In Lost Horizon, James Hilton combines disillusioned pessimism with romantic escapism. It is significant that the novel begins in Berlin, where two terrible specters of the period, the Great Depression and Adolf Hitler, loom in the reader’s mind. Given the apparent collapse of “rational” Western civilization, it is not surprising that a fiction writer should look to the East for an idealized and exotic sanctuary.
It is also important that the hero of this quest, Hugh Conway, although jaded by his experiences, still embodies basic Western virtues—a strong sense of purpose, personal loyalty, a rigid ethic, and efficiency, especially during moments of crisis. Hilton gives readers the best of both worlds. On the intellectual level, he postulates a synthesis of Eastern moderation and Western activism; on the emotional level, he confronts the complexities and tensions of the times with a hopeful vision that shows the best in the Western tradition surviving, even if the worst destroys itself.
Hilton’s small group of involuntary explorers is well chosen, if not deeply characterized. They are all characteristic Western types, and the qualities they represent can, to a considerable extent, account for the state of the modern world. Miss Brinklow symbolizes Western missionary zeal, in a rather benign and comical form. Of the four, she is the most easily recognized stereotype—the righteous, moralistic, spinster lady who, having no personal life of her own, tries to interfere with everyone else’s. Hilton’s treatment of the type, however, is gently ironic rather than sharply satiric; Miss Brinklow is likable, sincere, and feisty rather than priggish and icy. Her plans to convert and animate the Tibetan peasants are taken seriously by no one but herself. The implications of her actions, however, are not so amusing; such missionary fervor in souls less benevolent than Miss Brinklow’s leads to violence and oppression.
Henry Barnard, the American financier, suggests the pragmatic, greedy, opportunistic side of Western culture. Personally, he is a most engaging character—affable, entertaining, adaptable, easygoing, and levelheaded. He is also a wanted criminal. He insists that circumstances and bad luck caught up with him and forced him into defensive monetary manipulations, that he is a fugitive by accident and a victim himself—the classic rationalization of the white-collar criminal.
Miss Brinklow and Barnard, however, are easily distracted in Shangri-La, and their vices are indulged harmlessly. Presumably they will eventually outgrow their particular Western preoccupations and achieve that detached serenity characteristic in the valley. The third member of the party, Captain Mallinson, is another matter. Mallinson is young, passionate, idealistic, and loyal. He is, perhaps, even more admirable as an individual and more dangerous as a character type. A product of an upper-class British gentleman’s education, Mallinson firmly believes in all the ideals of his country and class: honor, common sense, patriotism, and a hard distinction between right and wrong—with rightness residing in the upper-class English view of life. Mallinson had seen Conway acting with heroism in the Baskul evacuation, and so he idealizes Conway. As Conway adjusts to Shangri-La,...
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