Angus Wilson Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Angus Wilson has most often been recognized as a satirist and an author of comedy-of-manners fiction; however, there has been some disagreement among critics as to whether he has the moral stance for satire or whether his work is more lightweight social comedy. Wilson himself said he preferred to think of himself as the author of comedy of manners.

Wilson once said he believed a short story is closer to a play or a poem than to a novel. Indeed, his stories are like one-act drawing-room comedies. Instead of probing complexities of individual psychology or establishing elaborate symbolic structures, Wilson is more interested in setting up dramatic situations in which relatively easy targets are exposed to his witty ridicule. However, even as Wilson deftly reveals the pretensions of his characters—be they upper-class snob, lower-class climber, or middle-class bureaucrat—he does not dehumanize them. Beneath the laughter, there is always a subtle groan of sympathy.


“Totentanz,” which means “dance of death,” focuses on a Scottish couple, Brian Capper, who has been appointed to a chair of art history in London, and his wife, Isobel, who has received a legacy of half a million pounds from an uncle and aunt. In London, she cultivates four people: Professor Cadaver, Lady Maude, Guy Rice, and Tanya Mule. The will by which she has inherited her money includes a clause which insists that two seven-foot marble monuments be set in the room of her house, where she entertains friends. She and her husband devise a scheme by which they will give one party and then get rid of the monuments.

People come to the party dressed in costume: Mrs. Mule as a vampire, Lady Maude as Marie Antoinette, Professor Cadaver as a corpse eater, and Guy Rice as the suicide of the poet Thomas Chatterton. Fulfilling these disguises, Guy kills himself because he is being blackmailed; Lady Maude dies like a queen, decapitated by a young man with an ax; Cadaver breaks his neck in a cemetery when he begins to clear away a freshly dug grave; and Mrs. Mule plays the vampire. The deaths mark the end of Isobel’s social aspirations. The story is one of Wilson’s most popular combinations of farce, pathos, and the grotesque. As critic Averil Gardner has suggested, it is a black comedy worthy of Evelyn Waugh.


Wilson’s most frequently anthologized story, “Realpolitik” is a classic example of his social satire. This comic set piece is structured like a one-act...

(The entire section is 1040 words.)