’s epigraph, a quotation from the Wallace Stevens poem Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942). Banville is aware, needless to say, that despite the extensive research which he carried out in order to write Doctor Copernicus (reported in the novel’s note of acknowledgment), it was necessary to invent certain incidents and atmospheres in order to preserve his work’s integrity—in order, that is, “to save the phenomenon.” Implicit in Banville’s patently obvious awareness, however, is his sense that Copernicus was possessed of a similar awareness. That is, in order for his theory of planetary motion to hold good, the pretense, the fiction, the lie of its inherent plausibility must be maintained.

The reason this fiction is necessary, and the basis for its significance, is that it introduces an element of imperfection to the work in hand: It preserves the work as a product of the human. If such an imperfection were not present, Copernicus’ theory would possess a completeness and finality beyond the scope of the human and therefore, in its relevance to the human world, would be unreal, mysterious, and inapplicable.

By virtue of his fidelity to his vision of the...

(The entire section is 706 words.)