Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

It is less meaningful to talk about this work’s themes than it is to talk about its satiric purpose, and that purpose seems primarily to be poking fun at literary hacks and ghouls. In one way or another, most of the characters in the novel are engaged in some form of grave-digging and feeding on the dead. Shadbold attempts to make himself look good by making his dead writer friend look bad and uses his status as a reviewer and editor to feather his own literary nest. By promoting her diary, Isolde Upjohn attempts to make use of her past experiences with Shadbold and Winterwade to further her own career. Grigham and Cubbage, the former in the academic world, the latter in the public arena, are no more than ghouls who survive on the reputations of others.

If there is any more serious theme than this in the novel, it is suggested by the title, taken from Ophelia’s mad cry and Shadbold’s own commentary on it: that the most threatening wheel of all is the wheel of fortune. Surely, the wheel comes full circle for Shadbold—from his initial attempts to suppress Winterwade and his use of an obituary to score a point on an old enemy to the final irony of his publisher reading his obituary and the unkindest cut of all, that Winterwade’s reputation is destined for a revival.

More important than theme in this novel is its style—a style that can only be called gleefully glib. The narrator, although he is not specifically identified, is certainly realized as one who is thoroughly enjoying the step-by-step destruction of Shadbold because of his own pompous and self-serving efforts to conceal the work of Winterwade. Even as the narrator seems to distance himself from the characters and take no stance, the ironic tone of the work makes it quite clear that its entire purpose is to bring Shadbold—and his ilk—down.