Joyce Cary Analysis
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...
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