Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Sinclair’s novel is a Bildungsroman, unusual in focusing on a female protagonist, and as such, it traces the development of Mary Olivier toward psychological and intellectual maturity. Use of the stream-of-consciousness techniques associated with the fiction of James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, and Virginia Woolf enables Sinclair to put Mary’s mind squarely at the center of the novel. The book’s chief achievement is the fact that all action is filtered through Mary’s consciousness and thereby reveals her perceptions of characters and events without overt authorial intrusion. The objectivity of this treatment derives from Sinclair’s use of the third-person point of view to report the thoughts going through Mary’s mind.

Mary Olivier dramatizes a woman’s struggle to maintain her individuality despite the pressure of family and society to subsume her sense of self to a conventional role. Mary’s Aunt Charlotte and Aunt Lavinia show the results of such repression; her Yorkshire village is peopled with women who have sacrificed their identities to the expectations of others. Mary achieves freedom through development of her intellect, not her emotions. The piano, which she plays badly but expressively, channels her feelings into socially accepted forms, but Mary recognizes that only through words, the manipulation of language, can she get control over her thoughts and feelings. In the poetry of Walt Whitman, she finds a metrical quality approximating speech that enables her to convey both the ideas and the music of the Greek she translates.

In Mary Olivier’s world, the institutions of society tend to deny a woman’s right to act freely. Aunt Lavinia has to leave the established church to find a religious home in Unitarianism; Mary reads German philosophers in search of answers to her questions about the moral nature of the universe. For middle-class women, education is chiefly an ornament, not a means whereby they can enter a profession or attain public recognition. Independent as she becomes, Mary must rely on her lover Richard Nicholson to negotiate with publishers before her poems and translations are printed.