Critical Context

As one of Frank Sargeson’s later novels, Joy of the Worm shows the cumulative effects of many of his previous works. It exhibits Sargeson’s tendency toward picaresque and episodic plots in his longer works. As another in a series of perspectives on New Zealand life offered by way of offbeat or curious characters, it says something about human nature and proffers a powerful, if not altogether succinct, moral. The story continues Sargeson’s exploration of the Puritan mentality that guided the formative spirit of early colonial New Zealand and that has remained to superintend much of New Zealand’s contemporary life.

In these several respects, Joy of the Worm follows naturally the short stories, which garnered several literary awards, and novels such as I Saw in My Dream (1949), Memoirs of a Peon (1965), and The Hangover (1967). The elements present in Joy of the Worm are those same elements mentioned most frequently by observers as constituents of the “Sargeson world,” a world presumably similar to that of Charles Dickens in the author’s re-creation of his milieu with the irregular building blocks of perverse, eccentric, lonely, lost, intriguing people.

One critic has characterized Sargeson’s writing as “imaginative realism,” a phrase which accounts for the author’s unique approach to his culture and the dual nature of his characters as both representative and real. Sargeson has been placed alongside Katherine Mansfield as one of the giants of New Zealand literature. He has been called a “father figure to virtually all modern New Zealand fiction,” and critics have spoken of his “sheer dominance of his fictional scene.” His international reputation is limited, in part as a consequence of his single-minded determination to create a literature of New Zealand without looking over his shoulder toward larger audiences.