The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 405 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


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

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...

(The entire section is 1128 words.)