The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Focusing on an already narrow academic world, the novel achieves a certain claustrophobic effect entirely appropriate to the limitations that Treece both feels and embodies. Moving from scene to scene, the reader experiences a sense of repetition and stasis rather than of motion and progress; again the effect is entirely appropriate, for Bradbury’s interest lies less with plot and action than with structure and, especially, character-not in the sense of the fully rounded characters about which E. M. Forster has written but in a very nearly allegorical sense. Treece, for example, is not simply a liberal humanist; he in fact embodies the liberal humanist dilemma: He can think, but he cannot act; he can speak of morality, but he cannot bring his moral imperatives to bear upon the world except in the most trivial ways. Obsessed by moral scrupulousness, he only ends up suffering from a paralyzing ambivalence, a willingness to weigh, ad absurdum, both sides of every question. Feeling alone and betrayed by a world he can understand but not accept, he retreats into the passivity he confuses with freedom. He knows that he must venture into that world but nevertheless lacks the moral energy and moral courage to do so; similarly, he wants to love Emma but only ends up putting himself in the position of a child in need of care. What is worse, he drifts further and further into a purely abstract world; as Emma clearly understands, Treece does not want to marry her but only to marry. Even though he is to be admired for his honesty and moral scrupulousness and his clear-sighted judgment of the limitations of his age, Treece is unfortunately just what he calls himself: a parasite. This “poor little liberal humanist” knows that eating people is wrong but cannot quite refrain from eating a few himself, devouring them in a haze of abstraction and righteousness. As he advances...

(The entire section is 762 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Stuart Treece

Stuart Treece, the head of the English department at one of Britain’s provincial “redbrick” universities in an “anywhere city.” In his late thirties, he specializes in the literature of the eighteenth century but recently has become interested in Victorian poetry and has published a book on A. E. Housman. Although in many ways suited to provincial life, Treece feels that he may be missing out on something. He is made uneasy by his unprestigious academic appointment, his degree (from London University rather than an Oxbridge school), and his war service (in the London fire brigade). Having spent his “formative years” in the heyday of British socialism, he also is uneasy with his place in a modern world in which his brand of moral scrupulousness is decidedly out of fashion. By limiting his possessions, he hopes to keep his character undefined and free, but the result is not freedom but lack of substance; he becomes “a person without a firm, a solid centre.” Wracked by doubts and later by guilt, he cannot pass a simple road test, communicate with his students effectively, or convince Emma Fielding to accept his proposal of marriage. A representative of debilitated liberal humanism in a posthumanist age, he lacks sufficient will to make the leap from thought to action and ends up curiously alone in a crowded National Health hospital ward, suffering from exhaustion and loss of blood.

Louis Bates

Louis Bates, who gives up a teaching position in a girls’ school to pursue, at the age of twenty-six, what he assumes is higher education. A member of England’s lower middle class, he proves difficult for the establishment, even at this provincial university, to define or accept. Ill mannered but enthusiastic, he is “a curious mixture of the promising and the absurd.” Trying too hard to be accepted, he only makes it more apparent just how self-centered...

(The entire section is 787 words.)