Strangers and Brothers Characters

C. P. Snow

The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Any examination of Snow’s approach to characterization must begin with Lewis Eliot, for much of Strangers and Brothers is his story; furthermore, all of the reader’s responses to the other characters and the principal events of the novel are uniquely colored by Lewis’ own values. Snow’s point of view, throughout the series, is first person, restricted. This narrative technique carries with it certain limitations, mainly Lewis’ inability to probe fully the minds of the people he describes.

If Lewis, lacking omniscience, is limited in his ability to evoke the full emotional life of his characters, he stops short of letting the reader penetrate the deepest recesses of his own mind. In many ways, Lewis is strangely diffident as he recounts the story of his life. Is it merely modesty which keeps him from rendering explicitly his many positive accomplishments? The reader learns of his knighthood, surely a dramatic event in the life of a poor boy from the Midlands, only indirectly. When Lewis emerges from the hospital, following his mysterious cardiac arrest (in Last Things), he is greeted by no fewer than twelve photographers, which suggests that he is much more celebrated than he has previously revealed. Finally, in Last Things, he relates in an aside that he is going to make his son, Charles, “financially independent,” implying that Lewis has attained great wealth as well as status. Perhaps Lewis’ failure to toot his own horn, as it were, stems from typical British reserve, but one wonders how much he has chosen not to reveal, and why.

Indeed, Lewis remains, even after eleven volumes, an eriigmatic figure. The inability to know another person fully, however, is surely part of Snow’s point, as he depicts a society in which even brothers are often strangers to one another. Lewis’ propensity to play down the signs of his worldly success may also be viewed as an attempt on Snow’s part to sustain an image of Lewis as an Everyman figure, one with whom the average reader might identify, even though Lewis must achieve sufficient material success to allow him access to the “corridors of power” he depicts. How successfully Snow has managed to have it both ways is debatable.

In any case, it seems, ultimately, that Snow wants his reader to take both Lewis and his judgments of others at face value. If there is any implied criticism of Lewis, it comes from Lewis himself, who often speaks candidly of his own weaknesses and shortcomings. Yet some readers think that Lewis is too easy on himself, that much of his self-imposed guilt does not run deep enough. In Time of Hope, Lewis, asked by Sheila to help cement the relationship between her and another man, does the exact opposite; speaking in frightening terms of Sheila’s neurosis, he drives the man away. When Lewis finally wins Sheila, who, like Pip’s Estella in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860-1861), has often confessed her inability to return his love, he speaks in self-pitying fashion of Sheila’s destructive effect upon his career and his psyche. There is no implicit irony here; the reader is supposed to identify completely with Lewis. In Homecoming, Lewis’ clandestine affair with his former lover Margaret Davidson is climaxed by his demand that she divorce her husband, who loves her. Lewis’ subsequent remorse at having stolen another man’s wife is hardly overwhelming.

Ultimately, perhaps, one concurs with Lewis, as he looks back on his life in Last Things, that as far as personal relations go, he has been less than perfect. Snow is not, however, attempting to portray a saint. Despite his foibles, Lewis’ positive and essentially human qualities make him a man whose...

(The entire section is 1532 words.)

Strangers and Brothers Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Lewis Eliot

Lewis Eliot, later Sir Lewis, the narrator, whose life is traced from youth to old age. His character and experiences partially reflect those of the author. He is the elder son of Bertie and Lena Eliot and the brother of Martin. Eliot rises from humble origins in a small provincial town to be a clerk in a local government office, a barrister, and a Cambridge fellow. He later becomes a consultant to industry and a civil servant. His government service includes involvement with England’s wartime development of atomic weapons. Eliot is an ambitious man who prides himself on his judgment and who is perceived by his friends as a man with great sympathy for others. He is emotional but is highly regarded by some for his ability to control his emotions, a talent that leads others to view him as cold and manipulative. His first marriage, to Sheila Knight, proves disastrous, as he is forced to see the mental deterioration of someone he once loved deeply. His second marriage, to Margaret Davidson, is a far more mutually supportive relationship and one in which Lewis learns to accept that he cannot control the lives of those whom he loves. In the course of the sequence, Eliot comes to better terms with himself and his ambitions, forced to do so by events (including near death while undergoing an eye operation) and by the support of those around him.

Martin Eliot

Martin Eliot, Lewis’ younger brother. There is strong affection between the two but also conflict, because for a long time Lewis has greater hopes and ambition for Martin than Martin himself has. Martin is a physicist and a fellow of the same Cambridge college with which Lewis is affiliated. He is the principal character in The New Men, in which he becomes involved in the nation’s nuclear weapons research. Lewis believes that his brother is unscrupulous in climbing over friends during an investigation to root out a subversive scientist, but when Martin is offered the post of administrator of the nuclear establishment at Barford, he turns it down and returns to academic life, eventually becoming senior tutor at the Cambridge college. He works closely with Lewis in seeking a reversal of the judgment against Donald Howard in The Affair.

Sheila Knight

Sheila Knight, the daughter of the Reverend Lawrence and Mrs. Knight. She becomes Lewis Eliot’s first wife. She is described as very handsome rather than pretty, with magnificent eyes and a dramatic presence. The young Lewis loves her deeply and persuades her to marry him, though she is reluctant because she realizes a personal flaw that makes her incapable of reciprocating that love. She becomes increasingly neurotic, and Lewis must curtail his ambitions so as to pursue a lifestyle that allows him to devote considerable energy to caring for her. The marriage becomes an imprisonment, which ends when Sheila dies of an overdose of drugs.

Margaret Davidson

Margaret Davidson, the younger daughter of art critic Austin Davidson. She becomes Lewis Eliot’s second wife. Lewis meets her at a London clinic during the war and romances her, though she is still married to Geoffrey Hollis. After her divorce, she marries Lewis. She is the mother of Maurice Hollis and Charles Eliot.

Bertie Eliot

Bertie Eliot, the father of Lewis and Martin. A mild, self-centered man, he has no great ambitions. He cares more for his position as organist for a church choir than he does for his family and never appreciates the success of his sons.

Lena Eliot

Lena Eliot, the wife of Bertie and the mother of Lewis and Martin. She is the dominant figure in the Eliot household and invests young Lewis with much of her ambition and drive for betterment.

George Passant

George Passant, a solicitor’s managing clerk in the town of Lewis Eliot’s birth and a part-time lecturer at the local technical college. Passant, who is brilliant and unconventional, attracts and inspires a coterie of free-thinking young men and women who are eager to extend themselves and challenge the order of the day. Lewis gives Passant much credit for shaping his early career. Passant’s influence on others is less beneficial: He is implicated in a fraud with two members of the group, Jack Cotery and Olive Calvert, and the sexual license that he encourages...

(The entire section is 1803 words.)