The Cunning Man

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the literary works published before his death in 1995, Robertson Davies moved beyond his reputation as an astute social commentator and humorist to become a critically and popularly acclaimed novelist with a central role in the development of Canadian fiction and drama. He was both a social satirist and seriocomic novelist who celebrated individual heroism in the midst of the complexities of contemporary experience.

In protagonist Jonathan Hullah, Robertson Davies found one of the most convincing and congenial of his alter egos. THE CUNNING MAN is written in the first-person narrative voice that readers will recognize and appreciate for its ironic humor, a characteristic which Davies called “Drye Mocke.”

Davies’ final novel reveals him to be a moralist possessed by humor. THE CUNNING MAN also shows Davies’ concern with developing lessons about life while displaying his own extraordinary narrative abilities. A “cunning man” is a wise man, a village know-it-all. Dr. Hullah is such a “cunning man.” He is an expert diagnostician, an ability he shares with his author. At the end of THE CUNNING MAN, Hullah reviews his “losses”: his godson Gil (who might have been his son); Nuala, the love of his life; his friend Charlie Iredale; the splendor of St. Aidan’s, now modernized; and journalist Esme Barron, who revealed the “great news” of her engagement before Hullah had the chance to declare his love for her. Hullah has the wisdom, however, to realize that his life has not been all loss and downward journey. To have known and loved these people; to have presided over his own clinic and to see patients improve under his care; to have watched the city of Toronto expand and to know that he was witnessing a great movement of history—all these were positive experiences for one who thought of himself chiefly as an intelligent observer of his times.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Century. CXII, May 24, 1995, p. 577.

Commonweal. CXXII, September 8, 1995, p. 25.

The Economist. CCCXXXV, April 22, 1995, p. 91.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 26, 1995, p. 2.

New Statesman and Society. VIII, April 7, 1995, p. 56.

The New York Times Book Review. C, February 5, 1995, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, December 5, 1994, p. 64.

The Spectator. CCLXXIV, April 1, 1995, p. 33.

Time. CXLV, March 13, 1995, p. 100.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 7, 1995, p. 25.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, January 22, 1995, p. 1.