J. B. Priestley

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J. B. Priestley Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In his novels J. B. Priestley largely portrays a romantic view of life. His focus is primarily on England and the English national character, and on those aspects of people that ennoble and spiritualize them. His fiction also portrays a no-nonsense view of life, however; hard work, dedication to ideals, and willingness to risk all in a good cause are themes that figure prominently. At times, the darker aspects of humanity becloud this gruff but kindly Yorkshireman’s generally sunny attitudes. Ultimately, life in Priestley’s fictional universe is good, provided the individual is permitted to discover his or her potential. In politics, this attitude reduces to what Priestley has called “Liberal Socialism.” For Priestley, too much government is not good for the individual.

Romanticism largely dictated characterization in Priestley’s novels, and his most valid psychological portraits are of individuals who are aware of themselves as enchanted and enchanting. These characters are usually portrayed as questers. It is Priestley’s symbolic characters, however, who are the most forcefully portrayed, occasionally as god figures, occasionally as devil figures, but mostly as organizers—as stage managers, impresarios, factory owners, butlers. Priestley’s female characters fall generally into roles as ingenues or anima figures. There are, however, noteworthy exceptions, specifically, Freda Pinnel in Daylight on Saturday.

It is primarily through the presentation of his organizers that Priestley’s chief plot device emerges: the common cause. A group of disparate characters is assembled and organized into a common endeavor; democratic action follows as a consequence. “Liberal democracy. Expensive and elaborate, but best in the end,” says a choric figure in Festival at Farbridge, echoing one of his author’s deepest convictions.

A romantic view of people in space and time also dictated the kind of novels that Priestley wrote. His fiction falls easily into three main categories. The first is the seriously conceived and carefully structured novel, in which symbolism and consistent imagery figure as aspects of craft. The best of this group are Angel Pavement, Bright Day, and It’s an Old Country. The second category can be termed the frolic or escapade. This group includes The Good Companions, Festival at Farbridge, and the delightful Sir Michael and Sir George. The third category is the thriller or entertainment, which includes such science-fiction works as The Doomsday Men and Saturn over the Water as well as the detective story Salt Is Leaving. Priestley’s favorite novel, and his longest, The Image Men, published in two volumes in 1968 and as one in 1969, incorporates these three categories within a controlled and incisive satiric mode.

In many of his works, but more so in his plays than in his fiction, Priestley dramatized a theory concerning the nature of time and experience that derived from his understanding of John William Dunne’s An Experiment with Time (1927) and The Serial Universe (1934) and P. D. Ouspensky’s A New Model of the Universe (1931). Briefly stated, this time theory, most explicit in The Magicians, a gothic tale that presents Priestley’s characterizations of the Wandering Jew, and Jenny Villiers , originally written as a play for the Bristol Old Vic, proposes a means of transcendence. Priestley believed that Dunne’s serialism—“we observe something, and we are conscious of our observationand we are conscious of the observation of the observation, and so forth”—permitted him to deal with character “creatively.” For the ordinary individual, to “Observer One,” the fourth dimension appears as time. The self within dreams becomes “Observer Two,” to whom the fifth dimension appears as time. Unlike the three-dimensional outlook of Observer One, Observer Two’s four-dimensional outlook enables him or her to receive images from coexisting past and future times. From Ouspensky, Priestley refined the notion that...

(The entire section is 2,037 words.)