Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The inability of people to overcome the influences of their childhoods and their using these early experiences as crutches to justify their insufficiencies as adults constitute one of several themes in No Laughing Matter. The impersonations of their parents by Rupert and Marcus grow into “The Game,” a ritual through which each of the children uses fantasy, irony, and laughter to help them survive, but they continue playing The Game into their forties, even after their parents are dead. For all the horror of their upbringing, they have occasional nostalgia for their past, as when Rupert remembers “the long stifling nursery afternoons, the long talks about ambitions and schemes which at times did . . . seem almost dreams.” Such nostalgia is presented as a limitation of potential, although an inevitable one.

The major horror of the Matthewses’ childhood occurs when their wealthy grandmother’s dog and their rich great-aunt’s parrot get into a fierce battle with the children’s kittens. The old ladies swear they will give no more money to Billy Pop and the Countess unless the kittens are disposed of. The Countess first defends the kittens, but when her children are out of the way, she and Billy Pop drown them in a scene which echoes William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606) and foreshadows the Holocaust. The act destroys any vestiges of innocence in the children and underscores the pervasiveness of evil in the world, a pervasiveness examined throughout the book in the form of English anti-Semitism and general intolerance.

Marcus claims, “you can’t slice life up without making some sort of indecent mess,” and No Laughing Matter shows how the twentieth century has been one such mess after another. Because the main target of criticism is the ineffectuality and self-destructiveness of Great Britain, it is appropriate that the novel ends with Arabs about to inherit the fruits of English enterprise. Though a liberal humanist, Angus Wilson offers here his least optimistic view of the human experience.