Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Although not a long novel, The Acolyte is immensely complex and richly allusive, as well as elusive. It demands much from the reader but offers riches in interpretation. It sets out to do the impossible: to depict the creative artist at work, to satirize society, to examine human relationships, and, finally, to probe into the realm of spiritual longing.

A central symbol, Holberg’s blindness suggests the artist’s relation to a world where trivia and nonsense abound but have no place in the creator’s quest for the essence of experience; the sensitivity that Holberg develops in his blindness allows him to discover that essence. Others less aware try to interfere in the creative process, so that Holberg’s harsh treatment of those who seek him out proves a defense against human hindrances. Because the artist lives in a given society, he must overcome the limitations it imposes. Thus, the novel satirizes society’s constrictions and absurdities, showing that they have no part in the real life—that is, the life which creativity generates. The artist’s struggle in Australia has been a recurrent theme in the country’s modern literature ever since its artists, at last freed from British artistic superiority, set out to search for their identity within a society they consider raw, materialistic, at times unrefined, and often unresponsive to creative genius.

All the characters resemble the acolyte whose place is secondary to the artist and to the priest. They can stay mere servers in the studio or at the altar. If they possess the courage, however, they can approach the altar itself and discover the truth it represents. The double meaning of the title and the abundant religious allusions within the text point to the conclusion that the greatest human artistic pursuit is, after all, the redemption of the soul.