Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Different though the two novellas are in such matters as character groupings and time-spread, both reflect the author’s concern with truth, distortions of it, and Iying. That theme is detectable throughout the book, starting with the epigraph, which quotes Mr. Chadband’s question in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-1853): “What is this Terewth . . . firstly (in a spirit of love) what is the common sort of Terewth?” The conclusion of “Tuesday and Wednesday” turns on Vicky’s invention of a story about Mort’s heroic death, yet, in that Mort’s plunge into the water was an attempt to save his friend, her fiction expresses the truth. “Lilly’s Story” is a series of Lilly’s fictions, in which she assumes aliases, adopts roles, and tells lies. Yet her fabrications are undertaken mainly to provide her daughter with the good life which Lilly never had; after she has told the final lie about the wig, most readers, having been skillfully manipulated by the author, share in her happiness, the last word in the book.

Like several of Wilson’s female characters, Lilly leaves home or the man with whom she is living and embarks on a lonely quest for fulfillment. These characters are, however, forced to recognize, either through their own awareness or through the advice of an older and worldly-wise woman, that community is better than isolation, and that all of life is part of an enormous web of relationships. To articulate this theme, in several books Wilson quotes John Donne’s observation that “no man is an island.”

Marriage offers potential community, but Wilson does not treat it simplistically. The Johnsons exist in a kind of mutually necessary antipathy. Lilly is “faint with happiness” at the prospect of her wedding to Mr. Sprockett. As a widower, he has discovered that his thirty-nine married years were lived “not in rapture but in the perfect satisfaction which is one of the equations of love. . . and he knew now in an obscure way how taut yet tenuous are the filaments that bind our beings.” Marriage is treated neither naively nor sentimentally in Wilson’s work.