Malcolm Bradbury Essay - Critical Essays


Appearing at roughly ten-year intervals, each of Malcolm Bradbury’s satirical campus novels can be considered a commentary on its decade. One of Bradbury’s concerns as a novelist and critic is the dialogue between realism and postmodernism, as he strives to conserve tradition while experimenting with postmodernist forms. This tension can be seen in each individual novel even while the trend of his forty years of fiction writing moves from the most realistic in Eating People Is Wrong to the most experimental in To the Hermitage.

Eating People Is Wrong

Written for the most part while Bradbury was still a student, Eating People Is Wrong is his first satirical campus novel. The protagonist, Professor Stuart Treece, is head of the English department at an unnamed provincial university in 1950’s England. Though he is still young, he finds his prewar, liberal, humanist values outdated in the modern postwar world. From a humble background and educated at London University rather than Cambridge or Oxford, he is not sure where he fits in his world. Intelligent in his field of eighteenth century literature, Treece is characterized by a self-deprecating irony. He is all too aware of his failings; nevertheless, he is unable to act decisively.

Emma Fielding is a graduate student who is Treece’s liberal mirror image and becomes his lover. Like him, she is a fair-minded person whose dominant characteristics are doubt and indecision. She is unable to finish her thesis on fish imagery in William Shakespeare or to reject any of her inappropriate suitors.

Louis Bates is a working-class undergraduate who is self-centered and takes himself too seriously. He falls in love with Emma, a situation that provides much of the comedy in the novel. Both Treece and Emma feel morally obliged to take Louis seriously in spite of his absurdity. Treece and his colleague, Dr. Viola Masefield, become romantically entangled. She is Treece’s foil and opposite, always up-to-date but rather shallow.

Much of the humor of the novel derives from its social commentary on the life, faculty, and student body of the provincial university. There is much interior monologue and many comic scenes. The ending is deliberately ambiguous. Louis discovers Treece and Emma’s affair, attempts suicide, and is sent to an insane asylum. Treece lies in a hospital bed, suffering from a vague illness, possibly his existential identity crisis. He and Emma are forced to take responsibility for Bates’s attempted suicide, and they find themselves left only with their guilt.

Stepping Westward

James Walker, the protagonist of Bradbury’s 1965 transatlantic novel, is a British novelist who accepts an invitation to become writer-in-residence at an American university. Like Stuart Treece in Eating People Is Wrong, Walker is a liberal humanist who is unfocused, caught not only between the conservative past and a present devoid of either historical or moral compass but also two worlds.

Another campus satire, Stepping Westward begins with a meeting of the creative-writing fellowship committee at Benedict Arnold University. The energetic and egotistical Bernard Froelich, who is writing a book that includes Walker, successfully lobbies to bring him to the university. The American antagonist is the archconservative department chair, Harrison Bourbon.

The satire of campus politics is one of the threads of the novel. The closing scene is another meeting of the creative-writing fellowship committee. This time Froelich, who always gets what he wants, has succeeded in driving out Bourbon and manages to fund a literary journal that he will edit and in which he will publish his often-rejected works.

Walker, who has left his wife and daughter behind in England, becomes involved with the American student Julie Snowflake, a typical American girl who is writing a thesis about Walker. Thus, the rather passive...

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