Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Second Trilogy is sometimes referred to as the political trilogy, but for Cary, the term “political” signifies a very broad concept. Because he was concerned that people might read Prisoner of Grace as a “book about government,” he cautioned in its preface that Nina’s narrative and, by extension, the entire trilogy was concerned with “politics” in the sense of “the art of human relations.”

A major theme of the trilogy is the politics of marriage. If politics is the business of managing relations between people, then Nina brings to bear on her marriages as wide an array of skills as that which Chester uses to manage his public life. Certainly Nina thinks of her marriage to Chester in political terms: “There is, I suppose, always a ’situation’ between husband and wife (unless I have been ’corrupted’ by living so long in a political atmosphere; I should suppose there is a situation between everybody) and ’relations’ which need the equivalent of ’understandings’ and ’spheres of influence.”’

A related theme deals with the difficulty of upholding an ideal morality in the face of the exigencies of the real world. For the politician in a democratic society, the difficulty is particularly acute. The politician is obliged by any standard of moral behavior to tell the public the whole truth as soon as he knows it. If he does, however, he often impairs his ability to act on the behalf and to the benefit of those whose interests he is pledged to serve. The politician’s deception may be morally reprehensible but politically necessary, thus raising the question of whether ends may justify means. In the life of Chester Nimmo, the trilogy explores this question, although it puts forth no clear answers.