Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

When Plarr says to Fortnum, “Caring is the only dangerous thing,” he is obliquely announcing the major theme of The Honorary Consul. Like his spiritual predecessors, Fowler in The Quiet American (1955) and Querry in A Burnt-Out Case (1961), Plarr allows himself to become involved in spite of his declared policy of noncommitment. He is capable of intellectually rejecting love as “a claim which he wouldn’t meet, a responsibility he would refuse to accept, a demand.” Yet the ironies of the plot, as well as the development of his own character, push him toward a final and tragic action in which love is both the motivation for and the vehicle of self-knowledge.

With the examples of Fortnum and Rivas before him, Plarr comes to understand that in a politically promiscuous world the absence of faith is not only to be decried but also to be remedied by acts of love. That these acts may include kidnaping and political murder testifies to the complexity of the central dilemma which the novel explores.

Plarr has spent much of his life searching for a father whose compassionate heroism caused him to desert his family. Ironically, through his involvement with Clara and his subsequent concern for Fortnum and Rivas, Plarr finds himself fighting for the same cause for which his father died. Unwilling to let Fortnum and Rivas die, he chooses to act. In making his selfsacrifice, he demonstrates that caring is indeed a dangerous thing. Yet in a faithless world, it is also the only course open to the man of compassion.