The ambiguous nature of Henry Green’s fiction has long piqued and captivated the attention of readers and critics alike, for his individual departures from conventional narrative technique separate him from the literary mainstream. A successful businessman independent of popular success, Green felt free to experiment with the form and theory of the novel. His novels speak directly to the reader with minimal interruption or interpretation; taking on lives of their own, they maintain their own shifting realities and sustain an uncanny sense of the present.
Evident in his novels as early as Blindness are characteristics that Green was to polish throughout his writing career: close attention to balance and symmetry, objectivity in character presentation, action developed through juxtaposed scenes, and remarkable re-creation of spoken English interspersed with lyrical descriptive passages. His singular treatment was given to classical themes. Fascinated by language and the human capacity to interpret, Green dramatized the problems of communication by having his characters misunderstand one another. He further complicated these problems of understanding by creating intentional verbal ambiguity, so that the reader might also be uncertain of the speaker’s intent. Often talking at cross purposes, Green’s characters, prompted by loneliness, search for love. Although their love objects may at times seem strange, ranging as they do from peacocks and a pig to houses and fantasies, they nevertheless reflect the range of human passion. In an atmosphere suggestive of social dissolution, Green’s characters pursue the relative stability of love, which they often discover in unsuspected places.
Most of Green’s solipsistic characters are neither intelligent, gifted, nor particularly beautiful. Often vain and fanciful, they reveal themselves to be profoundly human as they engage in conversations revelatory of their own preoccupations. Fascinated by what people communicate through both speech and evasion, Green sought to make dialogue the vehicle for his novels, refining his conversation and decreasing his descriptive passages until, in his last two novels, dialogue carries almost the entire weight. To avoid the static quality of conversation, he created brief scenes, shifting his reader’s attention from one group of characters to another. His technique also produces an acute sense of the present, a sense emphasized by the “ing” ending of his novels’ titles.
That Green’s novels create their own sense of the present is only one of several important factors to be considered when reading his fiction. Above all, Green wanted his work to assume a life of its own, a life differing according to the reader, providing each one with a sense of connection until he or she is drawn into a “community of people.” Green accomplishes this primarily by suggesting rather than stating. Time and place, motivation and reaction, action and resolution are often evoked rather than delineated. Behind the slight plots and often silly activities is an unstated social context that tacitly influences action. Green’s characters are also created through indirection. By allowing them to inarticulately express their obsessions, fears, anxieties, or confusion, by having them avoid direct responses, by refusing to make authorial judgments, Green populates his novels with lifelike creations. Their humanness is mutely expressed in their search for love. Examining Blindness, Loving, and Nothing with these ideas in mind, the reader can begin to understand Green’s elusive art.
When Green had a family friend read the manuscript of Blindness, he did not receive much praise. He was, however, encouraged to show his work to Garnett, then a publisher’s reader, who gave Green sound advice concerning narrative technique and character development. The result is a first novel remarkable primarily for its close attention to structure and its multidimensional characters. While taking a usual avenue for a first novel, Green proceeded to treat his subject with daring. His protagonist, John Haye, a sensitive upper-middle-class schoolboy who aspires to be a writer, is blinded in a freak accident. During the course of the novel, John comes to new terms with himself and his world, awakening in the end to a fresh appreciation of life.
With the theme of growth in mind, Green divided Blindness into three sections—“Caterpillar,” “Chrysalis,” and “Butterfly”—suggesting John’s psychological metamorphosis. “Caterpillar,” presented as John’s diary, reflects his physical response to natural beauty, his passion for literature, and his concentrated ambition to write. Because John derives intense pleasure from visual stimuli, his blindness seems especially cruel. In “Chrysalis,” he reconsiders himself. As he lies dormant in layers of a protective cocoon—his bandages, his blindness, his fantasies and self-pity, his stepmother’s pity and worry, the physical safety of his inherited estate—his creative life is threatened until he determines to break free of this smothering safety. He emerges in “Butterfly” scarred but acutely aware of the value of life.
The narrative passages of Blindness are lush, as exuberant as John’s imagination, as soaring as his emotions. Echoing with poetic resonance, Green’s descriptive passages in Blindness far outweigh the oblique dialogue. Nevertheless, there are signs of Green’s later mastery of dialogue: Speech patterns are distinct for each character. The language is spare, with internal monologues reflective of individual character. John’s thoughts are full of wonder and pain, his stepmother’s are busy with seemingly dissociated concerns. Both characters’ thoughts, however, circuitously return to one subject: blindness. Where Green introduces rich visual images through John’s eyes in the first portion of the novel, he later confines John’s responses to those of touch and sound. Indeed, the novel ends in a cacophony of bells and traffic noises, affirming John’s rebirth.
Green seems precocious in his handling of the symbolic value of blindness. This he does by indirectly comparing John’s blindness with various metaphorical failures of vision. Mrs. Haye, John’s horsey stepmother, is “blind” in a number of...
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