Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The central theme of the novel is the interaction of a personal and public trauma. For Poulsifer, the two are interdependent. As much as he may eventually try, he is never completely free of the horrors of his past, and even when he appears to accept Sharli’s ministrations of love, “a piece of his mind still awaits the first calamity in the pattern.” In many ways he is locked in the past, and it is Sharli’s deepest wish that she can give him a future.

Also central to this and many of West’s other novels are the ways in which the creative imagination confronts and makes sense of the world about it. It is too easy to dismiss Rat Man as an insane casualty of war; in all of his ruminations and behind all of his activities there struggles a mind desperately trying to cope with the randomness and confusion of his world. Poulsifer’s imagination, whether it turns itself to an act of revenge on a war criminal or to ordinary domestic duties, is engaged and active, and as the narrator comments at one point, he is “a connoisseur of life’s neglected corners.”

As in earlier novels, West presents seemingly freakish characters (a practice which many have compared to that in Samuel Beckett’s fiction). By using such a marginal figure as Poulsifer and by revealing the depth of his experience, West demonstrates the limits of conventional thinking. In essay after essay, West addresses himself to the staid conventions of traditional fiction, commenting in one that “elasticity, diversity, openness, these are the things that matter to me most.” Characters such as Poulsifer demonstrate the kind of diversity and openness that is essential for a meaningful existence; he is unencumbered by the world’s superficial concerns and free to indulge his imagination and deepest desires. In these ways, he is fundamentally a primitive, and it is his essential primitiveness that Sharli can never completely eradicate, despite her love.