Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Napoleon Symphony is an anatomy of ambition and power. Because of the centrality of the protagonist, the novel’s thematic structure is directly connected with characterization. Napoleon is the monumental soldier and emperor before whom everyone bows down. He has achieved the fame and power toward which his unbridled ambition has driven him, yet he longs for more. Ambitious people, Burgess seems to be saying, are never content. They need constantly to move on to the next episode in their program of self-aggrandizement, and if they go too far, as for example Alexander the Great did, they sit and cry because they have no new worlds to conquer.

Those who, like Napoleon, rise to the pinnacle have placed themselves in the most unprotected position of all. They are vulnerable to anyone with ambition equaling their own, and they are also vulnerable to a populace which they cannot forever control and upon whose support they cannot depend indefinitely.

The hilarious episode in which Napoleon entertains the Bonaparte family at dinner presages much that is to come. At this dinner, Napoleon, the First Consul General of France, cannot control his own family. Ultimately, Burgess appears to be suggesting, people with Napoleon’s ambition must die when they are at the top or else must resign themselves to suffering defeat and degradation, as the historical Napoleon did when he was exiled to St. Helena to live out his final years defeated and in torment. Burgess’ fictional Napoleon can fare no better; the inexorable social forces that confront tyrants must ultimately win out.

On the structural level, the novel also considers and demonstrates the theme of the novel as musical composition. Burgess is also experimenting with the telling of a complex story essentially through using dialogue and scrupulously maintaining, except for the occasional intrusions of the common soldiers’ narratives, a single point of view. This effort requires considerable control in terms of both plot and theme development, and, despite an occasional lapse, Burgess has been able to exercise that control masterfully.