Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545

On one level, the novel is Wilfred Barclay’s autobiography. Rick Tucker’s pursuit of him has forced him to consider the significance of his life. Barclay often resorts to the word “farce” to describe the way his serious pursuits have been transformed into comedy. He is clearly in the right when...

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On one level, the novel is Wilfred Barclay’s autobiography. Rick Tucker’s pursuit of him has forced him to consider the significance of his life. Barclay often resorts to the word “farce” to describe the way his serious pursuits have been transformed into comedy. He is clearly in the right when he confronts Tucker rummaging in the garbage, yet the garbage yields up the refuse of Barclay’s life; and the strange, struggling embrace of the two men that Elizabeth observes is prophetic of their similarities as well as their differences. After all, as a novelist Barclay has used the stuff of other people’s lives in his writing. It is appropriate, then, that as he tries to escape from Tucker, he should almost fall off a mountain slope only to be saved by his biographer. In a very profound sense, the writer creates public interest in himself, and the public sustains him even as it wishes to invade his privacy.

As an act of revenge, Barclay has decided to write his own biographical novel describing Tucker’s place in his life. His purpose is to humiliate the biographer but also to absolve himself of the responsibility for having enticed Tucker back into his life by promising to sign the contract for an authorized biography. The surprise ending of the novel should not be revealed, except to say that Barclay cannot succeed in writing Tucker into his biography without accepting the real-life consequences of Tucker’s now savage insistence that he be named the authorized biographer. In other words, Barclay cannot have his revenge without becoming exactly like Tucker. As novelist and critic David Lodge pointed out in his review of The Paper Men for The New Republic, the title of Golding’s novel echoes T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”: Barclay and Tucker are “paper men” in the sense that they are “two-dimensional, incomplete human beings.”

Several reviewers have noted the religious theme of The Paper Men. Jonathan Raban points out in The Atlantic that “Barclay and Tucker both mirror and mock the act of divine creation as they vainly attempt to create each other.” Raban also points out that the titles of Barclay’s novels, especially All We Like Sheep, contain biblical allusions that lead the reader, in this one case, to the prophecy of Isaiah: “All we like sheep have gone astray: we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The “him” in The Paper Men seems to be Barclay, who is now estranged from the sources of his own creativity. On the one hand, he has become the scapegoat, picked on by the likes of Rick Tucker and John St. John. On the other hand, Tucker has been Barclay’s scapegoat throughout the novel, for it is clear that the novelist’s problems antedate the advent of his biographer. In the event, the confrontation of the subject and his biographer begins and concludes with farcical and murderous scenes that suggest humankind’s inability to heal the wounds within itself. That is why Barclay, who has ridiculed his Italian lover’s belief in stigmata, bears the stigmata of his own initials on the back of his hand.

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