Critical Context

Self Condemned portrays the reality of Lewis’ failure and poverty in Toronto as well as the consequences of being a permanent and professional enemy of society. His isolation and humiliation led to the characterization of Harding as a tragic, self-destructive figure—intellectual, remote, humorless, egoistic—who denies human feelings in his futile effort to avoid inner pain. The experience of Toronto gave Lewis the deepest insights into his own nature and enabled him to anatomize his emotional limitations. He does not give Harding this insight and humility, however, and he projects through him the consequences of severing vital connections with other people and maintaining a hostile attitude toward the world. Self Condemned is an intensely revealing and self-critical novel that penetrates Lewis’ characteristically hard carapace, exposes through Harding his own emotional disabilities, and pays tribute to his wife while atoning for his impossibly demanding and potentially destructive relationship with her.

Like D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920), Self Condemned concerns the devastating psychological effect of war on civilian life. Like Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey (1947) and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (1947), it is a tragedy of intellectual defeat. Like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947), it portrays the self-destructive resistance to love, depicted in a harsh landscape that reflects and intensifies a moribund marriage. Though Harding became a glacial shell of a man, indistinguishable from his academic colleagues, Lewis survived the torments of Toronto and, despite his blindness, transfigured the suffering into his most powerful and profound work of art.