Though frequently categorized as one of the “Angry Young Men” of the 1950’s, John Wain claims that his work is not decidedly bitter. Still, his reputation as a debunker of rigid English society and an apologist for the alienated young man has persisted. While Wain’s short stories are disciplined and energetic, he is at times an acerbic social critic and frequently writes with a strong moral cast. Typically, Wain’s stories concern the internal conflict of a first-person narrator. The narrator usually is not very perceptive, whether for lack of intelligence or maturity. A frequent effect of Wain’s stories is that a conflict is well developed, human narrowness is scourged with satire, and a thematic irony is made unmistakably clear. His early stories reflected his “angry” mood of the 1950’s but also show concern for a wide range of topics.
“Master Richard” and “A Message from the Pig-Man”
Two stories from Wain’s first collection Nuncle, and Other Stories provide insight into his early short fiction. Both “Master Richard” and “A Message from the Pig-Man” are dominated by the perceptions of their child-protagonists. Richard, a five-year-old prodigy, is the narrator of his story. It develops by means of the diary convention, with Richard recording his observations secretly in a notebook. The boy gauges his maturity of mind at roughly thirty-five because the conversation of adults is easily comprehensible. Such a voice puts considerable strain on the narrative credibility of the story.
Richard reads, writes, and types with the facility of an adult. Wain makes a few concessions to the age of his narrator: He faces pain and cries like any other child and throws china cups to get attention. At the other extreme, the boy has a sense of perspective that belies that of the most precocious child. He carries out a long conditioning process to prepare his parents gradually for the realization that he has learned to read on his own. The very notion of patience over a long period of time is alien to the mind of even a very bright child. Further, Richard makes jokes and uses a vocabulary of slang that cannot be accounted for, since these abilities come almost entirely from experience. The greatest breach of credibility occurs when Richard speaks of the absurd and of insanity, constructs that only time and experience—not precocity—can bring to the consciousness. The problem is that no clear frame of reference is established for the reader. The narrator’s situation, environment, and comments are based on the presumption of conventional reality as the norm of the story; Richard’s unique perception, however, forces the reader to view the story as somewhat surrealistic. The narrative exhibits both realism and surrealism but is committed consistently to neither, and the ambivalence is disconcerting.
Richard’s crisis comes with the birth of a younger brother, whom he hates jealously. As a result of his contempt for his own cruelty to his brother and for his parents, who cannot understand him, he coolly decides to commit suicide. This conclusion, which has not been prepared for in the development of the story, is more convenient than satisfying.
Unlike “Master Richard,” “A Message from the Pig-Man” is thoroughly believable. Eric, the viewpoint character, is also five years old, but the narrative is third-person, giving Wain more room to maneuver in disclosing the story. The thematic function of the boy’s sensibility in the story is to comment on the need to confront fear. Eric finally faces the Pig-man, whom he assumes to be a grotesque creature rather than an old man simply collecting scraps for his pigs. He goes out with some scraps at his mother’s insistence and tells himself, “It was the same as getting into icy cold water. If it was the end, if the Pig-man seized him by the hand and dragged him off to his hut,...
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