The entirety of Joyce Cary’s fiction is, as the author himself suggests, about one world—the world of freedom, “the active creative freedom which maintains the world in beingthe source of moral responsibility and of good and evilof injustice and love, of a special comedy and a special tragic dilemma which can never be solved.” It is “a world in everlasting conflict between the new idea and the old allegiances, new arts and new inventions against the old establishment.” Cary sees human beings as condemned to be free and society as perpetually poised between the extremes of anarchy and totalitarianism. Because creative imagination is of the highest value, the individual must rebel against the forces that threaten to trammel or stultify the free expression of his imagination, whether the forces be those of the established church, the state, tribalism, nationalism, conventional morality, or whatever. Throughout his novels, Cary dramatizes the tension between the intuitive and the analytical, the imaginative and the conceptual, the concrete and the abstract, and the vital and the mechanical.
Cary’s romanticism, however, is not naïve. He is acutely aware that the tension between freedom and authority is necessary, that the will to create is continually in conflict with the will to preserve. His first trilogy, for example, sympathetically portrays a survivalist, a conservative, and a rebel. Even radically different characters, however, must enact their lives and secure their salvation or damnation in the moral world of freedom, imagination, and love.
In Joyce Cary (1973), R. W. Noble conveniently divides Cary’s novels into five categories, according to their subject matter: Africa and empire, youth and childhood, women and social change, the artist and society, and politics and the individual. The novels of Africa and empire are substantial achievements but not major novels of the twentieth century, save for Mister Johnson.
Cock Jarvis, Cary’s first effort, was abandoned in 1937; it was published posthumously. The problem with the novel was that Cary could not construct a plot adequate to encompass the character of Cock Jarvis, for at this point Cary had not assimilated the modernist style. Without recourse to first-person narration or stream of consciousness, his eminently interesting character was locked into a melodramatic and conventional plot structure. Whether Jarvis was to murder his wife and her lover, forgive them, or commit suicide, Cary never decided; none of the resolutions would solve the essential problem, which is technical.
Aissa Saved, with its seventy or more characters, has so many cultural conflicts, disconnected episodes, and thematic concerns that the aesthetic experience for the reader is congested and finally diffuse. Its analysis of the transforming powers of religious conversion, however, is penetrating and ironic. The juxtaposition of Aissa, an African convert who understands the sacrifice of Christ in a dangerously literal way and ingests Him as she would a lover, and Hilda, an English convert, is effective. Though the backgrounds of the two converts are divergent, they both end by participating in gruesome blood sacrifices. The novel as a whole, however, suffers from two problems. First, its central action, which revolves around attempts to end a devastating drought, cannot unify the manifold details of the plot: the cultural, religious, and military conflicts among Christians, pagans, and Muslims. Second, its tone is somewhat ambiguous. It is not clear whether the novel is meant to be an outright attack on missionaries and thus an ironic and cynical treatment of Aissa’s so-called salvation or a more moderate assessment of the transforming powers of religious conversion.
An American Visitor has more manageable intentions. The book effectively dramatizes the difference between practical and theoretical knowledge and concrete and abstract knowledge. The preconceptions of the American visitor, Marie Hasluck, are not experientially based and are contrasted with the practices of the local district officer, Monkey Bewsher, who strives to strike a balance between freedom and authority. Even though reality forces Marie to abandon some of her pseudoanthropological beliefs, utopianism is so much a part of her psychological complex that she turns to religious pacifism for compensation, a turning that has tragic consequences for the pragmatic, imaginative, and somewhat self-deluded officer.
The African Witch is more panoramic in scope. It deals with the social, political, and religious lives of both Europeans and Africans. The plot revolves around the election of a new emir: The Oxford-educated Aladai is pitted against Salé, a Muslim. Aladai’s Western demeanor offends many of the Europeans; they prefer Africans to be noble savages rather than liberal rationalists. In the end, the forces of juju and political corruption prevail. Aladai is rejected and chooses a self-sacrificial death, presumably abandoning his rationalism and lapsing into stereotype. The conclusion of the novel is not convincingly wrought.
Castle Corner is part of a projected trilogy or quartet of novels that Cary decided not to continue. Covering a half century of life in Ireland, England, and Africa, the novel moves from the 1870’s to the brink of World War I. Because of its congeries of characters and variety of themes, the book resists summary. In general, however, it puts the world of individual freedom and responsibility in collision with the world of historical change, but it has too much explicit debate and attitudinizing to be dramatically effective.
Generally, Cary’s novels of Africa and empire are competent but not exceptional fiction. More materially than formally satisfying, they suffer finally from a lack of cohesion and unity; the form is not adequate to the content, which is rich and detailed. Nevertheless, these novels well delineate the everlasting conflict between new ideas and the old allegiances, the necessary tension between freedom and authority, reflecting Cary’s characteristic preoccupation with the struggle for imaginative freedom on personal, moral, social, religious, and political levels.
Mister Johnson is an exceptional piece of fiction. The character from whom the novel takes its title, as Cary points out in the preface, is a young clerk who turns his life into a romance, a poet who creates for himself a glorious destiny. Johnson is a supreme embodiment of imaginative vitality and, as such, a prototype for the picaresque heroes in Cary’s later novels. Even though Johnson’s fate is ultimately tragic, his mind is full of active invention until the end.
The novel occupies a pivotal moment in the dialectic of Cary’s art, for not only is the content exceptional—Mr. Johnson is an unforgettable character; his adventures indelibly impress themselves on the reader—but also the innovative form is adequate to that content. In Mister Johnson, Cary deploys third-person, present-tense narration. He notes in the preface that he chose this style because it carries the reader unreflectingly on the stream of events, creating an agitated rather than a contemplative mood. Because Johnson lives in the present and is completely immersed in the vibrant immediacy of his experience, he does not judge; nor does the reader judge, as the present-tense narration makes the reader swim gaily with Johnson on the surface of life.
Cary’s choice of third-person narration, which he does not discuss in the preface, is equally strategic. The first-person style that he uses so effectively in some of his later novels would have been appropriate. By using the third-person style, he is able not only to give the African scene a solidity of local detail but also to enter into the mind of Rudbeck, so that the reader can empathize with his conscientious decision to shoot Johnson, a personal act, rather than hanging him, an official act. The impact of the tragic outcome is thereby intensified.
The novel traces the rise and fall of Mr. Johnson, chief clerk of Fada in Nigeria. A southerner in northern Nigeria and an African in European clothes, he has aspirations to be civilized and claims to be a friend of District Officer Rudbeck, the Wazirin Fada, the King of England, and anyone who vaguely likes him. Johnson’s aspirations, however, are not in consonance with his finances, and his marriage, machinations, schemes, stories, parties, petty thefts, capital crime, and irrepressible good spirits become part of the exuberant but relentless rhythm of events that lead to his death. For Johnson, as Cary suggests, life is simply perpetual experience, which he soaks into himself through all five senses at once and produces again in the form of reflections, comments, songs, and jokes. His vitality is beyond good and evil, equally capable of expressing itself anarchistically or creatively.
Rudbeck, too, is a man of imagination, though not as liberated from constraint as Johnson. His passion for road building becomes obsessive once Johnson’s imagination further fuels his own. He goes so far as to misappropriate funds in order to realize his dream. Without the infectious influence of Johnson’s creativity, Rudbeck would never have rebelled against the forces of conservatism. The completed road demonstrates the power of creative imagination.
The road, however, brings crime as well as trade, and in his disillusionment, Rudbeck fires Johnson for embezzlement. In the end, Johnson murders a man and is sentenced to death by Rudbeck. Johnson wants his friend Rudbeck to kill him...
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