Critical Evaluation

The Radiant Way (1987), A Natural Curiosity (1989), and The Gates of Ivory form Margaret Drabble’s powerful trilogy surveying English life in the 1980’s. The two early novels center on the lives of three Englishwomen—Liz, Alix, and Esther—from their university days to late middle age, and reach out through families and acquaintances to all classes and facets of British society. The Gates of Ivory places the world of international violence—the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields of Cambodia—in the lap of its English characters.

Drabble is a moral novelist, concerned with the personal, social, and political choices people make and with the relationships among these realms. As general editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1985-), she has a strong sense of the traditions of English fiction as social commentary, which ranges from the writings of Jane Austen to those of Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, and John Galsworthy. The bulk of The Gates of Ivory comprises the richly detailed lives of the English, as families and generations interweave against the background of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain.

In addition, The Gates of Ivory weaves together layers of metafiction and other narrative techniques to address the tumult of the modern world. Stephen’s strange, unfocused pilgrimage into the Cambodian jungles is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899, serial; 1902, book), in which the protagonist’s inner evil is soon discovered. However, Stephen, who dies of a fever, is not an evil character but a confused one stumbling toward the violent evil of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in a vague attempt to understand and embrace such things in the world. Drabble frames Stephen’s pilgrimage against the daily lives of her London characters.

The novel has two important framing devices. The title, the first...

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