Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

Party Going was Henry Green’s third novel, one that many critics believed marked a shift from the seriousness of his earlier works to the triviality one associates with a Noel Coward play. Critical reaction to the work has been more positive in Great Britain, where its seriousness has been more...

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Party Going was Henry Green’s third novel, one that many critics believed marked a shift from the seriousness of his earlier works to the triviality one associates with a Noel Coward play. Critical reaction to the work has been more positive in Great Britain, where its seriousness has been more readily seen, than it has in the United States, where, when it was first released in 1951, it was called a book as trivial, monotonous, and meaningless as the people and the incident described in it. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, however, particularly in the light of Green’s subsequent work, the book was given more serious attention.

Most critics suggest that Party Going is fully intended to be a book in which nothing happens. Green’s intention here is to create an absurdist novel which satirically exposes the hollow values of the London social set of the 1930’s. Critics also seem to agree on the importance of the broader metaphysical theme of death which the novel projects, claiming that it is a truly modernist work in which the characters are isolated figures detached from one another and from any unified value system that might give their lives meaning. Some have argued that the novel is, thus, an existentialist work, embodying the technique of Franz Kafka and the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Regardless of whether one sees the work as a social satire or an existentialist novel, it cannot be denied that Party Going catches the reader in the uncomfortable position of laughing at people who cannot be said to “live” in any meaningful way and who, thus, exist in a perennial limbo state without really knowing it. The gay social butterflies who are postponed on this foggy London day in the late 1930’s are journeying toward the warm south in hopes of perpetuating their lives and life-style, but, as the constant presence of Miss Fellowes and the dead pigeon portend, they are actually only journeying toward their complete destruction, both socially and personally.

Henry Green is a deceptive writer who lulls the reader into thinking that he or she is reading drawing-room comedy, while all the time the imagery pattern of his work creates an ominous musical pattern of motifs that undermines the reader’s comfortable sense of superiority to the characters. The result is a work which reminds one that good comedy always requires careful thought, that indeed, good comedy is always a very serious matter.

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