The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The essential difference between Prisoner of Grace and its parallel novel in the first trilogy (Herself Surprised, 1941; To Be a Pilgrim, 1942; The Horse’s Mouth, 1944) lies in Joyce Cary’s treatment of character. Unlike Sara Monday, the unsophisticated and unreflective narrator of Herself Surprised, Nina is highly sophisticated and reflective, and she is thus able to comment on the social and historical events in the lives of her two husbands, Chester and Jim.

Nina’s role as narrator is a complex one. In the preface to Prisoner of Grace, Cary commented on his intentions with that novel; he wanted “to give the complete political scene” and “to tell the story through the eyes of a wife whose marriage needs a great deal of management.” Nina’s declared purpose is to forestall anticipated critical “revelations” by the newspapers. Yet her function as the narrative’s center of consciousness is more than merely to defend Chester; it is also to offer a dramatized perspective on the political turbulence of an important time in British history. The technical problem which Cary had to overcome was how to present a characterized first-person narrator who was fully capable of understanding another’s point of view. After struggling with various narrative strategies for more than a year, Cary discovered a characteristic form for his heroine: He introduced parentheses into Nina’s story to contain her qualifications and second thoughts. This device, as Cary himself noted, made “Nina a credible witness. . . [and] enabled her, even in the first person, to reveal her own quality of mind.”

Nina’s parenthetical qualification is the major feature of her narrative. Unlike Sara in Herself Surprised, who so often translates her impulses and perceptions into domestic metaphor, Nina employs few characteristic images. Cary’s extensive use of parentheses allows him to develop Nina as a shrewd if sometimes passive observer of the world around her. She is capable of rendering the behavior and the motives of others in empathetic detail: “Then Nimmo wrung my hand (he was too clever to kiss me) and darted away, and I asked (not bothering to say that I wouldn’t marry him) if he knew about my condition.”

Chester is often the object of Nina’s attention, and her parenthetical asides are ideally suited to revealing the complexity of the politician, particularly given that Except the Lord, Chester’s own narrative, is remarkable for its rather unironic presentation of his vision of himself. The entire trilogy is dominated by Chester. While...

(The entire section is 1079 words.)