A. J. Cronin Essay - Critical Essays


Everything that A. J. Cronin wrote was stamped by his personality, his sincerity, his direct concern with ethical issues, his seemingly instinctive knowledge of ordinary people, and his tremendous gift for storytelling. An examination of five of his most popular novels—Hatter’s Castle, The Stars Look Down, The Citadel, The Keys of the Kingdom, and The Green Years—reveals a consistent commitment to the value of the individual—the personal—and a remarkable development innarrative technique.

Hatter’s Castle

Hatter’s Castle was in many ways a happy accident, securing for its author laudatory reviews and substantial earnings and establishing him as a writer of great promise. In its hero, readers found an outstanding personality: a hatter in Levenford, in strongly characterized surroundings, who lived through a destiny of suffering and tragedy. Readers were also treated to a return to the English novel in the grand tradition. Its themes of the rejected family, the struggle against poverty, the desire for wealth, the illusion of limitless opportunity, and the conflict between personal desire and conventional restraint were recurring ones throughout Cronin’s fiction.

To develop the plot of Hatter’s Castle, Cronin used the familiar Victorianconventions available to all aspiring writers of the time: a straightforward linear chronology unfolded through the agency of the omniscient third-person narrator, with an emphasis on melodrama and horror. Added to these conventions is one of the most familiar themes of Greek tragedy, the retribution that attends overweening pride. James Brodie is a man whose inordinate self-love and unusually strong physique have made him the most feared person in town as well as the tyrant of a trembling household. He has deluded himself into believing that his hat shop is a thriving business, that his house is a romantic castle, and that he himself is related to the aristocracy. The novel proceeds almost consecutively from its beginning, with the hero at the “peak” of his power, to his decline into futility, frustration, and finally, alienation.

Woven through the book are patterns of developing images and symbols that serve important structural functions: They relate and unify the individual lives presented in the book; they support and embody its themes; and they are the means by which the texture of an event or feeling is conveyed. One cluster of these images grows out of the title, which refers, of course, literally to the house, and also to James Brodie himself and his career. The “castle,” at once a physical structure and symbol of the Brodie family, is pictured early in the novel in terms that both symbolize the owner’s pride and prophesy the dreadful environment and outcome of the story. It is a place of gloom and solitude, “more fitted for a prison than a home,” “veiled, forbidding, sinister; its purpose likewise ’hidden and obscure.’” The pompous dignity of the gables greets the visitor with “cold severity.” The parapet embraces the body of the house like a “manacle.” Its windows are “secret, close-set eyes [which] grudgingly admitted light.” Its doorway is “a thin repellent mouth.” This description not only provides a haunting counterpoint to the action of Hatter’s Castle but also establishes the essential character of Brodie well before he appears, before he is even named.

The members of the Brodie family share with the house a condition of imminent collapse. Typical of so many novelists, Cronin’s device—here and elsewhere—is to put his minor characters in dire straits at the outset of the action so that they can be tested against the hardships life has to offer. This strategy he accomplishes by introducing the family members as they wait for Brodie, moving from grandmother to elder daughter, from younger daughter to mother, and each picture is presented as a miniature scene in a continuous drama of frustration. All along, the reader notes a strange absence of the usual signs of domesticity in a large country household.

The driving force of the book, however, is the portrayal of the successive disasters that Brodie brings upon himself and his family. Margaret, his feeble, downtrodden wife, is reduced to abjection and dies horribly of cancer. Mary, his elder daughter, is a lovely, gentle girl not quite able to cope with her father. She becomes pregnant, is thrown out of the house into a raging storm, and eventually marries the young doctor whom Brodie hates. Nessie, the younger daughter, is driven to insanity and suicide by Brodie’s morbid determination that she shall win a scholarship and go to college. Matthew, Brodie’s weakling son, robs his mother, lies to both of his parents, and runs off with his father’s mistress. By the end of the novel, therefore, any manifestations of Brodie’s supposed supremacy have vanished. Not only has he lost his family, but he has lost his business and has become a drunkard. He is left shattered, with no companion but his tragic, greedy old mother, and with no hope but death.

Although Hatter’s Castle is in many ways a conventional novel, there are ideas, themes, and techniques in it that reappear in Cronin’s later, more mature work. The characters are typical of Cronin: paradoxical mixtures of good and bad, weak and strong. Possessiveness, to the point of the pathological, is used as a catalyst to introduce a conflict and action, and, as in his later novels, it is always expressly condemned. The unrequited love theme that appears so often in Cronin’s writing is present in the form of Mary’s plight. Also, the central idea of rebellion against social pressures anticipates the kinds of revolt that motivate so many Cronin characters, including artists, seekers, and criminals.

Perhaps a legitimate criticism of the plot is that the sheer number of misfortunes suffered by Brodie and his family seems excessive and implausible. Possibly, but it seems to be a part of Cronin’s philosophy that troubles never come singly, and, certainly, all of Brodie’s misfortunes can be convincingly traced to his character and actions. “Character is Fate,” quotes Thomas Hardy in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), and his nemesis works unerringly through Brodie’s own glaring defects. Imaginative belief in Brodie compels belief in what happens to him. As one critic observed, “The plot may creak, but Brodie lives.”

The Stars Look Down

Cronin’s fourth novel, The Stars Look Down, surpasses its predecessors by many standards. It develops in greater depth his major preoccupations—a concern with the chaos of life, its bitterness and desolation—but keeps under restraint the tendency toward melodrama without weakening the force of his instinct for drama. Characters reflect the special types to which Cronin is attracted, but the theme of the futility of the British working class against the greed and selfishness of the moneyed overlords receives fuller treatment here.

With action ranging over much of England, the novel takes place in the period from 1903 to 1933. The story’s center is the Neptune coal mine in Ryneside County. The plot moves back and forth between two families, the Fenwicks and Barrases, adding constantly to their widening circle of acquaintances. Working primarily (although not exclusively) within the minds of his characters, Cronin maintains a tightly unified texture as he changes focus from one character to another. The six main characters are rather schematically drawn: One character is paired off with another, usually to show contrasting versions of a general type. The six major characters fall into three pairs: David Fenwick and Joe Gowlan; Laura Millington and Jenny Sunley; and Arthur Barras and his father, Richard. David, Laura, and Arthur are the generally praiseworthy characters in the novel, the ones who gain the greatest share of the reader’s sympathy. The “evil” ones, or those who obstruct the good characters, are Joe, Jenny, and Richard. The good are characterized by genuineness, sincerity, and a general lack of pretense; the bad, on the other hand, continually disguise their motives and present a false appearance.

If the six main characters have obvious symbolic import, so has the title of the novel. Subject to their own laws and compulsions, heeding little outside them, the stars look down on a scene of chaos and social revolution and go on looking, unperturbed. “’Did you ever look at the stars?’” asks the fat man in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Merry Men” (1887).“’When a great battle has been lost or a dear friend is dead, when we are hipped or in high spirits, there they are, unweariedly shining overhead.’ ’I see,’ answered Will. ’We are in a mousetrap.’” This is the idea Cronin suggests in the title and acts out through his characters, intending to convey something of the aloofness of eternity compared to the chaos of the earth below.

Cronin conveys the atmosphere of a typical mining community by piling up factual detail on factual detail in an attempt to re-create the very look, texture, and smell of the life of the miner. Frequently, he uses the slangy, ungrammatical language of these people even in descriptive or explanatory passages when the omniscient narrator is speaking. A work on a subject as technical as coal mining is bound to have a somewhat specialized vocabulary, and a reader without firsthand knowledge of life in the pits must search for the meanings of such words as “collier,” “hewer,” “getter,” “breaker,” “pickman,” and “pikeman.” To come to grips with the actualities of life in the mine, Cronin describes scenes such as the gaunt, unfriendly landscape, perpetually shrouded in grit; the silent and laconic manner of the miners; and the pervasive atmosphere of grim suffering and endurance. The town’s very name—“Sleesdale,” suggesting “sleazy”—is emblematic. This, then, is the backdrop to the human drama Cronin reconstructs—a drama about defeat and disappointment, about how people are victims of the greed and selfishness of others in power.

The Citadel

Set partly in the same atmosphere as The Stars Look Down—the dusky, dirty towns of the English coal-mining region—Cronin’s fifth novel, The Citadel, is the savage and fiercely idealistic story of a young physician’s struggle to achieve success in life. For many readers, doctors particularly, the novel’s main interest lies in Cronin’s indictment of both the unethical practices of the medical profession and the system under which the miners lived and worked. For other readers, the interest lies in the unmistakable similarity between the hero’s personal philosophy and Cronin’s own opinions. There is the...

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