Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 209
Lanark is the alter ego, or transformed version, of Duncan Thaw. Duncan is an obsessive, unappreciated artist consumed with a monumental project. Plagued with disfiguring eczema that becomes a metaphor for the larger human engineering projects of the Institute, Duncan stands for the singularity of the creative individual as humankind's...
(The entire section contains 1742 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Lanark is the alter ego, or transformed version, of Duncan Thaw. Duncan is an obsessive, unappreciated artist consumed with a monumental project. Plagued with disfiguring eczema that becomes a metaphor for the larger human engineering projects of the Institute, Duncan stands for the singularity of the creative individual as humankind's hope against totalitarian domination. As Lanark, a doctor and Rima's lover, he is caught up in a doomed, idealistic crusade that ultimately takes his life.
Rima is presented primarily as Lanark’s love interest. As their involvement deepens, she also gives birth to their child. Also in danger of being overtaken by the scaly dragon identity, Rima escapes that fate with Lanark's aid. Nevertheless, she chooses instead to go with Sludden.
Professor Ozenfant is the malevolent director of the Institute. Working his way into fame and power from his scientist beginnings, he stands for the corruption of supposedly objective science. His depiction as a music lover amidst inhumane experiments emphasizes his hypocrisy.
Sludden is the ultimate politician. Ostensibly a principled radical opponent, he soon reveals his devotion only to his own advancement with lip service to the powers that be. With his seductive charms and polish, serving as a foil to the naive Lanark, Sludden takes Rima from him.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405
Fully realized characters are seldom called for in allegory: in fact, they often impede its progress, so it is not surprising that many of the figures that appear in Lanark, often identified only by first names, are types rather than individuals. What reality they have is gained in part by a clever use of literary resonance, explained in the Index of Plagiarisms in the epilogue, and in part by Gray’s structural gamesmanship, since characters who appear only in essence in the Lanark story take on the dimensions of the vivid personalities whose roles correspond to theirs in the Thaw section.
This kind of “structural characterization” is, for the most part, effective. It enables the author to underline his themes without seeming too obvious and to enliven what might otherwise be a rather dry excursion into didactic form by forcing the reader to make connections between conventional perspectives and their underlying role in psychophilosophical discourse. Several characters can be condensed into one and seen in terms of their function in Thaw’s psychic life; their individuality is referential rather than specific, but they retain lingering traces of their original personalities. Rima, for example, is Marjory Laidlaw, Thaw’s teasing nemesis, but she is also all the other women in Thaw’s life, from his mother to the prostitute, who attract and then abandon him. Sludden, the archetypal taker and destroyer, is the under side of all the authority figures in Thaw’s life, whose function in the interior narrative is more ambiguous and less self-serving.
In general, the most memorable figures in Lanark are those closest to the hero not unusual in a narrative with some autobiographical roots. Thaw’s father, a gentle and baffled rationalist who tries without success to take on the sufferings of his son, is moving and pathetic in his frustrated inability to provide Thaw with adequate weapons to ensure his survival. Thaw himself has far more complexity and energy than the cipherlike Lanark. An amalgam of Paul Morel (of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, 1913), Stephen Daedalus (of James Joyces’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916), and Gulley Jimson (of Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, 1944), Thaw is nevertheless firmly rooted in his time and his place. His combination of illness and talent may be both familiar and symbolic, but it is convincing and sufficiently particularized to make his final explosion almost unbearably painful.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1128
Lanark, the protagonist. Nondescript in his physical appearance, he is remarkable for his emotional reserve. His manner suggests at once mystery and transparent personality. At the novel’s opening, he finds himself in a railroad car, without memory of his past. Drifting through the almost continually dark and damp streets of a half-wasted city called Unthank, he learns how to acquire funds through a public welfare agency that, despite its procedural formality, seems to dispense monies arbitrarily. Determined to witness each day’s brief moment of sunlight on the horizon, he often sits alone in the rain on the small balcony of a club called The Elite. Lanark eventually is drawn into one of the club’s cliques, the one formed around Sludden. At Sludden’s suggestion, he attempts to provide a purposeful center to his existence by becoming a writer. Disturbed by a scaly patch of skin on his arm, which increases in size as he scratches it, he discovers that the woman he has been pursuing, Rima, bears this affliction over much of her body. After he makes love to her unsatisfactorily, she pushes him out of her apartment. Shortly afterward, he wakes to find that his entire arm has become dragonlike. After being sucked down a tunnel, he wakes, cured of his affliction, in an underground utopia of bright artificial lights called the Institute. There, he becomes a doctor in much the same illogical way as he earlier became a writer. Later, he meets Rima again and cures her, and they escape back to Unthank. Rima leaves Lanark for Sludden, who has become a sort of managing director of the city. Against his instincts, Lanark accepts the post of provost and travels to an international conference at which the fate of Unthank will be decided. With his moods swinging between fatigued bewilderment and inflated self-importance, he allows several beautiful young women to get him drunk, is arrested for urinating off a bridge, and misses most of the conference. Recognizing that his political naïveté has served Sludden’s Machiavellian schemes, he returns to Unthank in disgrace, witnesses the eventual destruction of the city by fire and flood, and, without protest, accepts the announcement of his impending execution.
Duncan Thaw, Lanark’s alter ego, a neurotic art student in Glasgow. Born into a lower-middle-class family shortly before the outbreak of World War II, he escapes the German bombing of Glasgow with his mother and his sister, Ruth. Eventually, they join his father, who is working as the personnel director of a munitions plant. From an early age, Duncan is subject to attacks of asthma and outbreaks of eczema. As he matures, he recognizes that his physical ailments have become a neurotic defense mechanism against his dismal environs and his own unnaturally constrained personality. Pressured by his parents to do well in school, he excels in art and in English but barely gets by in mathematics. He seems destined for a secure but dull career as a librarian when, by fortuitous circumstance, he is offered a fellowship to the Art School. There, he antagonizes several instructors with his self-assured willfulness, but, because of his obvious talent and his friendship with the registrar, he is granted unusual privileges, such as being permitted to pursue his own projects in a loft near the school instead of attending regular classes. Haunted by his unrequited infatuation for Kate Caldwell, a girl he knew in secondary school, he pursues a relationship with Marjory Laidlaw, a fellow student at the Art School. Tortured by her alternating friendliness and clear avoidance of physical intimacy with him, he intends to break off with her decisively but ends up doing so very lamely. Unable to complete an overly large, overly ambitious painting of the canal system between Glasgow and the surrounding countryside, he becomes delusional and, in a nightmarish sequence out of the writings of Fyodor Dostoevski, imagines murdering Marjory. All Duncan’s expectations of great success eventually are wrecked as his eccentricities and careless remarks detract from his work. Ultimately, Duncan travels north, intending to visit his father, who has retired to the countryside. When he peeks through the window of his father’s residence, however, he cannot bear to disturb his father’s apparent contentment. Duncan ends up on a desolate seashore, where he strips off his clothes and walks into the water.
Rima, Lanark’s companion and the mother of his child. Hardened by the purposeless nature of her existence in Unthank, she is saved from a fatally complete transformation into a dragon by Lanark’s insistent devotion, which, in effect, gives her a reason for living. She soon grows tired of his strict adherence to his principles, however, and leaves him, explaining that he simply does not need her enough. Ironically, she chooses to live with Sludden.
Sludden, a lascivious schemer who charms others in such a way that they accept the inevitability of his using them. Politically as astute as he is unprincipled, he transforms himself from a coffeehouse radical to a self-aggrandizing figure in the establishment. He understands his hypocrisy only to the extent of being able to profit from it politically. In the end, he sacrifices Unthank to his personal ambitions. His serene domesticity with Rima and Alexander (Lanark’s son) is clearly a trite posture.
Professor Ozenfant, a research scientist at the Institute who eventually becomes its director and a powerful international figure. His hypocrisy is more polished and, for that reason, more dangerous than Sludden’s. His love of music and his smooth managerial style are simply the ironic mani-festations of a completely amoral self-assurance about the realization of his ambitions for power.
Duncan Thaw, Sr.
Duncan Thaw, Sr., Duncan’s father. Although he succeeds financially during the war, he lacks the educational qualifications for anything but menial work after the war. Devoted to his wife, he exhausts himself caring for her during her long and, eventually, fatal illness. Despite Duncan Sr.’s seemingly perverse inability to focus himself, he sacrifices his own comfort to his son’s ambitions as an artist. Finally, however, he recognizes that Duncan Jr. is taking advantage of his good-heartedness and retires to the countryside to find some peace from family responsibilities.
Marjory Laidlaw, the daughter of a college professor. She is attracted to Duncan Thaw more out of a compassionate interest in the emotional sensitivity and turmoil that underlie his talent than out of any passionate interest in him, romantically or sexually. She contrives to bring others along on their dates and avoids situations in which she will be clearly alone with him. Naïvely good-hearted, she apparently does not recognize the degree to which her limited but genuine interest tortures him.