Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 566

A particularly difficult theme of The Old Devils is “Welshness.” What is it? Does it still exist? Is it worth preserving? Amis himself, it should be noted, is not Welsh, though he has lived in Wales and has written on the whole sympathetically about issues of Welsh culture in his collection of essays What Became of Jane Austen? and Other Questions (1970). Briefly, one may say that there is no doubt that there once was a distinctive Welsh culture, which continued its existence long after the loss of Welsh independence. Furthermore, this culture still exists, officially through such institutions as the Royal National Eisteddfod, and perhaps unofficially through deeper-rooted hobbies, habits, and differences, from chapel-going to rugby-playing. Nevertheless, the “unofficial” culture seems less and less distinctive; the “official” culture is increasingly likely to lose popular appeal and to be seen as imposed from above (quite likely, with historical irony, by a London government). One might ask simply whether “Welshness” can survive the loss of the Welsh language as a cradle tongue in industrial South Wales, where the novel is set.

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None of the characters in The Old Devils can speak Welsh, not even Alun. All of them are very likely to react with fury at having Welsh forced on them—as it is on Charlie, at one point, by a ridiculous character all too plausibly named Llywelyn Caswallon Pugh, but coming from Pennsylvania. It is also a significant fact that “Brydan,” the poet whom Alun has spent his life interpreting (clearly modeled on Dylan Thomas, 1914-1953), also did not speak a word of Welsh. Yet, or so Alun declares to his audience at the unveiling of Brydan’s statue, no one can doubt that “at a deep, instinctive, primal level he understood.” Charlie (not for the first time a puncturer of Alun’s pronouncements) tells him later that this is nonsense even beyond the usual standards. One cannot understand a language without knowing it: It is like pretending that all New Yorkers “really” understand Iroquois. Alun accepts the criticism. In fact, he is just as infuriated as all the others when, at later points in the story, one pub bore after another proceeds to tell them all about Wales, with a culminating insult when one of them, not recognizing Alun as a Brydan expert and professional Welshman, tells him that he cannot appreciate Brydan properly because he is not Welsh. It is clear from all this that “Welshness” is far too likely to be used as a cheap mode of establishing false dominance in a conversation, claiming a superior degree of insight, sensitivity, or passion, and in the process making all those virtues less likely to survive.

“Welshness” is important not only for itself but also as a test case. It represents a whole set of old-fashioned qualities threatened by modernity and the “universalizing” of culture. At different moments, characters comment on changing sexual values (changed on the whole, they believe, for the better), and many aspects of social behavior (changed on the whole for the worse). As with all else, their opinions are strongly shaped by their age. Yet there is a feeling that the novel operates in the direction not only of disillusionment but also of truth. There is a strong satiric quality to this novel, aimed against targets as different as spurious nationalism and sexual cowardice. Its dominant mode, however, is pity and regret.

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