Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1137
If one is to take Found, Lost, Found seriously it is necessary to recognize that J. B. Priestley is a writer of prodigious output, whose fiction is as much social comment as are his essays and his criticism, and that he has been producing work for more than a half...
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If one is to take Found, Lost, Found seriously it is necessary to recognize that J. B. Priestley is a writer of prodigious output, whose fiction is as much social comment as are his essays and his criticism, and that he has been producing work for more than a half century (his first novel, Adam in Moonshine, was published in 1927). As it happens, this latest short novel is much like his first; it is a charming, light, romantic, escapist bit of fiction; one has to dig for the symbolism, and might not bother to do so were it not that the work is by Priestley.
The title appears to tell it all: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. On further consideration, however, the story does have another level when one remembers Priestley’s penchant for symbolism and social criticism in his work; it then becomes a mischievous look at the civil services, psychiatry, women’s liberation, the theater, and other manifestations of the embattled Englishman in the last part of the twentieth century.
The action centers around the acceptance of a challenge from his girl by a moderately alcoholic civil servant; the challenge is to prove he can generate enough initiative and self-discipline to find her, if he wants her.
The protagonist, Tom Dekker, exemplifies the plight of the middle-level civil servant in England—victim of boredom, frustration, and irritation at bureaucratic dullness, inclined to hide behind a polite facade while inwardly carping at the façades erected by others. Priestley has taken each character and exaggerated it to create a kindly caricature so that one laughs with, rather than at, the broadly sketched foibles of modern-day Englishmen.
Dekker is handled most sympathetically of all the characters. Through him, we see the condition of man as it is today, a condition of diminishing sense of purpose in the face of increasing anonymity and expanding government regulation—enough to drive anyone to drink. Dekker retains his sanity by floating through each day on a cloud of gin, one of the simplest and most accessible solutions to any problem. He is characterized as having a quick wit and ready humor; Priestley uses him as the vehicle for some clever one-liners and bits of comedy, though some of the comedy is contrived, forced, and too hearty; one gets the impression that the author padded the action to provide a substrata to support the witty passages.
Psychiatry comes in for its share of risible but irascible comment in the person of Dr. Belham, who is supposed to help Dekker, but who is patently in need of help himself. Quick-tempered and arbitrary, he admits that he went into psychiatry to try to correct his own weaknesses. This gives Priestley a chance to use one of the less subtly placed epigrams: “We are living in a garden of neuroses. . . .”
Related closely to psychiatry, sociology fares no better with Priestley’s pen. Kate Rapley is limned as earnest, serious, and prone to reform—reform being the right, as God gives Community Research Social Service Council to see the right. S. K. Overton-Briggs, head of the Council, is a bureaucrat making up in self-importance for what he lacks in understanding. Briggs’s pomposity leads his secretary to tell Dekker that if she did not show proper respect, “I’d be out—treading water again in the typing pool.”
Priestley is a prolific playright; author of twenty-one plays, he knows his theater. His good-humored jab at amateur theatricals, through a chapter on the North Green Drama Club (“squashed between a delicatessen and a dry cleaner’s”), tells a great deal about that sort of theater and the people who are drawn to it. His characterization of modern theater, less kindly done, is the best piece of satire in the book, wildly Oscar Wildelike in mood. Priestley makes evident his distaste for experimental theater and those who flaunt tradition for the sake of relevance, through a preposterous sequence in which two directors talk about their offbeat productions of As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra.
Women’s liberation activists also come in for their share of attention, as does the civil service’s tendency to “play the initial game.” Mrs. Dragby of Women’s Social and Political Liberation Front, greets Dekker, “Do sit down, Mr. Dekker. We here at the W.S.P.L.F. don’t see much of you at the M.E.D.P. We spend rather more time with the B.O.T. and the M.O.E. and of course the F.O. and the H.O. . . .” “Sounds rather as if you’re just rollicking with the alphabet.”
Older women are viewed in an Edwardian manner, and categorized through the medium of Kate’s aunts: the lonely middle-aged divorcée trying to stay young, pathetic in her attempts to attract a man; the horse- and dog-loving hearty maiden lady; the oft-married beauty who has an eye for wealthy men, and marries then divorces them to live well on the sizable settlements extracted from each through the divorce proceedings; and the women’s libber who would probably settle for submission and another man had she not become a dynamic public figure after her husband’s demise.
Throughout the tale, Priestley’s prejudices show themselves. He does not care for America or Americans. From his literary treatment of the American in the story, and from his sensitivity to criticism from this side of the Atlantic, it is safe to assume that he has his reservations about us. He distrusts labor unions, and disapproves of garrulousness, the motives of today’s students, and the methods of today’s police. There is the implied indictment of a mechanistic, bureaucratic society that dehumanizes man, consistent with statements made in earlier works. While criticizing mass media, educational systems, and lack of self-motivation, he also deplores the weaknesses of those who succumb to apathy.
This book suffers from a negative first impression. Superficially it is a bit of escapist fluff, of no substance, and of no consequence—the oversimplified drivel one reads in second-rate magazines. The work has more the aura of a light stage comedy: stylized characters, some clever dialogue, and more atmosphere than action. It has its bright moments, however—a creative solution to a problem, and evidence of wit and sophistication. It is not up to the standards one expects of a major writer who has produced such works of art as The Good Companions, Bright Day, and The Image Men. Priestley has said of himself that from time to time he likes to forsake the novel proper in order to indulge in mere tale-telling. The work under consideration falls into that category, and Priestley seems to have written it with considerable self-indulgence; it will not be listed among his major works.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 20
Booklist. LXXIII, March 1, 1977, p. 993.
Choice. XIV, June, 1977, p. 536.
Library Journal. CII, April 1, 1977, p. 835.
New York Times Book Review. August 28, 1977, p. 10.