The Horse's Mouth Essay - Critical Essays

Joyce Cary

Critical Evaluation

The painter Gulley Jimson, the protagonist of Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, is a man nearing seventy who, despite physical infirmities and nearly total poverty, remains undiminished in his maverick resistance to all social systems, which he regards as lethal to the development of an individual’s imaginative freedom. Cary describes Gulley in a preface as “an original artist . . . always going over the top into No Man’s Land.” Gulley is an aging iconoclast whose intelligence, education, and incisive understanding of human behavior did not prevent him from living beyond the pale of respectable society amid a loose grouping of bohemians, eccentric thinkers, and working-class individualists. Gulley’s choice to reject the rewards available to a man of his talent who accepts the standards of the academy is strongly supported by Cary’s depiction of the artistic establishment as a clique of snobs and poseurs. Gulley’s choice is ultimately inevitable as a result of his complete commitment to an artistic vision of existence. As he puts it, he did not plan to start being an artist: “It starts on you. Why I had a real job once, a job of work. But art got me and look at me now.”

From the moment he sees a painting by Edouard Manet, the French Impressionist master, which “gave me the shock of my life,” Gulley subordinates every claim on his attention that is not art. With something like religious zeal, he tries to capture the wonder of the universe with brush and pigment. For him, the moment when he confronts a clean surface and makes his first stroke is like “a miracle,” an instant of exultation surpassing any other sensual or intellectual act, transforming an object or space “into a spiritual fact, an eternal beauty,” which momentarily makes the artist feel “I am God.” Gulley understands this attraction and has ordered his life accordingly.

He “marries” several times, suffers many financial tribulations, loses friends and family, spends time in jail and in the hospital, is insulted by collectors and critics (whom he calls “crickets” and discusses in intricate analogies involving the game of cricket) and is worse off in his seventh decade than at any other point in his life. He is also as happy as he has ever been, still excited by the images of light and color he sees in the infinitely varied...

(The entire section is 963 words.)