The Underpainter Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In her three earlier novels, as well as in her poetry and her short fiction, Jane Urquhart has considered such matters as reality and illusion, the everyday world and the realm of the imagination, and the temptation to escape from life, which, she suggests, is probably experienced, to some degree, by every human being capable of reflective thought. In The Whirlpool (1986), characters are mesmerized by Niagara Falls and the flight into death that it offers them; in Changing Heaven (1990), art is presented as a man’s refuge from the demands of love; and, in Away (1993), women fall under the spell of the supernatural, the wilderness, and their own power to rewrite reality. All of these novels focus on women. The Underpainter deals with the same issues, but, in it, the women are presented obliquely because the narration is entrusted to a man.

The selection of Austin Fraser as a narrator is somewhat surprising, since the central fact of his life is his refusal to become attached to anyone or anything, which, he is persuaded, is the way to produce great art. In the end, however, Fraser’s art suffers because, as his fellow artist Rockwell Kent comments, he has no feeling for his subjects. Similarly, Fraser fails as a human being, not only because he never allows himself to love, but also because, since he never develops the capacity to empathize with others, he does great harm to those who care for him. When, at the age of eighty-three, Fraser realizes his mistake, he is alone in a sterile house with no company except his memories, some images, and his artifacts.

The Underpainter begins with a prologue which, though admittedly tantalizing, is a bit confusing. The scene is a deserted Canadian mining village in the dead of winter. An unnamed woman, who lives there alone, opens the telegram she has just received and sets out on foot for Port Arthur, some twenty-two miles away. Then, the narrator intervenes. He is merely imagining these events, he says, and adds that they took place forty years before. Finally, he introduces himself. He is Austin Fraser, he says, and he was the person who called the woman to Port Arthur.

In the main part of the book, Fraser is not so laconic; he routinely introduces characters by name and explains who they are, at least externally. However, readers of The Underpainter are not permitted to be passive observers. In the first place, they must develop their own working timetables. Fraser’s narrative is governed by memory rather than by chronology, jumping back and forth in time and moving just as suddenly from one location to another. The author does provide some help: She has her narrator drop in exact dates fairly frequently, and she also has him mention his age and the ages of the other characters often enough that, with a little effort, one can keep track of the action. There is, however, still more to be done by Urquhart’s readers. Even though, as the book proceeds, Fraser is working toward a degree of revelation, a narrator as insensitive as he will inevitably be blind to subtleties. He may not understand the implications of the actions of others or of their comments to him. It is, therefore, left to the reader to put the pieces together, to imagine the emotions that the self-centered Fraser cannot understand, and to feel the pain that Fraser refuses to experience or even to acknowledge.

The metaphor indicated by Urquhart’s title, then, comes to have a complex significance. On the obvious level, underpainting is a term drawn from art: It refers to what is first placed upon a canvas. After embarking on what he called his “new” style, Fraser began as an “underpainter” with a realistic scene or figure. Then, he began overpainting, adding layer after layer to cover up his initial effort. Fraser’s greatest fear was that his underpainting would be revealed; in fact, he has sometimes held paintings for years in order to make absolutely sure that no chemical action would occur that would cause the shapes he deliberately obscured to rise to the surface. Since the critics titled one series of Fraser’s paintings Erasures, it is obvious that they understood his intention. Early in The Underpainter, Fraser also makes it clear that the pattern of his life is exactly like that of his painting. He has always set about to blank out reality.

However, when one applies the underpainting-overpainting concept to the novel itself, it is clear that Urquhart is forcing her narrator and her readers to reverse the process. Step-by-step, they must remove layer after layer of overpainting until reality appears before them. That intention explains the air of mystery in the prologue, and that process determines the structure of the book because, even...

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