Little Wilson and Big God Critical Essays

Anthony Burgess


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The title of this autobiography points to important aspects of Burgess’ personality: his energy, assertiveness, and sense of guilt. Father Myerscough, a teacher at Xaverian College, where Burgess received his high school education, regarded the boy’s aggressive apostasy as “a sad business, a matter of ‘little Wilson and big God.’” As a result of being denied the love and care of real parents (his mother having died in the year of his birth), Burgess was forced to compensate by using his considerable energies and abilities to make his own way in the world. He grew up nominally attached to his father and his stepmother, the vulgar, illiterate owner of a large public house in working-class Manchester. In this bustling, noisy world, the child was largely neglected. Indeed, he was bullied and beaten. In the manner of a street child, he learned to fend for himself, living by his wits: he observed closely and recorded details so as to make his own decisions and challenge authorities.

Given a traditional Roman Catholic education, Burgess learned to fear God and he learned the punishments for sin. He had his first sexual experiences at the age of nine, learning early of “the devil’s heaven” and the terrible burden of sexual guilt. Like Stephen Dedalus, the hero of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), he was unable to reconcile his body’s needs with the strictures of his religion. Soon Burgess was openly challenging his teachers, even to the point of arguing in the confessional with an enraged priest. Later, unable to tolerate the stupidity of his army superiors, he writes, “I declared verbal war on the bastards. I was going to be very bloody-minded.”

Such was to be the Burgess way: religious apostasy as a lapsed Catholic. He carried a heavy load of sin and peripheral belief with him. He felt separate from the majority of his countrymen in Protestant England, and his family, boasting a Catholic martyr as an ancestor, also harbored resentment, viewing the Protestant royal family as usurpers. There is much anger and aggression against all those who denied Burgess the expression of his individual freedom—as student, soldier, colonial servant, teacher, artist. Convinced that much of the evil in the world derives from Original Sin—and comes from within man, not from outside—Burgess preaches the “old” Catholic values: home, family, love, commitment, responsibility for one’s actions, disapproval of divorce. His university education in English literature and his considerable intelligence and artistic abilities as both a writer and a musician-composer further distance him from his working-class background. In his hunger for experience he devoured life, but the evil that he swallowed sours his stomach. One fitting subtitle to this book would be a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of Burgess’ favorite poets: “I am gall; I am heartburn.”

There are several other important motifs in Burgess’ life story. He often echoes Martin Luther—“ich kann nicht anders” (I cannot do otherwise)—in justifying his way of life and his struggle to have “the free limitations of my own skull and a world I could build with a pencil.” Expressions that frequently recur in the book are “bloody-minded,” “I could see...

(The entire section is 1350 words.)