(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Major Arthur Pendennis, a retired army officer, impeccably dressed, dignified, yet affable, sits in his London club looking over his mail and considering which of several invitations will be most advantageous to accept. He leaves until last a letter from his sister-in-law, which begs him to come to Fairoaks because her son Arthur, who is known to the family as Pen, is infatuated with an actress twelve years older than himself and insists on marrying the woman. Helen Pendennis implores the major, who is young Pen’s guardian, to use his influence with the sixteen-year-old boy.

Although of an old family, Pen’s father, John Pendennis, was forced to earn his living as an apothecary and surgeon. He prospered financially, and at the age of forty-three he married Helen Thistlewood, a distant relative of one of his aristocratic patrons. His life’s aim was to be a gentleman, and by fortunate transactions he was able to buy the small estate of Fairoaks. He acquired family portraits and was henceforth known as Squire Pendennis. He referred proudly to his brother the major, who associated with well-known aristocrats. John died while his son was still a schoolboy. After that melancholy event, Pen took first place in the family, and his mother was solicitous about his welfare and happiness. She already planned that he should marry Laura Bell, his adopted sister and the orphan of the Reverend Francis Bell, whom she herself had loved years before.

Helen is horrified at Pen’s infatuation with an actress, but Pen, blind with youthful romance, sees Emily Costigan as the ideal of all womanhood. Although she is beautiful and her reputation is unquestioned, she is crude and unintelligent. Pen is introduced to her father, Captain Costigan, by Henry Foker, a dashing, wealthy young schoolmate. The captain is a shabby, rakish Irishman who is constantly finding his daughter’s income insufficient for the drinks he requires. He assumes that Pen is a wealthy young aristocrat and urges Emily to accept his proposal of marriage. Emily regards Pen as a child, but at the same time she is flattered by the serious attentions of a landed young gentleman.

By the time the major arrives at Fairoaks, Pen has almost won his indulgent mother’s consent. The major handles the situation adroitly. Using many references to his aristocratic friends, he hints that Pen, too, can be received in their homes if only he makes a brilliant marriage. Then he calls on Captain Costigan and informs him that Pen is dependent on his mother and that his prospects are only five hundred pounds a year. The captain weeps over the deceitfulness of man and gives up Pen’s letters and verses in return for a small loan. Emily writes Pen a short note that Pen thinks will drive him to distraction, but it does not. Meanwhile, the major arranges through his aristocratic and influential friends to give Emily an opportunity to play an engagement in London. Suffering over his broken love affair, Pen is so restless and moody it seems wise for him to join his friend, Henry, and attend the University of Oxbridge.

Pen enters the university posing as a moneyed aristocrat. By herself practicing rigid economies, his mother gives him an adequate allowance, and her son enters enthusiastically into all sorts of activities. His refined and diversified tastes lead him into expenditures far beyond his means. As a result, he ends his third year deeply in debt. He is made still more miserable when he fails an important examination. Overcome by remorse at his reckless spending and his thoughtlessness, he goes to London. There Major Pendennis treats his nephew with cold disapproval and ignores him. His mother, however, welcomes him home with affection and forgiveness. Laura offers a solution by suggesting that the money left her by her father be turned over to Pen to clear his debts. Laura also induces him to return to the university. When...

(The entire section is 1594 words.)