After Many a Summer Dies the Swan opens with the arrival of Jeremy Pordage in Southern California. He has been hired by Jo Stoyte to catalog the Hauberk papers, a collection of miscellaneous materials recently purchased by Stoyte which had accumulated for centuries on an English estate. Although he is less directly involved in the principal events of the novel than most of the other characters, Pordage serves an important function as an observer of the social milieu and of the actions of the other characters, thus helping tie together the sometimes disparate materials that Huxley includes in the novel.
Pordage’s drive from the railway station to Stoyte’s residence gives him his first taste of the culture of Southern California—an incongruous mixture of slums, billboards, cocktail lounges, hamburger stands, and extravagant Hollywood mansions in a clutter of architectural styles. His chauffeur also takes him to the Beverly Pantheon, a cemetery owned by Stoyte, where the fact of death appears to be disguised by sensual sculpture, eclectic art reproductions, and Wurlitzer organ music. They also pass a carload of migrant workers from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and offer a ride to William Propter, a scholar who knew Stoyte as a young boy and who lives on a small farm near him.
Stoyte’s castle, perched on the top of a mountain, is a grotesque combination of architectural styles and is decorated with an astonishing variety of art objects purchased by Stoyte’s agents in Europe. Stoyte himself is an uneducated multimillionaire whose personality combines elements of sentimentality, sensuality, ostentation, and greed. Members of his household include Virginia Maunciple, his ingenuous and intellectually vacuous mistress who refers to him as Uncle Jo; Sigmund Obispo, his sinister and aggressive personal physician; and Peter Boone, an idealistic young man who works as Obispo’s assistant.
It is soon clear that Stoyte is governed by an almost obsessive fear of death. Obispo’s role is not only to provide him with any medical treatment that is needed but also to conduct experiments that might lead to some discovery that could prolong his life indefinitely. Stoyte’s fear of death gives Obispo a power over him that the doctor is only too willing to use. Keeping Stoyte sedated at night, Obispo easily seduces Virginia. Although she is almost overwhelmed by guilt and by her dislike of Obispo, she is never able to resist his cold and aggressive lovemaking. In order to conceal her affair with Obispo, Virginia lavishes attention on Peter, who loves her in a remote and idealistic way. Increasingly suspicious of the innocent Peter, Stoyte discovers him kneeling by Virginia’s side one evening and kills him with an automatic pistol he always carries with him.
In the meantime, Pordage’s research in the Hauberk papers has led him to develop a special interest in the fifth Earl of Gonister, born in 1738. The earl was a lecherous rapscallion, but a person of intense vitality, possessing a somewhat cynical appreciation of life. In an effort to prolong his life, the earl ate raw the entrails of a carp, a fish with a...
(The entire section is 780 words.)