Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

West introduces the major theme of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: The Record of a Journey Through Yugoslavia in 1937 by describing an evening in October, 1934, in a London nursing home, where she is recovering from an operation to remove a tumor. Restless, she tries to amuse herself by listening to music on the radio, switching from program to program until a wrong turn of the knob brings her the announcement that Alexander I, the king of Yugoslavia, has been assassinated in the streets of Marseilles that morning. Ringing for her nurse, she demands a telephone so that she can call her husband immediately and talk to him about the terrible news. How dreadful, the nurse responds, asking West if she knew the king. When West says that she did not, the nurse wonders why West thinks the assassination so terrible.

That only a person’s private world matters to the nurse reminds West that the word “idiot” is derived from a Greek root meaning private person. West tries to explain to her that assassinations, as in 1914, lead to other dire events—to other wars, to humanity’s apparently willful destruction of itself that this time might very well result in her own death, in the global catastrophe that she knows will sooner or later overtake her generation. It is no use, however, for the nurse cannot grasp her patient’s argument, and West recognizes that “idiocy” is a female fault; they are cut off from the world at large and cannot imagine how...

(The entire section is 432 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is one of the great books of the twentieth century, and it makes a landmark contribution to women’s literature and issues. West puts her personality at the center of her interpretation of history, and she specifically analyzes the feminine and feminist aspects of her point of view. The long dialogues with her husband are crucial to her view of women and men, since the dialogues define differences in political view arising out of gender.

For example, husband and wife argue world politics: West denounces the hypocrisy of empires pretending to be strong but picking on the weak, the most pitiable individuals, and Andrews in defense suggests that sometimes empires are necessary to maintain a peace that individual nations cannot attain, such as the Austrian Empire’s pushing out of the Turks. On the contrary, West counters, no empire was needed by the nineteenth century when the Turks were hopelessly defeated. There was the menace of Russia, Andrews points out, implying that the Austrian Empire provided a balance of power. Not much of a menace, West thinks, for Russia was a corrupt state that posed little danger to anyone. Ever equable and warming to the argument, Andrews notes that only in retrospect can one make such pronouncements about the relative strengths and weaknesses of nations and empires. To West, however, this is absurd. She asks what would happen if she acted this way, making friends and enemies with no real knowledge of their strength. The rules for nations, however, are different, Andrews counters. West wonders if she is being as obtuse as the woman in the nursing home, but she adds that her husband may also be blind to the common sense she brings to the discussion. Since this is a marital argument, she cannot resist having the last word.

The extraordinary achievement of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is its ability to reckon with history on so many different levels—from the everyday and personal to the public and global—without ever losing the flavor of one woman’s point of view recorded at a crucial time. No other woman writer has yet equaled this complex achievement of a work that is simultaneously a work of history and an imaginative achievement as rich as any novel.

Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

The history of the Balkans is long and complex. The Slavs first entered the region in the sixth century, and by the medieval period, the...

(The entire section is 708 words.)

Literary Style

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

The central symbols in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon are those that supply the book with its title: the black lamb...

(The entire section is 957 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

1930s: The independent state of Yugoslavia includes Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Dalmatia.


(The entire section is 335 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Research the causes of the 1999 Kosovo war. Was NATO justified in the actions it took? Were U.S. vital interests at stake? How should those...

(The entire section is 149 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

In West’s first novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918), a shell-shocked soldier returns from World War I in 1916 having lost his...

(The entire section is 299 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Fadiman, Clifton, ‘‘Review,’’ in the New Yorker, October 25, 1941.

Orel, Harold, The Literary...

(The entire section is 237 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Deakin, Motley. Rebecca West. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A useful introduction to West’s work. Addresses her roles as feminist, critic, journalist, historian, and novelist. Includes a selected bibliography, an index, and a chronology of West’s life and career.

Glendinning, Victoria. Rebecca West: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1987. Contains several pages on the sources and critical reception of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, defending West’s approach against the charges of her critics. Explores West’s politics and provides a helpful discussion of her interpretation of Yugoslav history...

(The entire section is 482 words.)