Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620
Horace Zagreus is no less an “ape” than the zoological exhibits that he arranges for Dan. In spite of his verbal brilliance, his flawed judgment is shown by his choice of cloddish Dan as “genius” and disciple. Even Pierpoint, who invisibly presides over all and whom many commentators see as...
(The entire section contains 620 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Horace Zagreus is no less an “ape” than the zoological exhibits that he arranges for Dan. In spite of his verbal brilliance, his flawed judgment is shown by his choice of cloddish Dan as “genius” and disciple. Even Pierpoint, who invisibly presides over all and whom many commentators see as the author’s voice, is suspect, for he has picked Zagreus as his ambassador. Lewis, the painter, sought cold, unemotional objectivity in the depiction of literary characters. His distrust of subjective emotion is reflected in the name “Zagreus,” one of the names of the Greek Dionysus, a god of unrestrained emotions. Although Zagreus is derided by his author for his unbridled enthusiasms (while using him as a vehicle to revile still other characters), it is precisely these qualities that make Zagreus the most interesting character in the book.
Much of the narrative is told from the viewpoint (but not in the voice) of Dan, who attends one zoological exhibit after another at the behest of his mentor. Although this has the advantage of a hilariously naive point of view, Dan is too dull to sustain the interest of the reader or to carry the narrative for long periods—as he is sometimes required to do. Lewis’ characters are not people but grotesques, representatives of human imperfections and folly. Dan is merely a foil to bring out their inanities, which are brilliantly showcased. Most of the characters are then dropped—often never to reappear.
Matthew Plunkett and Melanie Blackwell are good examples. Mistakenly thinking that he has been thrown over by Zagreus, Dan calls upon Matthew, his first middle-aged London mentor, now in a state of jealous outrage and despair. Overcome with emotion, Matthew sinks into a chair: “Then with an abrupt tremor from stem to stern, he was delivered of a large dull hiccup, worthy of a better man.” Lewis also seizes upon Matthew as a pretext for a mockery of Freudian-Jungian theory. To resolve his homosexual inclinations, Matthew has undergone treatment with the Jewish analyst, Dr. Frumpfsusan. The Doktor intones that “small nose, small feet, and small pudenda—that is a fatal combination! A virulent scale-complex of psychical-inferiority is inevitable.” As a cure, he prescribes a woman of four feet, ten inches, no more. Poor Matthew is attempting to fill the doctor’s prescription with one Betty Bligh after Dan’s presumed departure. Feeling faint stirrings, he carries her into the bedroom but catastrophically drops her on finding Dan asleep in his bed.
More wretched than ever, Dan wanders to the home of Melanie Blackwell, an artistic widow, to whom he pours out his soul. Completely unstrung, he bewails Zagreus’ unkindness. The predatory widow, all sympathy, “filled her face with a smoke-screen of sentiment—her two capable eyes measured the path with unction to the delectable body of the incredibly helpless boy-in-distress.” She seduces the revolted Dan as he hysterically protests this breach of hospitality.
There are dozens of characters in The Apes of God. All are deliberately dehumanized, turned into mechanical puppets by Lewis’ caustic wit. No group escapes: homosexuals and lesbians (abundant among “the apes”), Jews, blacks, the lower classes, Freudians, Marxists, and so on. The wit is devastating and often in excruciatingly poor taste: “One of two negroes tossed an american mixture in a silver shaker lazily, while he rolled his eyeballs, to show he was a negro, and did not hide his teeth under a bushel.”
The Apes of God is total satire, and, as Zagreus remarks, “true satire must be vicious....” Lewis, the painter, prided himself on his detached, external, visual approach to his characters, whom he saw as things, not people. They amuse but do not involve the reader on the human level.