Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Girl, 20 is a comic indictment of contemporary society’s spiritual bankruptcy, of a world not so much of immorality as of amoral unbelief. Centering on the witty insouciance of the narrator— who leers at his best friend’s daughter while he tries to save this same best friend’s reputation—the novel depicts contemporary life in roughly the same terms as a Restoration comedy of manners portraying the way of the world. The novel is, in fact, highly suggestive of that courtly form of drama in which men and women engage in witty verbal combat as a prelude to love, in which love is really only sex and in which sex is the final preoccupation of all that worldly wit and wisdom.

As in Restoration comedy, sex in Girl, 20 is the controlling fact of life, the matrix of human behavior. Yet the comedy is also too deep for laughter. Sex, the ultimate act in a healthy relationship, is for the characters in this novel a purely physical experience, not an ultimate act but a final one. It is an act that does not consummate love but signals desperation—a frenzied escape from age, from mediocrity, from responsibility, from commitment. “We’re all free now,” says Penny in the last line of the book. Yet that freedom is not a liberty of spirit, but an estrangement, a disconnection, a dissolution of all meaningful relationships.