Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Lanark is primarily a philosophical novel, one in which the author calls on the combined resources of modern, medieval, and classical literary traditions in an attempt to express his convictions about the forces governing contemporary civilization. His particular subject is the destructive struggle for power that crushes the creative spirit of humankind, forcing human energy in upon itself and destroying the ability of the individual to save himself and others through the active exercise of love.

The figure who appears to Lanark in one of the final chapters of the novel and identifies himself to his hero as the author (who is also the king and creator of Unthank and Provan, a being once, but no longer, a part of God) describes the Institute as an embodiment of the Hobbesian state, a Leviathan into whose maw pour the resources of humanity, consuming the many to benefit the few until the food supply is exhausted and the creature has no choice but to consume itself. Thaw’s miseries and his final outbreak of murderous violence are precisely analogous to the progressive repression of the individual by the state and to the Armageddon that comes as a relief to a civilization suffocating from its own stenches and poisoned, as Unthank is, by its own waste. Real human relationships of all kinds provide the only possible relief from the pain of existence, but these are unpredictable and difficult; social needs and economic pressures are all too likely to...

(The entire section is 471 words.)