Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The reader’s understanding of the novel is dependent on his understanding of Mrs. Bentley. The first-person narration initially is limited to Mrs. Bentley’s point of view and makes it difficult to evaluate her reliability. Successive readings reveal that she is more manipulative and less self-effacing than she pretends to be. For example, in the light of Judith’s virtual suicide near the end of the novel, Mrs. Bentley’s guilt-provoking gift of oranges seems an extraordinarily cruel gesture.

The Christian overtones of the novel, which are emphasized by the biblical source of its title, dominate the concluding pages. The emergence of comedy in the diary’s final entry marks a radical shift in the novel’s emotional tenor. The comedy which concludes the Bentleys’ year of suffering in Horizon is of the nature of Christian divine comedy. Judith’s death near Easter time, precipitated by her own tormented wanderings, is a sacrifice which expiates the sins of all. Even the townspeople, whom the Bentleys had resented, seem transfigured as they assemble on the train platform to say farewell to their pastor and his wife. Judith’s child functions as a generative counterpart of the Christian Resurrection, the triumph over death which symbolizes hope to mankind. The theme of atonement and renewal is powerfully evoked in the concrete image of father and son which concludes the narrative: “Philip just stands and looks and looks at him, and puts his cheek down close to the little hands, and tells me that way how much I must forget.... He doesn’t look like Philip yet, but Philip I’ll swear is starting to look like him. It’s in the eyes, a stillness, a freshness, a vacancy of beginning.”