Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1087
The story is told from the point of view of Geoffrey Betton, a man who has achieved remarkable success with his first novel, Diadems and Faggots. He has a second novel coming out, entitled Abundance, which has sold out its initial print run of 150,000 copies.
His novel’s success has elevated Betton from “grinding at his business” to become a wealthy and self-centered gentleman. Despite its obvious comforts, his new life distresses him. He finds that "now that . . . his life had no fixed framework of duties, the hours hunted him like a pack of blood-hounds." In reality, the comfortable, well-fed Betton has nothing worse to worry about than the flood of mail he expects to receive about his second novel.
Betton is also a fundamentally insecure man who needs the affirmation of those around him in order to feel good about himself. He has no ability to judge his own work as a writer, and is frustrated by the subjectivity of his readers' opinions. And their demands—"to give lectures, to head movements, to be tendered receptions, to speak at banquets, to address mothers"—serve only to teach Betton "how few opinions he really had."
Evidence of Betton's vanity and ego emerges through his relationship with Duncan Vyse, an old friend and fellow writer who has not been able to sell his work. Years before, Vyse had given Betton the manuscript of his novel, The Lifted Lamp. Reading The Lifted Lamp, Betton was "riveted till daylight," but, despite a personal resolution, he repeatedly forgot to tell his publisher about it. Vyse sends a woman to retrieve the manuscript; Betton uses his indignation at the intrusion to avoid confronting the extent to which he may have sabotaged his friend.
Betton also hides from himself any pleasure he may feel at hiring his former rival to answer his fan mail, despite making Vyse virtually beg for a job that Betton characterizes as beneath him. Yet at the same time, Betton is embarrassed by their exchange, and seems largely unconscious of what he is doing, as suggested in the following exchange, when he seems to suddenly realize he has been tactless:
"Have you any idea of the deluge of stuff that people write to a successful novelist?"
As Betton spoke, he saw a tinge of red on Vyse's thin cheek, and his own reflected it in a richer glow of shame. "I mean—I mean—" he stammered helplessly.
"No, I haven't," said Vyse; "but it will be awfully jolly finding out."
Although the successful, stout, and well-dressed Betton is Vyse's employer, he soon finds himself at the mercy of Vyse's good opinion. He is in a vise with the aptly named Vyse. It's clear that the famous writer is so vain and insecure that he needs his rival's good opinion far more than his rival needs his. When his fan mail flags, Betton even begins writing letters to himself under other people's names so that Vyse will not mark the change.
Though Betton is ashamed of his dependency on the good opinions of others, he is also delighted when intelligent letters praising his work come in. Yet even when Betton realizes that Vyse is writing them, he is too self-absorbed to perceive the true reason for Vyse's actions. The blow falls at the story's end when Betton opines that Vyse wrote the letters out of sympathy for him, then that Vyse did it to get even with him. Finally, the truth comes out:
"I'm stone broke, and wanted to keep my job—that's what it is," [Vyse] said wearily . . .
That is, perhaps, the worst blow of all to man of Betton's ego: Vyse could care less what Betton is thinking or feeling as long as he gets paid.
Betton is a successful person unable to empathize with or adopt the point of view of someone in a vastly different situation. His inability to inhabit someone else's perspective casts doubt on his ability as a writer.
Vyse is a foil to Betton. As Betton has become a successful novelist, Vyse has given up writing, despite his evidently greater talent.
At the point he arrives to apply for the job answering Betton's fan mail, Vyse is desperate for any work. He has a job in an office but it doesn't "pay enough to keep [him] alive." He is still witty and sardonic, but, unlike Betton, he is beyond all pretense and flourish.
Underscoring his intense need, Vyse's appearance is a sharp contrast to Betton's. He is, Betton observes:
the very Duncan Vyse of old: small, starved, bleached-looking, with the same sidelong movements, the same queer air of anaemic truculence. Only he had grown shabbier, and bald.
Yet Vyse gets the upper hand. His name becomes a pun on the "vise" in which he holds Betton, for Betton's ego demands his underling's approval. Betton credits Vyse with a deep understanding of Betton's character and needs, but it is unclear how correct this assessment is. Vyse never explicitly admits to awareness of Betton's forging his own fan mail. However, Vyse does perceive the novelist's need for approval and applause. He then supplies it by creating two correspondents who tell Betton exactly what he wants to hear.
Contrary to Betton's assumptions, Vyse's struggle for survival leaves him little personal interest in his employer except as someone he can manipulate to keep his job. If Betton is the figure or symbol of the egotistic, narcissistic, and insecure rich man, Vyse is the figure or symbol of the impoverished individual who survives through catering cynically to the needs of a less talented but luckier human.
Strett is Betton's valet. He draws Betton’s bath, brings Betton breakfast, is "watchful" of him, repeatedly calls him "sir," and anticipates his needs. For example, Strett reminds Betton of his appointment to interview potential secretaries. Betton never cringes at his valet’s servile behavior, accepting it as his due.
Strett is responsible for posting Betton’s letters to his readers. For that reason, Vyse suggests he might have written the evidently faked letters that seem to be in the same hand.
Apthorn is Betton's friend and publisher. Before the publication of Betton’s debut novel, Apthorn "was the youngest of the guild," and, in Betton's view, "still capable of opinions and the courage of them." Betton promises to send Vyse's manuscript to him, but never does. Apthorn does not appear in the story, but Betton feels guilty for not sending Vyse’s manuscript to him.