Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Underneath its light surface, Agents and Patients exhibits several serious themes. The first is suggested by the book’s epigraph, taken from one of John Wesley’s sermons: “So in every possible case; He that is not free is not an Agent, but a Patient.”

The theme of freedom is made clear by an incident at the beginning of the novel. Maltravers, Chipchase, and Blore-Smith all find themselves watching a street entertainment in which one man with a sword stands over another man in chains. Chipchase alludes to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous statement that man is born free but is everywhere in chains, to which Maltravers comments, “It certainly looks as if nothing in life would sever the one that is round him now.” The chained man eventually wriggles free, however, and it transpires that the two men have been performing the same act for fifteen years and regularly exchange the roles of captor and captive. After the performance, Blore-Smith reflects that he, too, is in chains, striving to be free.

Yet it cannot be said that Agents and Patients presents a very optimistic view of the possibility of gaining freedom in life. Blore-Smith simply exchanges one form of slavery for another. He certainly does not attain emotional maturity through his course of psychoanalytic treatment, and his brief flirtation with the world of the cinema suggests another underlying theme: that he is being led into a world of appearances, that...

(The entire section is 586 words.)