(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Two themes dominate James Hanley’s writings. The first concerns humans at sea in ships. Hanley explored, in each succeeding novel, the strange love-hate relationship that men and women have with the sea. The sea, with its violence and tranquillity, its many mysteries and its hypnotic powers over those who live and die by it, is orchestrated by him and becomes “the central experience of his novels.” Hanley views the sea from the sailors’ viewpoint, unlike Joseph Conrad, who sees the ship from the vantage point of an officer.

Hanley’s second theme—often interrelated with the first—concerns men and women imprisoned in the web of poverty from which they have no desire to escape. They have created a world of deprivation for themselves and are terrified to come out of their self-imprisonment; within this confinement, they revolve and eke out their livelihood. Their despair leads them to weave private dreams, and their reluctance to realize their dreams returns them to despair. His characters, for the most part, are marginal people, the remnants of society, the debris of human life: outcasts, hobos, loners, strangers, broken men, women, and children. Hanley is their compassionate chronicler as he conducts a complex investigation into their lives and discovers poetry and drama in their bleak existence. With deep social concern, Hanley reveals how very much these marginal people matter: “the more insignificant a person is in this whirlpool of industrialized and civilized society, the more important he is for me.” In making them touch the readers’ wellsprings of compassion, Hanley achieved the hallmark of great literature; he moves readers emotionally.


The novel Boy has become a collector’s item. In Broken Water, Hanley writes about seeing a boy in a Liverpool slum by the docks dragging a heavy cart “like a mule.” The dull, vacant look on that boy’s face profoundly touched Hanley and became the creative impulse for Boy. Also, in an autobiographical sketch titled “Oddfish,” from Don Quixote Drowned, Hanley reports his sense of shock when he listened to an episode of a ship boy being thrown overboard because he had developed a contagious disease. The memory of that tale remained with him to become an integral part of Boy. Furthermore, in the earlier Hanley story The German Prisoner (1930), two mentally unbalanced British soldiers rape and brutalize a beautiful German boy. The passionate outrage against mindless violence coupled with a keen sense of social concern expressed in that story are also echoed in the novel.

Boy, because of its graphic descriptions of brutality, sadism, and homosexuality aboard a ship, was banned upon publication. The work became a cause célèbre, and E. M. Forster came to Hanley’s defense. William Faulkner called Boy “a damn fine job. It springs up like a purifying cyclone, while most contemporary novels sound as if they were written by weaklings.”

Boy is the brutal and tragic story of Arthur Fearon, a Liverpool schoolboy who has dreams of becoming a chemist. His sadistic father has more practical plans of having his son work on the docks to help liquidate family debts. He himself had a brutal job as a boy, and he cannot see a better life for his son. At the age of thirteen, Arthur is initiated into physical horrors by the gang on the dock. Arthur flees home and stows away in the coal bunker on a freighter going to Alexandria.

The boy’s humiliating experiences, physical and sexual, on the freighter at the hands of almost everyone on board is the theme of Boy. A visit to a brothel in Alexandria, his initiation into manhood, is Arthur’s one and only experience with beauty. The beauty of the girl soothes him, and “like a dark tapestry it covered his wounded thought, the spoliation, the degradation, the loneliness, the misery of his existence.” From the encounter, he contracts syphilis and is shunned by all on the freighter. The ship’s doctor wants Arthur to jump overboard and drown himself. Instead, however, the drunken captain gently invites Arthur to come to him by holding up his great coat, and, when Arthur responds unsuspectingly, the captain smothers him to death. The official report: “Boy was lost overboard.”

In spite of all the brutality that Arthur faces, he maintains a boyish idealism to the very end. He remains uncorrupted and thereby heightens the sense of tragedy. The novel’s strong connotations of sexual urge and clinical descriptions make it a naturalistic work reminiscent of Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893). The epitome of Hanley’s technique and style—the use of letters to keep the flow ofnarrative, the grinding minutiae of financial details, descriptions that often read like stage directions, the longing for the past and the future because the present is so unbearable, prose rising to poetic eloquence when describing ships and seA&Mdash;Boy is a blueprint of the author’s craftsmanship and sets the tone for his later novels.

Fury family chronicle

Comprising 2,295 pages and five volumes, the Fury family chronicle (The Furys, The Secret Journey, Our Time Is Gone, Winter Song, and An End and a Beginning) is Hanley’s magnum opus. Set in Gelton, the fictional counterpart of Liverpool, the sequence of novels chronicles the saga of the Furys, a working-class Liverpool Irish family. Based on references to British and world events, a period of sixteen years from 1911 to 1927 is covered in the novel sequence. In some of the volumes, the period covered is very brief, as in the final volume, An End and a Beginning, where the time frame is only three weeks.

Dennis Fury, a seaman, is the main character in the saga. It is his wife, Fanny, however, who is the dominating force in the sequence. One of the most fully realized women in contemporary fiction, she is, as Edward Stokes points out in his study The Novels of James Hanley (1964), “both prosaic and legendary, at once middle-aged, dowdy, toil-worn, intensely respectable and bigoted housewife and a creature vital, passionate and a-moral as a heroine of Celtic myth.” Fanny Fury holds both the novel and the Fury family together, and Hanley has fused into her something of the obsession of Lady Macbeth. Her son, Peter, whom she wants to be a priest against the wishes of the rest of her family, murders Anna Ragnar, the shrewd moneylender, and so splits the entire Fury family. Fanny uses all her efforts to bring the family together in a semblance of peace. The final novel in the sequence, An End and a Beginning, is devoted entirely to Peter Fury, and Hanley skillfully weaves the past and the present to maintain the narrative flow.

In anatomizing the intricacies of the family relationships within the Fury family, Hanley draws upon elements of Lawrentian brutality. Dennis Fury is pitted against his eighty-two-year-old father-in-law, Anthony Mangan, who is incapacitated; Fanny is pitted against her daughter Maureen’s husband, John Kilkey, a devout pacifist; the whole family, with the exception of Fanny, is pitted against Peter, who is studying to be a priest at their expense; Fanny and Dennis themselves are locked in ferocious combat concerning a...

(The entire section is 3030 words.)