Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 989
The Locusts Have No King consists primarily of the characters’ contrasting attitudes toward the relations between the sexes—views satirized by Powell. In many satirical novels, the supporting cast provides the targets while the protagonists hover above the ridicule. Powell’s main characters, however, are equal to the others as figures of fun. The thirty-seven-year-old Frederick, for example, is an incredibly naïve and foolish lover who is more comfortable researching and writing about the past than he is in dealing with the modern world. He is especially uncomfortable in Lyle’s social world, and he longs selfishly to have her all to himself. He is initially drawn to Dodo because, at a party amid Lyle’s friends, she seems as much an outsider as himself. Angered by what he considers “the bondage of his love” for Lyle, he lacks the will to break the chains, and Dodo ensnares him in a different type of trap. Frederick’s main weakness is his desire to be a spectator in life: “If possible he wanted a glass wall between him and other human beings and he was happy when Lyle joined him in the observation post, unhappy when she was on the other side of the glass.”
He is annoyed by the differences between him and Lyle but will not consider changing or compromising. He also holds Lyle to unnaturally high standards. When she becomes jealous of Dodo, Frederick is outraged “that she was acting like any ordinary woman,” especially since he blames her for his unfaithfulness: “It was primarily all Lyle’s fault. Not his. Not Dodo’s. He and Dodo were the wronged ones.” Intolerant of Lyle, he easily justifies Dodo’s promiscuity: “It showed he was not unique in surrendering to this particular temptation.” Irony underlies the ostensibly sympathetic tone of Powell’s narrative voice, especially when Frederick blames everyone else for his problems.
Dodo’s vulgarity is a burst of freedom after the restraints of his secretive relationship with Lyle. Even when the manipulative Dodo humiliates him for his inadequacies, Frederick plots to hold on to her, accepting invitations to the social occasions he hated attending before. Being dumped by the woman for whom he has left his true love would be an even greater humiliation.
When Frederick hears rumors that Lyle will divorce Allan to marry Edwin Stalk, the editor of Swan Quarterly, he believes that he has been wronged much more than her crippled husband, since the possibility of divorce was never mentioned during his years with her: “A thousand horns from Dodo could not have made him burn with outraged pride as this news had done.” He takes a secret pleasure in his pain, however, enjoying the role of victim. Powell’s men are often more petty and childish than her women. Frederick’s final humiliation is not so much Dodo’s leaving him for Larry Glay but hearing her appeal disparaged because she is much less attractive than Glay’s wife. His impotent revenge is to burn Dodo’s nightgown.
Lyle appears foolish for remaining married to Allan despite their obvious incompatibility and his using her talents to boost his ego, only to have him run off with a woman much like Dodo. She has stayed with him because he represents the work that is important to her but that Frederick refuses to appreciate. Powell implies that there is more involved here than Frederick’s jealousy of Lyle’s success, that a man has difficulty considering that a woman’s work can be as important as his own. Lyle is at a loss when Frederick takes up with Dodo, not only out of a sense of having been wronged but also at having lost the sense of guilt over her affair that gave her patience with the intractable Allan. So strong is her guilt and misguided loyalty to Allan that she never considers writing a play completely on her own.
Like Frederick, who refuses to accept responsibility for his failures, Lyle blames her lover for her own vulnerability. She is also guilty for having taken Frederick for granted, not realizing how much she needs him until he is gone: “Her life, without her lover, was spent in tracking down remnants of him, taking up whatever person was said to be now in his confidence, gathering mournful solace from merely hearing his name spoken, piecing together a Frederick she had never known from scraps of strangers’ talk.” Through this desperation, Powell ironically calls attention to the fact that Lyle allows herself to act like a character in one of her plays.
Despite such lapses, Lyle is capable of more self-knowledge than Frederick is. She recognizes that she has become spoiled, feeding off her reputation as a writer to make up for disappointments in her personal life. She criticizes herself for “never venturing on any path that was not especially paved for her, innocently astonished that the paving could wear out and torches on dark corners would not be lit.” Unlike Frederick, Lyle is aware of her foolishness, as when she is flustered in finally meeting the fawning Dodo. She resents having kept her affair a secret, since no one can console her over its demise. She resembles Frederick in not knowing what to do about her dilemma, being afraid to make important decisions affecting her life. Both lovers lack the courage for reconciliation and get back together only when they are abandoned by others.
Another major target of Powell’s satire is the vicissitudes of fame. Fame helps insulate Lyle from herself and from Frederick, and when he finally achieves it, he discovers its hollowness: “It was his luck not his work that was esteemed. It seems he was a wit, a genius, a beau; though no one knew exactly what wonder he had performed.” Powell makes clear that society considers its response to an artist’s work more significant than the work itself.
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