Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 815
C. P. Snow was one of the most important intellectuals of his time. As a physicist, he was involved in the important molecular research that was being conducted at Cambridge University during the 1930’s. As a wartime government official, he so distinguished himself that he was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Snow is best remembered, however, for his third career, that of a writer. Strangers and Brothers, a series of eleven novels published over a period of thirty years, brilliantly illuminates the crucial issues of the modern era.
As Snow points out in his introduction to The Conscience of the Rich, the publication dates of his novels do not indicate their actual order in the series. In fact, he says, although a number of the novels appeared before The Conscience of the Rich, it should be the second in the Strangers and Brothers sequence. It can also be considered singly, as a work complete in itself.
Although Lewis Eliot appears in every book of the Strangers and Brothers series, either as protagonist or as an observer, in The Conscience of the Rich he serves a special purpose. Lewis is no more a part of elite Anglo-Jewish society than the author himself; by telling his story from Lewis’s point of view, instead of writing as an insider, Snow makes sure that it will ring true.
The primary conflict in the novel is a familiar one: the struggle between those who wish to preserve a highly traditional society and those who work for change or at least welcome it. As head of the extended family, Sir Philip feels it is his duty to direct the younger members in the right path, and Leonard feels a similar obligation toward his own offspring. Two of the most important decisions that a young person makes are the choice of a career, which in the early years of the twentieth century applied only to men, and the choice of a mate. In offering guidance to Katherine and Charles, their elders believe that they are not only being helpful but also perhaps even averting tragedy.
On Lewis’s first visit to the March household, however, he sees that Katherine and Charles do not have the reverence for tradition that their elders do. The dance that Leonard expects Katherine to attend is not just a casual social function; it is one of the periodic gatherings at which the members of the Jewish elite can meet suitable marriage partners. Katherine does not wish to be so circumscribed, and Charles voices his own understanding of her attitude. As it turns out, Katherine and Charles both marry people whom their elders consider unsuitable. Francis is a Gentile, and Ann, although Jewish, is a Communist, dedicated to overturning the social order and, as events prove, quite willing to destroy Charles’s own family in the process.
On one level, The Conscience of the Rich describes a conflict between two philosophies; however, the characters’ actions and reactions are motivated as much by emotion as by rationality. Leonard is likable, kind, and generous, but he is also domineering. He is not interested merely in the welfare of his children; he is also bent on demonstrating his power over them. One can understand his disappointment when Charles leaves the law and merely loafs; clearly this is the waste of a good mind and an embarrassment to the family. Charles’s decision to become a doctor, however, cannot injure the family; Leonard is furious simply because the career choice was Ann’s idea, not his.
Leonard hates Ann because he sees her as his enemy in a battle for control over Charles. What he never realizes is that, in Lewis’s terms, Ann is really not Charles’s master but his slave. If Charles tries to please her, it is only because he recognizes her total devotion to him. Leonard loses his son because he does not understand either himself or anyone else. In contrast, Charles achieves happiness because he recognizes the truth. His problem is not his Jewish blood but his sense of guilt, which arises from the realization that his wealth is not being used to benefit society (hence the title of the book) and from his recognition of a defect in his character, a tendency to be heartless and cruel. In his new career, Charles suppresses his evil propensities and dedicates himself to the service of others. Ironically, Leonard contributes to his son’s happiness by disinheriting him.
Although Snow himself was of the party of change, not that of tradition, it is a measure of his genius that none of the characters in his story is totally unsympathetic. What is tragic about The Conscience of the Rich is that it shows how basically good people, operating from principle and motivated by honest concern, can do so much harm to those they love.
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