Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 271

Lanark: A Life in Four Books by Scottish writer and illustrator Alasdair Gray is difficult to categorize within traditional literary genres. However, the book has a few recurring themes that, collectively, could be considered a thesis to the book's diverse stories. Similar to Dante's Inferno, Lanark explores the concept...

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Lanark: A Life in Four Books by Scottish writer and illustrator Alasdair Gray is difficult to categorize within traditional literary genres. However, the book has a few recurring themes that, collectively, could be considered a thesis to the book's diverse stories. Similar to Dante's Inferno, Lanark explores the concept of hell.

The theme of the human soul's struggle to find a higher plane of existence, possibly enlightenment, is evident in many of the stories in the collection. The human spirit, Gray suggests, craves love but always fails to attain it. However, Gray also opines that people try to attain their own concept of love despite failures to reach it.

The setting of hell and the failure to grasp love is reminiscent of the Greek story of Orpheus. Another theme is the subtle political commentary on the idea of utopia. There's the idea that modern society cannot reach utopia due to our civilization's inherent corruption, politically and morally-speaking.

Another interesting theme in the book is the idea of plagiarism. In fact, there is an index in the book citing all of the plagiarized text. Gray believes that art—whether literary or visual art—cannot be bound by legal and social rules. This disregard for the rules is even illustrated in the narrative itself. The titular character breaks the rules of the Institute where he is being held and defies the nefarious Professor Ozenfant. In essence, Lanark embodies the rebellious human spirit who must liberate himself from the authoritarianism of omniscient beings. This could be a criticism of institutions (e.g. government, organized religion, etc.) or authority figures (e.g. dictators, God, etc.).

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

Lanark is primarily a philosophical novel, one in which the author calls on the combined resources of modern, medieval, and classical literary traditions in an attempt to express his convictions about the forces governing contemporary civilization. His particular subject is the destructive struggle for power that crushes the creative spirit of humankind, forcing human energy in upon itself and destroying the ability of the individual to save himself and others through the active exercise of love.

The figure who appears to Lanark in one of the final chapters of the novel and identifies himself to his hero as the author (who is also the king and creator of Unthank and Provan, a being once, but no longer, a part of God) describes the Institute as an embodiment of the Hobbesian state, a Leviathan into whose maw pour the resources of humanity, consuming the many to benefit the few until the food supply is exhausted and the creature has no choice but to consume itself. Thaw’s miseries and his final outbreak of murderous violence are precisely analogous to the progressive repression of the individual by the state and to the Armageddon that comes as a relief to a civilization suffocating from its own stenches and poisoned, as Unthank is, by its own waste. Real human relationships of all kinds provide the only possible relief from the pain of existence, but these are unpredictable and difficult; social needs and economic pressures are all too likely to crush human beings into fodder for the self-perpetuating state.

Within this context, the artist-hero has a special role. Gray gives to the head of the governing Council the name James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, an eighteenth century Scottish anthropologist who anticipated Darwin by postulating the descent of man from the orangutan. The world presided over by Monboddo, essentially the world of Thaw’s atheist father, is logical and not unkind, but cannot provide a place for the free spirit, for the creative intellect that demands eccentric nourishment and chafes under restraint. It is the artist, Gray suggests, who alone possesses the means to travel safely between the various worlds of human imagining and who may, like Lanark, be allowed a glimpse of eternity, but even the artist is unlikely to press his claims: Lanark, for example, misses his chance to argue for the fate of Unthank because he has been jailed as a public nuisance.

In the epilogue, the author figure also called the “conjuror” uses a discussion of the literature of the past two thousand years to illustrate to his hero the inevitability of human failure, but Lanark remains unconvinced: The works of art which the “author” cites are themselves testimony to the positive powers of the irrational. Lanark’s death is not triumphant, but he is vouchsafed at the end some peace and some light.

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