Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

While it is difficult to suggest in essence the thematic concerns of a series of novels comprising more than a million and a half words, one can note the themes which emerge most consistently. These may be divided into themes on a personal and historical level. Historically speaking, Strangers and Brothers covers the period from the end of World War I to the student protest movements of the late 1960’s. While Snow is not writing history per se, he alludes frequently to many of the crucial events of his time as interpreted by Lewis, an intelligent man of liberal bent. The reader sees through Lewis’ eyes the Spanish Civil War, the Munich Agreement of 1938, and the decision to use atomic weapons culminating in Hiroshima. Snow provides a balance for Lewis’ views by including voices from the extreme left—those of avowed Communists such as Ann Simon—as well as the reactionary opinions of such people as Lord Bocastle (in The Light and the Dark) and the right-wing set assembled at Diana Skidmore’s Basset.

Against the backdrop of historical events is Snow’s intense study of human behavior—that is, of the motives which ultimately affect one’s career and one’s personal relationships. Much of Strangers and Brothers depicts man as he struggles to come to grips with his own nature, to take stock of his virtues and his limitations, and to act accordingly. Snow displays true compassion for the failures of those who have, as it were, opted out. This group encompasses not only the demented, such as Roy and Sheila, but also those, like Martin Eliot, Paul Jago, and Charles March, who either strive for great things and fail, or, seeking a more “normal” life, choose to stop short of their original goals.

The theme of renunciation is threaded throughout the series, as Charles March gives up a promising career as a barrister and Martin Eliot rejects a top administrative position for a life of teaching and research. Lewis himself, in Last Things, agonizes over the offer of a cabinet post, a role which would crown his career in public affairs. He reluctantly turns it down, concluding that the cost in human terms would be too high. Though outwardly content with their decisions, perhaps Lewis, Charles March, and Martin are all plagued by thoughts of what might have been.

The quest for heightened self-awareness is closely related to Snow’s analysis of interpersonal relationships. Examples of possessive and one-sided love persist throughout the sequence. The theme is first presented in Lena Eliot’s maternal smothering of Lewis,...

(The entire section is 1062 words.)