A Quality of Mercy Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Paul West’s first novel begins with a family quarrel and ends with all members of the family dead (including the dog), three by murder, the last by suicide. Yet the dominant tone of the novel is not morbid, but comic. The entire present action occurs in a Connecticut hamlet distinguished mostly by its lack of eventfulness. This novel’s three primary characters—Camden, Brenda, and Merula Smeaton—are not only in isolation but also in retirement, from civilization, from work, from life.

Each Smeaton is not only well beyond maturity but also significantly beyond hope: bitter at or resigned to the ways in which existence has failed. A major part of the novel’s development works backward to explain each failure; suspense and drama are achieved by the introduction of the young honeymooners, the Fishers, into this environment of decay.

At the root of the decay of each Smeaton is loss of, or lack of, love. In search of some version of love in a New York hotel, Brenda Smeaton had “strutted into the bar and at twenty-seven years clumsily and vainly twitched her eyelids at the barflies and at the itinerants she saw through the plate-glass wall.” Having failed to connect sexually at twenty-seven, Brenda at forty-seven still searches for love, a meaning to life, and men; she fastens, temporarily, on Huntley Fisher. Brenda’s failure is the most poignant, the most bitter, but the reader learns that others have contributed to it. Her mother...

(The entire section is 560 words.)

A Quality of Mercy Bibliography (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Busch, Frederick. “The Friction of Fiction: Ulysses Omnirandum,” in Chicago Review. XXVI, no. 4 (1975), pp. S-17.

Gunton, Sharon, ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 14, 1980.

McLaughlin, Brian. “Paul West,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 14, 1983. Edited by Jay L. Halio.