The History Man Summary
by Malcolm Bradbury

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The History Man Summary

(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 hilt. In lesser degrees and with varying results, most persons in his orbit find the new rituals exhilarating. Others, however, are less than satisfied, and some are even devastated in the end. The desolation experienced by the two persons at one time closest to Howard finds expression in the smashing of a window, at the first party by Henry Beamish and at the second party by Barbara. The first “accident” goes unnoticed by most of the guests; the second occurs even more quietly at the novel’s end. On this last note Bradbury ends his sociological romp through the sexual and intellectual promiscuities of the new man in the new academia, which has little in common with the Oxford-Cambridge, or Redbrick, university traditions of England.

The new rituals include Howard’s sexual exploits with Flora Beniform, an Earth Mother figure whose sexual appetite matches Howard’s in its lustiness; Felicity Phee, a student starved for sexual gratification from her academic idol; and Miss Annie Callendar, the prim English Department faculty member who loses all inhibitions by the end-of-term party.

The freedom of the new sexual rites is...

(The entire section is 615 words.)