Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 784

Charles Williams’s last novel is set in the locale he knew best, central London, but in a time that he did not live to appreciate: the first autumn of the peace after World War II. The novel removes the barrier between the natural and the supernatural worlds. Lester is the central character in a drama that illustrates Williams’s mystical and imaginative interpretation of Christian doctrine. The plot traces the triumph of love over evil during Lester’s period of purgatory. She is a modern version of the figure of Beatrice, the spiritual guide of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (1802). Her love for her husband, which survives her death, leads to his conversion, to the defeat of evil, and to her own salvation. The story combines natural and supernatural elements with a realism that is not merely a matter of literary technique but also an expression of Williams’s belief that the material and the spiritual, and the temporal and the eternal, are equally real. This tenet of faith is basic to the creative imagination for Williams. The novel is not intended as a fantasy or as an allegory; the novel form is used simply for its traditional purpose of revealing life’s reality. Williams believes that a person who loves can bear another’s burdens in a way that he considers physical as well as spiritual. This ability involves not simply praying for the burdened one but also loving that one so deeply that the burden of suffering is transferred from the loved one to the person who loves. As the human form of Christ on the cross suffers for all humanity, so the central character of this story saves a victim by substituting herself.

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From the moment when Lester finds herself alone on Westminster Bridge to the climax of her disappearance from Simon’s house, there is always a strong sense of London as the background to the action. At first, Lester sees only the city, but as her spirit develops, she hears all the familiar noises of people and traffic, feels the pavement under her feet, and smells the river and the October rain.

The literalness of London sights, sounds, and locations is not merely a device to root the supernatural story in the natural world. For Williams, London is an image of the City of God, the Holy City, the community of the saints. When the city is first mentioned, the term indicates the ancient borough of London, site of St. Paul’s, as distinguished from Holborn, where Simon’s headquarters are. Through Lester’s developing spiritual perception, however, the spiritual reality of the eternal city is revealed. Its identity is hinted to mortal eyes on the fateful afternoon when Lady Wallingford and Betty call to look at Jonathan’s portrait of Simon. Lady Wallingford is equally antagonized by another painting that Jonathan and Richard consider the best that Jonathan did, a painting of a part of London after a raid, a scene of desolation bathed in living light.

This city, emerging from war and night, is the setting in which Richard meets his wife again with a deeper understanding of their love. At the end of the novel, Jonathan and Betty give Richard the painting, and Lester disappears into light. Although the plot of the novel centers on the conflict over Betty, considerable thematic interest is focused on the dead Lester and the living Richard as they move through the city, at first absolutely separated, then gradually reunited as each comes to understand the reality of love, and finally separated when the understanding is complete. These two characters are developed with a psychological depth, dramatic sensitivity, and humor that make them as fully credible as the protagonists of a more traditional novel. Jonathan and Betty are less fully delineated and are seen more from the outside, through the eyes of their friends, than from the inside. The dead Evelyn is no longer a human personality but merely the epitome of egocentric peevishness, which was her dominant trait.

In descending scale, Simon and Lady Wallingford are agents of evil, as much puppets as the bodies that Simon can create. These differing degrees of characterization reflect Williams’s belief that only love can make a human being whole. Jonathan and Betty, in their initial stages of love, cannot be as fully developed as Lester and Richard are. In characterization, as in every aspect of the novel, Williams’s story is perfectly integrated with his doctrine. Final assessment of his achievement requires the resolution of a basic dilemma: whether the credibility of the story makes the doctrine convincing or whether the credibility of the story depends on conviction about the doctrine.

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