Physically impressive, Johnson “looked like a man carrying a load on his shoulders, uncomplainingly, so strong, muscular and awkward, soft in voice, and thoughtful in every word he spoke.” Yet he “appeared to know so little and observe so little of other people.” Often central to V. S. Pritchett’s thinking about character is puritanism—one critic has called him the connoisseur of English puritanism—and Johnson is no exception. “The conscience of the puritan has need of its melodrama and mythology,” Pritchett observes of his protagonist. Johnson seeks hardship, courts the impossible, is self-torturing, is a loner; when to this constellation is added tropical fever and further guilt (toward Lucy and her stepfather), as well as the driving urge to find his father (or learn his fate), his actions in the novel—including the desertion of his companions—at least approach plausibility. It should be noted that Johnson risks the lives of others in the pursuit of his obsessions. Prior to sailing for Brazil, he foolhardily takes Lucy, against her will, out in a sailboat in a gale; he himself says that he caused Wright’s death. “He would have killed any woman,” observes Lucy at the end of the novel. How successful the author is in making the protagonist a believable character, each reader must decide for himself, but it is clear that the tormented Johnson is a badly flawed hero.
In some ways, Lucy is the right woman for Johnson: She too “had grown up with a love of the difficult.... She wanted greater and greater difficulties.” Lucy is “not very tall, a...
(The entire section is 650 words.)