Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 963

The painter Gulley Jimson, the protagonist of Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, is a man nearing seventy who, despite physical infirmities and nearly total poverty, remains undiminished in his maverick resistance to all social systems, which he regards as lethal to the development of an individual’s imaginative freedom. Cary describes Gulley in a preface as “an original artist . . . always going over the top into No Man’s Land.” Gulley is an aging iconoclast whose intelligence, education, and incisive understanding of human behavior did not prevent him from living beyond the pale of respectable society amid a loose grouping of bohemians, eccentric thinkers, and working-class individualists. Gulley’s choice to reject the rewards available to a man of his talent who accepts the standards of the academy is strongly supported by Cary’s depiction of the artistic establishment as a clique of snobs and poseurs. Gulley’s choice is ultimately inevitable as a result of his complete commitment to an artistic vision of existence. As he puts it, he did not plan to start being an artist: “It starts on you. Why I had a real job once, a job of work. But art got me and look at me now.”

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From the moment he sees a painting by Edouard Manet, the French Impressionist master, which “gave me the shock of my life,” Gulley subordinates every claim on his attention that is not art. With something like religious zeal, he tries to capture the wonder of the universe with brush and pigment. For him, the moment when he confronts a clean surface and makes his first stroke is like “a miracle,” an instant of exultation surpassing any other sensual or intellectual act, transforming an object or space “into a spiritual fact, an eternal beauty,” which momentarily makes the artist feel “I am God.” Gulley understands this attraction and has ordered his life accordingly.

He “marries” several times, suffers many financial tribulations, loses friends and family, spends time in jail and in the hospital, is insulted by collectors and critics (whom he calls “crickets” and discusses in intricate analogies involving the game of cricket) and is worse off in his seventh decade than at any other point in his life. He is also as happy as he has ever been, still excited by the images of light and color he sees in the infinitely varied landscape of London and still able to confront the disappointments and rebuffs of the world with an antic humor that Cary makes one of the defining elements of Gulley’s character.

Drawing on his own experiences as an art student in Paris and Edinburgh and a lifelong fascination with painting, Cary produces a picture of the art scene that remains accurate. Cary renders the life of Gulley, his friends, and the streets of London in the 1930’s with a sense of detail and dialogue that rivals Charles Dickens. This is an aspect of his skill in the traditionally narrated novel and serves as a ground for the novel’s major achievement—the continuous revelation of character through the flow of first-person narration. Gulley’s sensibility is thus effectively established, as are his volatile moods.

The novel is conceived as a kind of memoir dictated to “my honorary secretary” from the hospital where Gulley is confined after a stroke. This framing device enables Cary to let Gulley speak, rather than write, in a combination of a recollective past and an immediate present, with the narrative recording actions as they occur. This method conveys the spontaneity and impulsiveness of Gulley’s responses to the world and captures the excitement that inspires his artistic vision. It is also more logical for the character; Gulley is not the type to write a book. Clearly influenced by James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915) and Ulysses (1922), Cary locates the essential action of the novel in Gulley’s mind and gives him a voice that reflects the precept of Gulley’s spiritual guide, William Blake (called “Old Bill,” “Billy,” or “Old Randipole” in affectionate but awestruck familiarity), that “Energy is Eternal Delight.” From the opening passage, which records Gulley’s rhapsodic responses to the light on the Thames, to his evocation of sensual ecstasy with his truest love Sara Monday, to his almost delirious exuberance as a new picture begins to take shape, Cary devises a vocabulary and syntax that expresses the psychological condition of an artist’s elevated consciousness.

In addition to the intricate, poetic rhythms of the descriptive passages, which echo the patterns of Gulley’s thoughts as he assimilates color and light and gathers these fragments of perception into a vision of human existence, the structural arrangements of the narration are purposely paralleled to the shape and form of the painting. The syntax duplicates the manner in which Gulley puts the parts of the painting together as Cary works toward as lucid and incisive an examination of the creative process as might be found in modern literature. Although he concentrates on the efforts of a visual artist, the dexterity with which Gulley handles a traditional vocabulary suited to a discussion of aesthetic issues effectively makes The Horse’s Mouth as much about the writer’s life as the painter’s.

Gulley is Cary’s portrait—in the manner of Joyce’s conception of Stephen Dedalus—of the artist as a street-smart, wary, aging enthusiast whose often sardonic humor and self-protective outlaw antics are a cover for his wounded romanticism and fragile idealism. Gulley calls the artist “A son of Los,” the figure in Blake’s mythic pantheon who is the Prophet of the Lord. Gulley still believes that “the world of imagination is the world of eternity” and tries to conduct his life accordingly.

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