Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

When Kenneth Marsh’s lifeboat ends up on the rocks, the metaphor applies not only to the preacher who could not control his emotions enough either to resist temptation or to think out a rescue plan but also to all the characters in the novel who find themselves on the rocks because they lack the wisdom and the practicality of Margaret Marsh.

If one does not understand one’s own motivations and those of others, one will be at the mercy of chance. Thinking back on her own relationship with Charles, Elinor recalls a few patronizing words from his mother which caused her to go to Cambridge for a visit, an impulse which drew her toward Kenneth, like her an outsider in that rarefied society, and another impulse which caused her to accept Charles’s proposal, “looking astonished at herself.” For Charles, marriage to Elinor had seemed the easiest way to escape his mother, but like Elinor, Charles was drifting, ignorant of his own weakness, ignorant even of the fact that he did not really love Elinor.

The weakness which is evident in most of the adult characters in God on the Rocks, then, derives from a lack of discipline. They may have studied the Bible, like Kenneth, or mastered the subtleties of language, like Charles, but they have not observed themselves and others in order to become wise, and they do not think before they act. Clearly, their weakness is not a mere fact of human nature, for Margaret sees and reasons, and Margaret survives, emotionally, intellectually, and physically. Although the fecklessness of her characters accounts for much of their charm, although their impulsiveness results in delightful comic scenes, it is clear that Gardam’s sensible and wise young Margaret is the standard by which other human beings should be measured.