(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In mock-epic and mock-sociological style, The History Man satirically explores the rituals of a contemporary social phenomenon, at its height in the early 1970’s: the unstructured life, whose deliberate lack of form becomes the new structure of things. Defined by its Freudian-Marxist context, human nature is, in Malcolm Bradbury’s words, “a particular type of relationship to the temporal and historical process, culturally conditioned....” Howard Kirk, joined by his wife, Barbara, is the full embodiment of the postmodernist man, with his new self-consciousness. At the basis of this mode lies the abandonment of traditional sexual, familial, and professional (academic, in this case) mores.

The epicenter of events, Howard, a professor of sociology at Watermouth University, makes things happen to himself and to those around him—or, in his own terms, allows them to happen. These “happenings,” a term used by Bradbury in the narrow sociological definition of the protest generation of the 1960’s, form the loose plot of the novel. Happenings occur at two parties held by the Kirks’, one at the beginning and the other at the end of the fall term. All the remaining action radiates from these central events. To their parties the Kirks invite friends, colleagues, students, and strangers, in the hope of generating spontaneous happenings that will destructure existing feelings, attitudes, and relationships. Howard practices his beliefs to the...

(The entire section is 570 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Bradbury, Malcolm, ed. The Novel Today: Contemporary Writers on Modern Fiction, 1977.

Drabble, Margaret. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXIV (February 8, 1976), p. 3.

Spurling, Hilary. “Campus Mentis,” in The Times Literary Supplement. November 7, 1975, p. 1325.

Steiner, George. Review in The New Yorker. LII (May 3, 1976), p. 130.