Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Comedians does not end on a happy note. The Smiths are thwarted in their plans for Haiti, Philipot and his rebels are defeated and Joseph and Jones killed, Doctor Magiot is murdered by the Tontons Macoute, and Papa Doc remains as firmly in power as he was before. The novel leaves no doubt, however, as to the positive ethical attitude it endorses. Its central theme is made explicit by the young priest in the Dominican Republic who leads a Mass for Joseph and the other men who died under Jones’s leadership. The priest’s short sermon on the words of St. Thomas the Apostle is a powerful statement of the need to translate faith into acts (“The Church is in the world, it is part of the suffering in the world”) and of the necessity of committed action, even if such action is sometimes violent (“Violence can be the expression of love, indifference never”).

The posthumous letter Brown receives from Doctor Magiot is also a plea for commitment: “Catholics and Communists have committed great crimes, but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society, and been indifferent.” Doctor Magiot’s appeal underlines the major ethical tension that runs through the novel, a tension that separates those who believe from those who do not.

Ultimately, Brown rejects Doctor Magiot’s call to belief. Although the novel records his brief struggles with commitment, these struggles are not the stuff of tragedy but of ironic comedy. A comedian to the end, Brown is incapable of faith or any sustained belief as he resigns himself to a habitual indifference: “Once I might have taken a different direction, but it was too late now.”