Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Set in London during the height of the German Blitzkrieg, The Ministry of Fear: An Entertainment develops the theme of pity as an isolating and self-destructive force. The hero, Arthur Rowe, has poisoned his wife because he could not bear to watch her suffer from an incurable disease. Although the court finds him innocent of any crime, he nurses a powerful sense of guilt for his actions and continues to be driven by a disproportionate sense of responsibility for the suffering of those around him.
The novel opens with Rowe entering a local fair. He is drawn to the fair because it reminds him of his lost innocence. Despite the war raging around him, the fair affords him lush gardens and sweet smells from his childhood. Ironically, his attendance at the fair leads to his becoming a hunted man. He wins a cake that, unknown to him, contains a microfilm of secret naval plans placed there by a spy ring. When he returns home, one of the Nazi agents who constitute the Ministry of Fear visits him in an attempt to poison him. Recognizing the smell of the poison (the same one he used for his wife), Rowe realizes that someone wants to kill him for no apparent reason, turning his sense of reality into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Later, while Rowe is attending a séance, one of the guests is murdered with Rowe’s knife and Willi Hilfe, a young Austrian relief worker (who pretends to be Rowe’s friend but who actually masterminds the Nazi spy ring) advises Rowe to go underground. The murder, however, is merely a contrivance to drive Rowe into hiding. He is seriously injured when, upon...
(The entire section is 651 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Arthur Rowe, a middle-aged Englishman, happens one day onto a fete in blitz-torn London. In an effort to recapture some spirit of the brighter past, he enters the grounds. While there, he has his fortune told, and the seer tells him the weight of a cake that is to go to the person who guesses the weight correctly. Rowe wins the cake and starts to leave, but the clergyman in charge of the affair tries to get the cake back. Rowe is angered and donates a pound note to the cause and leaves.
Just before the German bombers fly up the Thames to terrorize the city that same night, Rowe has his first visitor in months, a man who rents a room in the same house. The visitor behaves very oddly. When given a piece of cake by Rowe, he crumbles it as if looking for something. Then, while Rowe is out of the room, the man slips something into Rowe’s tea. Rowe returns and smells the peculiar odor of the tea, but before he can say or do anything, a bomb falls, wrecking the house. He regains consciousness to find the house demolished.
Because he has few friends to whom he can turn since he killed his wife in a mercy killing, the worried Rowe goes to a detective agency the next day, where he hires a man named Jones to watch after him and discover why someone wishes to take his life. Rowe then goes to the relief office, which was in charge of the fete at which he won the cake. There he finds a young woman, Anna Hilfe, and her brother Willi in charge of the office. The two say they are Austrian refugees. Willi goes with Rowe to the home of the fortune-teller in an effort to uncover the reason for the attempt on Rowe’s life.
At the fortune-teller’s home, the two men are invited to stay for a séance. During the séance, the man sitting next to Rowe is murdered with Rowe’s knife. With Willi’s aid, Rowe escapes from the house before the police arrive. He goes to an air-raid shelter and there remains through the night. He writes a letter to the police, but before he posts it, he calls Anna, who tells him that “they” are still after him. “They” are supposed to be Nazi agents. Rowe still cannot understand why he is a marked man. Anna agrees to aid Rowe and tells him to send an address where he can be reached.
After talking to her, Rowe calls the detective agency. He then learns that Jones, the man he hired, disappeared and that the head of the agency called the police in on the case. Rowe wanders aimlessly about the city until the afternoon, when he meets a man who asks him to take a valise full of books to a Mr. Travers at a hotel. When Rowe arrives at the hotel, he is escorted to Travers’s room. There he finds Anna waiting for him. In fear of their lives, the two wait for the air raids to begin. They...
(The entire section is 1120 words.)