After Many a Summer Dies the Swan Essay - Critical Essays

Aldous Huxley

Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Huxley began his long and productive career by writing witty, epigrammatic novels satirizing the bright young intellectuals and hedonists of England of the 1920’s; he ended it searching, through Eastern religions and efforts at the expansion of consciousness, for a mystical vision of truth. Throughout his career, he was as much a writer of essays as of novels, and toward the end of his life, he turned more and more to nonfiction as the appropriate medium for the expression of his ideas.

After Many a Summer Dies the Swan combines these two tendencies in Huxley’s writing. His move to California in 1937 opened up for him a new field for satire: One can easily imagine that Pordage’s astonishment at the frequently bizarre contradictions of the culture of Southern California directly reflects Huxley’s own experience. At the same time, Propter’s extended conversations represent Huxley’s own search for truth through mysticism. In this novel, the sometimes contradictory impulses toward satire and toward mysticism work well together; Pordage’s awareness of the absurd and crass materialism of Southern California complements Propter’s insight that time and craving are the sources of evil. Thus the novel, in spite of its varied content and long stretches of philosophical conversation, attains a degree of unity that many of Huxley’s other novels do not.

On the other hand, Huxley’s satirical manner and mystical doctrine prevent his aspiring to what novels are most often praised for: a compassionate and insightful portrayal of convincing characters struggling with the real concerns of life. Huxley seems aware of this objection and answers it in the novel by having Propter maintain that when literature accepts the usual human aspirations, it helps “to perpetuate misery by explicitly or implicitly approving the thoughts and feelings and practices which could not fail to result in misery.” Satire, then, is “more deeply truthful” and “much more profitable” than tragedy. The only problem is that most satirists are not prepared “to carry their criticism of human values far enough.” This is, presumably, what Huxley seeks to do in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.