Malcolm Lowry Lowry, Malcolm - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Malcolm Lowry 1909-1957

(Full name Clarence Malcolm Lowry) English short story writer, novelist, poet, and screenwriter.

Lowry is known as an experimental writer who produced a small but important body of writings. Influenced by the introspective, stream-of-consciousness literature of James Joyce, he is acclaimed for his intense and highly personal fiction. His work is also noted for its dense prose, as well as its themes of heaven and hell, failure, and redemption.

Biographical Information

Lowry was born in Liscard, Cheshire, in northwest England, the youngest of four sons. His father was a wealthy cotton broker, and Lowry had a conventional English upper-class upbringing. At the age of 17 he went to sea as a deckhand, an adventure which provided material for his first novel, Ultramarine. After his graduation from Cambridge, Lowry began a pattern of rootless exile. In 1935 he was confined to Bellevue Hospital's psychiatric ward in New York City for a short time for treatment of his alcoholism, an experience that inspired his novella Lunar Caustic. The next year Lowry traveled with his wife to Mexico. During this time he wrote a short story, "Under the Volcano," concerning three people—a alcoholic Consul, his daughter Yvonne, and her lover Hugh—and their discovery of a murdered peasant. The story, published in the winter of 1963-64, eventually became the basis for chapter eight of the novel of the same title. Lowry drank heavily throughout 1937 while working on the first draft of Under the Volcano, and his unruly drunkenness effectively ended his marriage. In 1939 Lowry met his second wife, Margerie Bonner, in Los Angeles. Together they moved to Vancouver, where they married in 1940. They lived in Dollarton, near Vancouver, for the next 14 years; the setting was inspirational to Lowry, and in his work he contrasted British Columbia's wild seasons with its serene beauty. It is said that these years in Canada were the happiest of Lowry's life. His masterpiece, Under the Volcano, was published in 1947. He never again published any major work during his lifetime. Lowry died in England from an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol in 1957.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Lowry completed one collection of short fiction, Hear Us O Lord, which was published posthumously. While five of the stories in the collection garnered little attention, the remaining two—"Through the Panama" and "The Forest Path to the Spring"—are considered among his finest compositions. "Through the Panama" portrays a troubled writer's rise from the depths of self-consciousness. "The Forest Path to the Spring," the most poetic and spiritual of the volume's stories, traces the psychic development Lowry experienced during his years with his wife at Dollarton. In his autobiographical novella, Lunar Caustic, a disoriented alcoholic is confined to Bellevue Hospital's psychiatric wing. The protagonist, Bill Plantagenet, becomes acquainted with three other patients in the ward; through his relationship with these men, he comes to realize the severity of his alcoholism.

Critical Reception

Critics have generally provided positive reviews of Lowry's short fiction. Lunar Caustic has been praised as a spare, compelling, Dantesque tale. Reviewers contend that the novella is a frightening depiction of psychic limbo, a painful reminder of the horrors of earthly life, and a stunning view of human destruction and disillusionment. The stories of Hear Us O Lord have also been favorably received by critics, who maintain that the short fiction of the collection offers a rare vision of change and even growth in Lowry's otherwise bleak canon. In particular, "Through the Panama" and "The Forest Path to the Spring" are widely considered as brilliant and finely rendered as Under the Volcano.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place 1961

Lunar Caustic (novella) 1968

Other Major Works

Ultramarine (novel) 1933

Under the Volcano (novel) 1947

Selected Poems (poetry) 1962

Dark As the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid (unfinished novel) 1968

October Ferry to Gabriola (unfinished novel) 1970

Malcolm Bradbury (review date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 4, Winter, 1962, pp. 377-79.

[In the following excerpted review, Bradbury contrasts the main themes of Hear Us O Lord and Lowry's novel Under the Volcano.]

Malcolm Lowry has been variously claimed as an English and an American novelist, and his curious internationalism is one of the interesting things about him. Like the hero of 'Elephants and Colosseums'—one of the stories in this posthumous volume Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place—Lowry's success and reputation have been in America, where he lived extensively. Like Beckett and Durrell, to both of whom he bears great similarities technically, he was a literary expatriate whose travels provided him with a range for and a seriousness about his art which he was unlikely to have acquired at home; and what makes him interesting for the contemporary reader is his sense of literature as an international art, an art which demands great dedication and technical proficiency. His ostentation of manner, his wide literary allusiveness, his evident debts to writers as various as Thomas Wolfe and James Joyce, his deliberate formal experiments, all make him interesting in a period in which the English novel seems to have retired into a provincial quietness.

Lowry was born in 1909, attended an English public school, and at the age of eighteen he went to sea. His experiences gave him material for his first novel, Ultramarine, which he wrote as an undergraduate; it was published in 1933 and seems now not to be available. Soon after this he went to the United States and later to Mexico and then to British Columbia. In 1947 Under the Volcano, the novel on which his reputation has been based, was published—it is now reprinted as a Penguin Modern Classic. He had, however, many more works in progress, and when he died suddenly in 1957, he left a novel nearing completion, notes for several more, a large number of poems and the manuscript of this collection Hear Us O Lord. . . to which he was putting the finishing touches. The novel, October Ferry to Gabriola, is soon to be published. He had planned a sequence of six or possibly seven books, to be called The Voyage that Never Ends. Under the Volcano was to be its centre and the character Sigbjørn Wilderness, who appears for the first time in Hear Us O Lord. . . the central figure. These books must have been intended to exist in an exceedingly complex relation to one another. For instance, the story 'Through the Panama', in the new volume, is presented as being "From the Journal of Sigbjørn Wilderness", but it refers to a novel which Wilderness has written, called Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, in which the characters are those that appear in Under the Volcano. Wilderness is also described as writing another novel which merges curiously into his own life as the journal goes on. The journal also contains the marginal summaries from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", given at the side of the text, as well as passages from guide-books and the like. Wilderness thus appears to be a figure for Lowry himself—but then so too did Firmin in Under the Volcano, and so too, in a later story, does another character,...

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Dale Edmonds (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Short Fiction of Malcolm Lowry," in Tulane Studies in English, Vol. XV, 1967, pp. 59-80.

[In the following essay, Edmonds provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Lowry's short fiction.]

To a friend and fellow writer James Stern, Malcolm Lowry once wrote, "It is possible to compose a satisfactory work of art by the simple process of writing a series of good short stories, complete in themselves, with the same characters, interrelated, correlated, good if held up to the light, watertight if held upside down, but full of effects and dissonances that are impossible in a short story, but nevertheless having its purity of form, a purity that can only be...

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Perle Epstein (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Malcolm Lowry: In Search of Equilibrium," in A Malcolm Lowry Catalogue, J. Howard Woolmer, 1968, pp. 15-25.

[In the following excerpt, Epstein explores autobiographical aspects of Lowry's short fiction.]

Malcolm Lowry was almost entirely an autobiographical writer. His stories, novels, and poems can be read as a chronicle of the man's inner life, his obsession with the sea, alcohol, nature, mystical experience, the difficulties inherent in writing and loving, war, the reconciliation of opposites, jazz, and death. At the risk of repeating himself, even to the point of reiterating word for word certain pet phrases and similes, Lowry incorporated his recurring...

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George Woodcock (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Under Seymour Mountain: A Note on Lowry's Stories," in Malcolm Lowry: The Man and His Work, edited by George Woodcock, University of British Columbia Press, 1971, pp. 38-41.

[In the following essay, Woodcock discusses the influence of life in Canada on "The Bravest Boat, " "Gin and Goldenrod, " and "The Forest Path to the Spring."]

Malcolm Lowry was born in England in 1909. He died there in 1957. And during the restless life that stretched between those poles of destiny he wandered over a great portion of the earth—the Far East, the United States, much of Europe, and, of course, Mexico, the setting of his now belatedly celebrated novel, Under the...

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Richard Hauer Costa (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lowry in Canada," in Malcolm Lowry, Twayne Publishers, 1972, pp. 124-45.

[In the following excerpt, Costa examines thematic aspects of the three Canadian stories in Hear Us O Lord, and notes similarities between "The Forest Path into the Spring" and Henry David Thoreau's Waiden.]

Three of the stories in the posthumous collection, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, have a Canadian setting. Each is self-contained, further proof that Lowry never lost the storyteller's art which first brought him to the attention of American readers in Whit Burnett's famous magazine of the best in short fiction, Story. Each of these three...

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T. E. Bareham (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Strange Poems of God's Mercy: The Lowry Short Stories," in The Art of Malcolm Lowry, edited by Anne Smith, Vision Press, 1978, pp. 156-68.

[In the following essay, Bareham views the stories in Hear Us O Lord as interconnected.]

Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place stands at a crossroads in Lowry's output. From this point, down one broad highway, stretches the main vista of his work—the achievement of Under the Volcano, the promise and near-fulfilment of the posthumous novels. But down other dark sideroads which diverge from here, we can be led a pretty dance through the quirkishness, the personal allusions and the occult...

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Elizabeth D. Rankin (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Malcolm Lowry's Comic Vision: 'Elephant and Colosseum'," in Canadian Literature, No. 101, Summer, 1984, pp. 167-71.

[In the following essay, Rankin explores the comic aspects of Lowry's short story "Elephant and Colosseum."]

Those who know Malcolm Lowry only through Under the Volcano are often surprised to discover that much of his later work rejects that novel's dark and terrible vision in favour of a far more positive, even comic, outlook. Volcano seems such a devastating apocalyptic novel that one marvels that its author would, or could, arrive at any comic resolution whatsoever.

Actually, though, I think it is just these...

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Tony Bareham (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Novellas and Short Stories," in Malcolm Lowry, St. Martin's Press, 1989, pp. 78-101.

[In the following essay, Bareham discusses the defining characteristics of Lowry's short fiction.]

'Short fiction was never his forte,' says Douglas Day [in Malcoln Lowry: A Biography, 1973]. Time and time again Lowry begins with something that looks like a short story but uses it only as a means of expanding his ideas into some other form. There is also an intermediate stage which Lowry called 'novella'—as though this represented a finite and finished genre in itself. But often his novellas represent nothing more than short stories on their way to becoming...

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Dominic Head (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Expanding Circles: Inductive Composition in Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place," in Malcolm Lowry Eighty Years On, edited by Sue Vice, Macmillan, 1989, pp. 70-91.

[In the following essay, Head explores the motif of expanding circles in the short stories of Hear Us O Lord, maintaining that it affects Lowry's use of language and functions to link the stories.]

The stories in Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place have a special significance in the Lowry canon, a significance that has not been fully acknowledged. Usually it is only Under the Volcano that is deemed, without serious qualification, to exhibit a...

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Elsa Linguanti (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hear Us O Lord and Lowry's Micro/Macro Text," in Swinging the Maelstrom: New Perspectives on Malcolm Lowry, edited by Sherrill Grace, McGill-Queens University Press, 1992, pp. 209-19.

[In the following essay, Linguanti views Lowry's short story collection Hear Us O Lord as a. macrotext, or as a work of "integrated unity."]

Like most devoted readers of Lowry I have developed my own opinions about which have to be considered the important and definitive works among all the many and often mixed-up papers he left when he died. After a few years of work on his published and unpublished works I find that I am ready to consider Under the Volcano,...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Bradbrook, M. C. Malcolm Lowry: His Art & Early Life: A Study in Transformation. London: Cambridge University Press, 1974, 170 p.

Introductory study interweaving biography and criticism. An appendix reprints two early stories: "A Rainy Night" and "Satan in a Barrel."


Bareham, Tony. Malcolm Lowry. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989, 133 p.

Full-length critical study of Lowry's work.

Benham, David. "Lowry's Purgatory: Versions of Lunar Caustic," in Malcolm Lowry: The Man and His...

(The entire section is 604 words.)