Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Prosser is the key to the novel’s title, providing a recurrent image and a theme which acts as a thread on which Jean’s “Incidents” are strung. “This is what happened,” declares the preface. One night in June, 1941, Sergeant-Pilot Prosser was in his Hurricane, looking for returning German bombers over France. He failed to find any and turned for home, jerking his neck every three seconds in the fighter pilot’s compulsive search for stalking enemies. What he saw, though, was not Messerschmitt 109’s, but the sun rising behind him. At that point, catching sight of smoke from the sea below, he dived to investigate. As he flattened out, behind him, the inexorably rising sun rose again.

This experience stays with Prosser for the rest of his short life. He tells it to Jean, and to the other pilots, who call him in the end “Sun-Up Prosser.” Why does it affect him so much? For its beauty? For its unnaturalness? As an image of the ancient human wish to turn time back and live life again? Prosser seems in a way to associate the incident with immortality. As a wartime pilot, he is preoccupied with death and has, in fact, been “grounded” temporarily on suspicion of loss of nerve. Yet he does not fear death so much as certain modes of it. He fears grisliness, accident, lack of dignity. What he would like to do, he confides to Jean, is climb high in his Hurricane, as inexperienced pilots do, and stare fixedly at the sun through his fingers. In that half-hypnotized state, an enemy might kill him suddenly, or an oxygen leak might send him unconscious, to crash in his sleep. Many years later, his...

(The entire section is 662 words.)