Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1677
C. P. Snow’s STRANGERS AND BROTHERS sequence tells the traditional story of a young man’s rise in the world and his concurrent education in the ways of that world. Snow follows Lewis Eliot, the hero and narrator of the series, from working class origins to a place in the Establishment. In THE AFFAIR, Eliot has gained this position, and his special status as narrator of the novel and the fact that he came into the Establishment from the outside give the reader a special perspective on the workings of the men of power with whom Eliot associates. This perspective is important, for the novel is less concerned with Donald Howard, the rather foolish young man on trial, than with those who are judging him; the Establishment, its way of running things, and its morality are themselves on trial. Specifically, Snow examines the somewhat ponderous way in which officialdom struggles with its conscience, tries to avoid deciding how to reconcile its own best interest with the demands of justice, and finally strikes a balance.
The Establishment is not, of course, an institution, and it is not a group of men of unanimously shared values and goals. Rather, it is composed of men of many types, brought together primarily by their desire to possess power and by their sense of responsibility, grasped in a variety of ways and to varying degrees, for using their power wisely. The obstacles to this task, both internal and external, are numerous; they are also a major object of Snow’s attention. Power, the reader would imagine Snow to say, may well corrupt, but it does so many other interesting things and brings out such strange latencies in those who possess it, that any blanket statement about its possessors and effects would be ridiculous. A minute study of its agents and their actions, however, can be enlightening.
As he did in THE MASTERS, Snow studies power microcosmically, focusing on the closed society of a Cambridge College. Lewis Eliot, once a Fellow of the College, but now a high-ranking civil servant and established lawyer, is approached in London by Tom Orbell, a young political scientist, and Laura Howard, whose husband, a physicist and a Communist, has been dismissed by the college for using a fake photograph in a research publication. They appeal to Eliot as having influence with older Fellows, particularly with his brother Martin and Sir Francis Getliffe, both physicists, the latter a probable choice as next Master of the College. After Lewis asks some questions of his friends in the college and, at Mrs. Howard’s insistence, confers with Donald Howard, he is completely convinced that Howard has been dealt with fairly.
Several weeks later, when Lewis is at Cambridge to spend Christmas with his brother, Julian Skeffington, a young physics Fellow, tells Martin and Lewis that he has evidence that Howard is innocent. Skeffington, a Conservative, strict, and absolutely correct, is co-executor of the estate of his wife’s late uncle, Cecil Palairet, under whom Howard did his doctoral work. Going through Palairet’s notebooks as they arrive at the college bursary, Skeffington discovers that a photograph is missing from one of them: the accompanying notation suggests that it was probably a copy of the photograph Howard had used in his research. From this discovery, Skeffington infers that old Palairet, for some unknown reason, gave Howard the photograph as a bona fide piece of scientific evidence on which Howard, then in all good faith if not in good judgment, based his subsequent work. Skeffington is now absolutely convinced of Howard’s innocence, but Lewis and Martin are much less so, though they ultimately come around to the view that Howard’s case should be reopened.
Skeffington and Martin try to form a majority of the Fellows to demand the reopening of the case. This attempt allows Snow to explore the power structure of the college and the changes in it, since Lewis was personally involved in its politics. As Snow is fond of pointing out, politics obeys strange rules. Martin and Getliffe are liberals, Orbell and Skeffington conservatives, but all are for reopening the case. Most of the younger Fellows are either conservatives or apolitical, the exact opposite of the case at the time of the election described in THE MASTERS, published in 1937. Martin is a natural politician, but, as described in THE NEW MEN, he once threw away an opportune chance to wield great power in the scientific-administrative establishment by publicly condemning the bombing of Nagasaki. Getliffe is politically naive, was a major power in scientific research during World War II, and is already a scientist of extreme distinction, something Martin Eliot will never be. Martin and Francis Getliffe, however, both want the Mastership (about to be vacant), and both are willing to sacrifice important influence to help Howard, whom they both find stupid, ungrateful, and obnoxious. Skeffington seems to have everything: He was a war hero and could have succeeded in almost any field; instead, he has chosen a career in physics and is engaged in study of the ionosphere, a field in which he has little natural ability. Orbell is a student of politics but has even less political sense than Getliffe or Skeffington.
The decision-making body in this case is the Court of Seniors, composed of Crawford (the Master), Winslow (the former Bursar), Arthur Brown (the Senior Tutor), and Nightingale (the Bursar and a bitter rival of Eliot since the days of Crawford’s election). Two other Fellows have seniority, but one, M. L. H. Gay, now somewhat senile at age ninety-two, has been excluded, and Paul Jago, a virtual recluse since losing the last Mastership election, excludes himself. Gay, in fact, tries to engage Lewis to sue the College for excluding him; Snow develops this comic subplot extensively, presumably to show what men of great distinction—as Palairet was—can do in their dotage. Brown, Crawford, and Winslow reexamine the evidence and still find Howard guilty. At this point, however, Skeffington threatens to make a cause celebre of the case, and to avoid publicity, the Seniors agree to conduct a quasi-trial with Lewis Eliot representing Howard and Dawson-Hill, a former student of some legal fame, representing the Seniors. Almost half the novel is devoted to the trial.
The trial goes badly for Howard. A weak self-advocate, he seems almost uninterested in establishing his innocence. Palairet had been respected as an important scientist; if the issue boils down to which of the two was more likely to have faked evidence, anyone—Martin, Lewis, and Getliffe included—would say Howard. It soon becomes clear, in fact, that the only way to save Howard is to suggest how the missing photograph disappeared. To do so, however, means covertly accusing Nightingale, the first to receive the books, of tampering with them. The Howard party finally decides to act. Getliffe insists on making the suggestion to the Board, though he, as the favorite for the next Mastership, has the most to lose and is not well-suited by temperament for such a task. He does so, and Nightingale makes the mistake of countering with the suggestions that the missing photograph was not the one used by Howard and that Skeffington could have removed the photograph from the Palairet notebooks in order to reopen the case.
This tactic convinces Winslow of the possibility of Howard’s innocence and leaves Brown with the deciding vote; Nightingale, of course, votes against acquittal, and Crawford is still undecided. That night, Paul Jago comes to see Brown; the two had been close friends before Jago lost the election to Crawford. Though it causes him great anguish, Jago tells Brown that, after Nightingale had made a personal attack on Mrs. Jago during the 1937 election, she had tried to kill herself. By divulging this information, he hopes to convince Brown, who is realistic and shrewd yet stubborn, that Nightingale might be guilty and that Howard might be innocent. He succeeds, paving the way for a compromise by which Howard is reinstated with full pay but has the period of his suspension counted against his contract so that he can soon be dismissed. This finding is considered a victory for Howard. Although Skeffington and Orbell want to ask for complete exoneration, Howard, apparently tired of the whole affair, decides to accept it.
In THE AFFAIR, a group of reasonable, good-natured, intelligent men commit, or appear to commit, a serious injustice. Only the determined efforts of another group correct the injustice—if, indeed, Howard is innocent; the novel leaves the question open. Snow’s primary interest, however, is not the question of innocence and guilt or that of justice and injustice. Rather, he examines the ways in which the individuals working in various groups make decisions on moral questions: what peculiar combinations of ideology, self-interest, ethical principle, and insight activate these men; how their decisions can be challenged and changed.
This focus is not merely a perspective; it also represents a value. By returning Lewis Eliot to the milieu of his young adulthood, Snow invites comparison of the various generations. He finds the young men of the college poor politicians—in the sense that Arthur Brown has been a superb politician—and the older men less flexible, the system working less well than it was even in the late 1930’s. Justice, his story implies, is best served by those who know its limitations and its dependence on imperfect human beings; it is often damaged by moral absolutists. Readers are reminded that Snow is primarily a novelist—a storyteller and observer of human nature in action—and not a moralist. He leaves no clear-cut answers, not even with a final judgment of who is innocent and who is guilty. Readers are left with a clear picture of how men work with and against each other to achieve what they consider to be worthy goals, the ironic knowledge that, more often than not, these men miscalculate and misunderstand, and the prediction that the ability of men to work well together is decreasing.
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