King Rat Analysis
by James Clavell

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Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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The narrative records the adventures of Marlowe and the King in the camp and in the native village they manage to visit. There is a great deal of suspense involving a hidden radio and some humor involving the breeding of rats to be sold as food. What differentiates this novel from others of its type is the unforgettable depiction of the huge camp itself, devoid of sanitary provisions, and full of ragged, starving, diseased men.

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A major concern of Clavell's first novel, based on his own suffering as an inmate of the infamous Japanese prisoner of war camp at Changi in Singapore, is the clash of values among different groups. King Rat contrasts the behavior of the British and American troops with the behavior of their Japanese captors. The understandable conflict between the British and the Japanese over the proper treatment of prisoners is exacerbated by the fact that the Japanese believe surrender itself is dishonorable regardless of circumstances, so prisoners of war deserve to die miserably. The class strife endemic to English society also has its place in the camp in the conflicts between the lower-class officers and men and their upper-class colleagues. Finally, Clavell contrasts the behavior and the culture of the prisoners of war with the "normal" behavior of the Allied soldiers sent to care for them and transport them home. He skillfully dramatizes the newcomers' horror at the behavior and appearance of the prisoners and their complete inability to comprehend the survivors' actions.

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The name Marlowe strongly suggests this novel's relationship to the works of Joseph Conrad, novels in which the main character, a well-born young Englishman, is tested in order to determine whether or not he is able to live up to his own ideals of honor. The main characters of Lord Jim (1900), Heart of Darkness (1902), and The Secret Sharer (1910) face a moral problem similar to Marlowe's and indeed, each of these novels is narrated by a man named Marlowe, who represents Conrad, as Marlowe represents Clavell. Conrad's characters are tested either in the African jungle or in Asia, sites either geographically close to, or not unlike, Singapore. Like Clavell's Marlowe, Conrad's young men are tested under the most extreme conditions.

Adaptations

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

King Rat was made into a black and white film by Columbia Pictures in 1965. It was directed by Bryan Forbes and starred George Segal as King Rat. The depiction of the brutal life within the compound won critical and popular success for the film.