Themes and Meanings
On one level, “Enoch Soames” is the witty reminiscence of a middle-aged writer looking back over the abyss of World War I to a more frivolous, carefree era. It is a genial satire, a debunking of what Max Beerbohm had come to see as a time of pretension, of the inflated poses of would-be artists who gathered around such bona fide geniuses as Oscar Wilde, the writer, and Aubrey Beardsley, the caricaturist. Youthful rebellion occasionally produced enduring works of art; often the result was pretentious nonsense—parodied in this story in the fictional figure of Enoch Soames.
Although Beerbohm mocks Soames, he does not spare his younger self, Soames’s near contemporary, from satire. The narrator’s own problem in recognizing Soames’s nonsense for what it is reflects on his own overconcern to be thought well of and to have the right, the fashionable opinions on all subjects. Thus, Beerbohm’s satire and parody have three objects in the story: Soames; himself as the narrator-character of the story; and his generation’s tendency to startle by affectation in dress, speech, food, and drink, but most especially in its artistic opinions.
On one level, then, this is a light, entertaining narrative, a realistic if nostalgic portrait of a bygone time, brought to climax by the fantastic introduction of the devil to reduce Soames’s craving for success ultimately to absurdity. Beneath Beerbohm’s light touch, however, is a serious exploration of important philosophical issues: What is authentic? What is spurious? How can the difference be satisfactorily determined? The object in question is the character and ability of Soames. Both narrator and reader start gaining access to this phenomenon from the beginning of the story, but the issue of authenticity is muddled by his striving to project a...
(The entire section is 451 words.)