Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Joy of the Worm is a loose compendium of ideas on life, death, relationships, and erudition. This is a reflection of James’s eclecticism to a large extent. One notion, however, predominates: that of the conflict between the world of intellect and the world of events and emotions.

James and Jeremy are convinced that their reading and learned conversations will place them in a realm above ordinary people. In believing this, however, they often fail to see how dependent they are on others to care for them. Only Jeremy has a brief insight into this when he says to Maisie, as if it will redeem him, “I am a scoundrel, but I am a scholar.” For all of their lofty talk, he and his father become essentially irreligious and inhumane.

When the fleshly world threatens, both James and Jeremy rationalize their way clear of it: “In case [Jeremy] might at any moment lose control, find himself too much up against the crude facts not to be in his heart ’all mad with misery,’ he employed the stratagem of deliberately toying in his mind with these crudities until he had made the decision that the two limits of their range were the ghastly and the tedious: everything else could be tolerated. Like his father he tended to be an in-between kind of man....” Both men are lusty and enjoy the material world, but they are also fearful of it and want to limit its consequences. To this end they distort their perceptions of it.

Like children, James and Jeremy are lovers of romances. They liken themselves to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Jeremy discovers the fallacy in this:It was like Don Quixote and Sancho finding themselves confronted with the dead mule in the Daumier picture: there was the horrid appearing gap of blank paper that separated romance from necessary fact but there would always be those who would refuse to accept the gap as such, insisting that it was there waiting to be filled with a proper and satisfying blend of imagination and necessity.

James and Jeremy fill the gaps with chatter. They satiate what Jeremy calls “the crude appetite for life,” his euphemism for sex, but hide from the “crude facts,” his euphemism for responsibilities, in the library. Sargeson is not anti-intellectual; rather he argues for an intellect that is vital, courageous, compassionate, and adult.