Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869
Sammy Mountjoy, a well-known painter, reviews his past life to discover where his sense of guilt began and his innocence ended. He is convinced there was a moment of fall, when a choice freely made cost him his subsequent freedom of action. Several possible moments are examined, until a defining moment is discovered.
Sammy first examines his infancy. Born illegitimately, he lived with his obese, dirt-poor mother in a rural slum in Kent. It was an animal existence, however warm and sensuous. He enjoyed his infants’ school, where his talent for drawing was first noticed, and then the boys’ elementary school. Here he became a gang leader, vying against Johnny Spragg’s gang. Aided by a manipulative friend, Philip Arnold, he set up a playground extortion racket that was soon discovered. Philip attended the local Church of England and dared Sammy to desecrate the altar by urinating on it. Sammy only managed a weak spit, but even then he was promptly pounced on by the verger, who hit him violently round the ear. As a result, Sammy needed hospitalization, during which time his mother died. The vicar, Father Watts-Watt, perhaps as a sign of atonement, became his guardian. For all his naughtiness, Sammy does not believe he lost his innocence during this period.
He analyzes next his time as an art student in London just before the outbreak of World War II. He was infatuated with Beatrice Ifor at school. She was also in London at a teacher training college; he determined to seduce her. His violent, obsessive nature frightened her, but eventually she yielded. Sammy was disappointed: He could find no personality in her, let alone the mystery he was seeking. Their lovemaking was disappointing, and he soon tired of her, although she was emotionally dependent on him. In the end he met Taffy at a Communist Party meeting, fell instantly in love with her, and abandoned Beatrice. In reviewing this part of his life, Sammy realizes his compulsive behavior was a sign that he had already lost his freedom: He was a driven man.
Sammy then explores a defining moment of insight that he had as a prisoner in a German prisoner of war camp. He was being interrogated by Dr. Halde about certain escape plans. Dr. Halde, a psychologist, was working for the Gestapo. Sammy did not know any of the details of the plan, but Dr. Halde knew that as an artist Sammy had intuitive insights and was not held by any strict morality. Before Sammy could articulate any such intuitions, he was placed in a completely dark cell. Sammy had been terrified of the dark since living at Father Watts-Watt’s vicarage, and he was on the point of panic. He measured the cell to keep his sanity, but all the time his imagination was running riot. When he touched a wet soft mass in the center of the cell, he imagined it to be human organs, left perhaps when the ceiling descended and crushed a former inmate. At that point he broke down completely, crying “Help me! Help me!” This expression of utter helplessness and hopelessness became a death experience. When he was released, he felt resurrected, seeing everything quite differently. Life became a glory to him; his old self-centeredness was broken. This revelation enabled him to regain his schoolboy faith in the spiritual and to reject scientific materialism as a full explanation of life.
He now examines the powerful influence of two teachers in his losing faith. Miss Pringle taught religious education, and her lessons on the miraculous and transcendent events of the Bible thrilled him, but her attitude toward Sammy seemed to deny what she said. By contrast, Nick Shales, the science teacher, expressed a strictly logical and material view of life, and his kindness and generosity to his pupils won Sammy over. Sammy, however, felt that neither teacher touched a still-existing innocence within him.
One other episode at school is examined. During an art class, Sammy managed, almost by accident, to capture the inner character of one of the students sitting as a model, Beatrice. From then on Sammy’s infatuation grew as he tried to recapture, unsuccessfully, that moment of artistic insight. On graduation day, the headmaster told Sammy he could achieve anything if he were willing to pay a high enough price, even though he would always be disappointed by what he got. As he went swimming that day, he made a conscious decision to have Beatrice. There lies the moment of fall and the loss of innocence.
Once the war ends, Sammy revisits Beatrice, Miss Pringle, and Nick, in the hope of communicating his new vision and perhaps to set the record straight. None of the three visits is successful. Beatrice is incurably insane and merely urinates over his shoes; Nick is dying; Miss Pringle rearranged her own reality to see herself as an early patron of Sammy. The past cannot be undone. Sammy’s last memory is the final glimpse of the dark prison cell. He was in a broom cupboard, and the wet mass was a floor cloth. The Camp Commandant apologizes for Dr. Halde’s behavior: “The Herr Doktor does not know about peoples.”
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