The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

No Laughing Matter presents alternating snapshots of scenes from the life of “this divided, incoherent, unloving family.” Quentin always feels some what removed from the others because of the time he lives with his grandmother, considers himself unwanted, and becomes incapable of love. He is a dangerous man in the political world because he occasionally actually does “the things which he has announced that he is going to do.” His principles, however, make him unable to fit in with any group, any artificial family. His perpetual sense of being an outsider, as much as any political disenchantment, turns him into a misanthrope. He wants a better world but cannot feel any compassion. When a young woman he is tutoring at Oxford commits suicide because he will not return her love, Quentin is elated by a sense of sexual power. He ultimately becomes a public entertainer, a caricature of the pontificating intellectual: “There was sure to be fun with the outrageous Q. J. Matthews—a brilliant bloke, even when you couldn’t understand, you could sit back and watch.” Only once does he allow his human side to show. Beaten by a gang of working-class thugs for being a Communist—ironically, after Marxists have denounced him as a traitor—he cries when no one visits him in the hospital and tells his nurse, “I’m so alone . . . so absolutely bloody alone.”

Although she seems to be, because of her prison sentence, the least successful of the Matthews children, Gladys succeeds in other ways. Plump, naive, a sort of clown, she is a better person than her siblings, her “courage and simplicity” standing “above all their bitchery or moralising.” She refuses to implicate Alfred for his part in her crime or to resent his allowing her to be punished for his sins and his lying about his wife’s being an invalid. Gladys never sees herself as victim or martyr; she always knows what she is risking. Wilson’s portrayal of her as an admirable, almost tragic figure is subtly handled, never sentimental.

Rupert succeeds as an actor but has little identity off the stage. He begins acting when he and Marcus mock their parents’ eccentricities, with Rupert assuming the role of Billy Pop. His greatest achievements as an actor come only when he can find something of his father in the character he is playing or when his wife, a former actress, goads him into discovering the essential element: “why don’t you try self-love? ....

(The entire section is 1002 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Quentin Matthews

Quentin Matthews, the eldest of the six Matthews children, who are the principal characters in the novel. Quentin has been reared outside the Matthews household by his grandmother and remains somewhat isolated from the others throughout his life. He serves in the army in World War I and rises to the rank of major. He is disgusted by what he sees in the conflict. After the war, he becomes a socialist. His attachment to Russia is soured by evidence of a purge that he encounters at a Communist congress in Leningrad. In like manner, his commitment to the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War is not without questioning. He achieves popularity as a radio broadcaster during World War II for his stirring broadcasts during the Blitz, but his honesty and political independence lead him to question the Dresden raids and the Hiroshima bombing. Achieving some fame as a critic of the establishment, he begins to care more for the effect his broadcasts have than for the truth. He dies in a plane crash while journeying to Malaysia to report on Chinese-Malay relations in Singapore.

Gladys Matthews Murkins

Gladys Matthews Murkins, one of Quentin’s sisters. With the other Matthews children who were reared at home by their parents, William and Clara, she is very involved in the children’s invention, “The Game.” In this game, each adopts the role of one of the elder members of the household in a form of play that not only releases tensions but also predicts each actor’s future life. Fat, sloppy, and comfortable as a youth, Gladys continues to have a passive personality when she matures. She becomes the mistress of a married...

(The entire section is 689 words.)