Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Wyndham Lewis’ central theme is the role of the artist, a demigod, a creator of fresh forms and perceptions. The proper role of the monied classes is that of appreciative, passive patron. Instead, Lewis argues, they have chosen to become pseudobohemians, dilettantes, “apes of God” who dispossess real artists and demean art. Although “the apes of God” are the major target of Lewis’ satiric blast, his withering indictment extends to society as a whole, which he saw as a moribund victim of its own stupidities. It was not by chance that he named his famous, short-lived, avant-garde journal Blast (1914-1915).

The Apes of God undeniably suffers from grave weaknesses. The very long book has no real plot and lacks narrative tension. There is no sense of forward movement, but rather, many brilliantly set scenes with only slight structural linkage among them. They are static and unmotivated. Satire is ideally a short form, and it is notoriously difficult to create a long, engaging narrative with nothing but dehumanized characters.

The Apes of God is nevertheless a modern classic. One critic called it “the most brilliantly witty piece of writing, merely as writing, which I have ever read,” while another termed it (and another Lewis book) “the most sustained tour de force in English since [James Joyce’s] Ulysses.” Lewis’ prodigious gift for language and his painter’s eye more than suffice to offset the novel’s flaws, although many readers continue to be distressed by Lewis’ social and political views.