Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1306

In the classical tradition, Wain is more concerned in all of his works with the search for universal truths than with the expression of individual sensibility. Although the now-dead friends who have influenced Wain for good differed greatly in those matters which superficial judgment might call important, they were alike in generosity of spirit, which brought them Wain’s love, and in the courage to live for something outside themselves, which brought them Wain’s respect.

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It is appropriate that Dear Shadows both begins and ends with references to Nevill Coghill, the Anglo-Irish Oxford don who was convinced that the best way to teach his students about William Shakespeare was to involve them in producing a Shakespeare play. To his colleagues, conservative scholars, the thought was heresy, the practice a profanation of the College gardens, where the performances were held. Himself a brilliant scholar, Coghill could have repressed his impulses and merged into the mainstream of academia. Coghill, however, was more interested in teaching than in pleasing his colleagues. He knew that his students would understand Shakespeare better if they themselves brought his plays to life onstage than they ever could if the plays were bound to the printed page, and he was willing to pay the price in ridicule and opposition. As one of those students, Wain caught Coghill’s passion for Shakespeare; he also came to recognize the difference between those who lived life selfishly and prudently and those who, like Coghill, lived it as a succession of celebrations which must be shared with others.

Although she was obscure by most standards, the Stratford landlady whom Wain calls only “Julia” shared Coghill’s love of Shakespeare, his commitment to celebration, and his refusal to conform to the rules of lesser people. In the unkindness of Coghill’s colleagues, Wain had seen the price of nonconformity; it was Julia who described to him the price of conformity, thus forcing the young man to face the fact that he has trapped himself in a hasty marriage, from which he must find the courage to escape.

One of the most moving portraits in Dear Shadows is that of “Arnold,” the boy who could not be defeated by grinding poverty, with the ill health, shame, and desperation which attend it. Arnold, actually Arnold Wain, the author’s father, was indeed a nonconformist, for he refused to conform to the usual expectations for a child reared in such a miserable environment. Even in childhood, Arnold displayed a cheerful spirit. Instead of dwelling upon his very real deprivation, he greeted every day as a gift, a gift which he could share by helping others. It was this conviction that the secret to life was service which led Arnold to become a preacher in the Church Army. His success as a spiritual leader was demonstrated early. When he was still a young man, he had already conquered the skepticism which most prophets find among their own countrymen, and it was Arnold to whom the poor of his native town turned in illness and death. Even when he sought and won the offices of city councillor and magistrate, Arnold’s guiding spirit remained the same: Given more influence, he could be of greater help. Wain’s book would not have been complete without this tender essay, for if his respect for others is based on their generosity of spirit, he must have found his first model in his own father.

The essay which follows “Arnold” is called “At Tantine’s” because the Tantine of the title was both a product of an idyllic way of life and a preserver of it. The proprietress of a pension in the Swiss Alps, Tantine admitted the people whom she liked into a rapidly disappearing world of frugality, simplicity, love, independence of spirit, and faithful performance of duty. At one point in Wain’s life, when he was emotionally and physically exhausted, his months at Tantine’s literally healed him. Fearing that Tantine and her world are already gone, he must include her among the other gentle presences in his book.

Although they share the generosity which Wain requires of those who are to be memorialized in this book, the subjects of the next two essays are neither modest in station nor simple in tastes. The long essay on the Canadian Catholic writer Marshall McLuhan has aroused considerable interest among critics, who know him best as the celebrity of the 1960’s, the writer whose phrases became catchwords among those who sought to understand their society. Wain’s view of McLuhan is intensely personal. As a friend, Wain saw qualities beyond McLuhan’s undeniable brilliance. For example, while everyone realized that McLuhan was opinionated and dogmatic, Wain appreciated the fact that he would not compromise in order to retain his fame. Like Wain’s other subjects, McLuhan would not alter his life in order to please others; he had an inner guide which determined his outer behavior. Like the others, too, McLuhan was a kindly man, as generous with his time as with his opinions, and a celebrator of life, who enjoyed equally playing the authoritarian father to his unheeding offspring or the intellectual dictator in a world which he hoped to interpret to itself.

In the rambling essay “‘Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines,”’ Wain writes of three well-known people who brightened the night for him and for others. Two of them were associated with great cities: Harvey Breit, a man-about-town who was Wain’s first acquaintance in New York and who undertook to introduce him to the dazzling nightlife of his city, and Bill Coleman, the black jazz musician, originally from the American South, whom Wain always associated with Paris, where they met and where Coleman was a sensation. It is another kind of night which Wain associates with the poet Robert Lowell: long, unreserved talk at night in the small academic city of Oxford, times no less bright than the hours in the bars and nightclubs of New York and Paris. Clearly, although these three people differ greatly in surroundings and in preoccupations, they share the power to bring light into darkness.

With “Werner,” Wain leaves the cosmopolitan world to speak again of simple people. Although he was disturbed by Werner’s blindness to the Nazi past of which he was a part, Wain could not help but admire this former prisoner of war for his frugality, his industry, his cheerfulness when things went wrong, his roistering celebrations of life. On the farm in Wales which Werner managed, Wain believed that he could recapture his own peasant background, that he could enter a world as natural and real as that of Tantine. Like many of the essays, “Werner” ends on a note of regret, for Werner’s death came after Wain’s prolonged absence. In a sense, this essay is like many of the essays in Dear Shadows, an attempt to voice a farewell which was never properly said.

In his final essay, Wain returns to the golden summer of 1944, when Coghill was teaching a course on Shakespeare by producing his plays and when three young men—Wain, an easygoing young man named Conway, and Richard Burton—were spending their evenings together, pub hopping, singing Conway’s music-hall repertoire, and listening to Burton’s recollections of Wales. The fact that later Wain saw Burton only occasionally and lost track of Conway completely, just as he drifted away from many of those whom he has honored in this book, does not negate the importance of these remembered friends. When the book ends at its beginning, in wartime Oxford, Wain clearly has transcended the passing of time and the frustrations of chance which keep apart those who once were close. Crafted into the permanence of words, Wain’s shadows will endure in the world they brightened.

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Critical Context